Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Richardson, Ernest Biggs (1903–1965)

by M. R. Hill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Ernest Biggs Richardson (1903-1965), banker, was born on 6 July 1903 at Trangie, New South Wales, son of native-born parents Charles Richard Richardson, commission agent, and his wife Lucy Jane, née Robinson. Educated at the local public school, Ernest passed the Institute of Bankers' preliminary examination in September 1918. Next year he attended Abbotsholme College, Killara, Sydney.

Joining the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in 1920 as a junior clerk, Richardson spent two years at the Dubbo branch before moving to the Sydney office. In 1928 he was transferred to the secretary's section in the bank's administration. He accompanied the governor (Sir) Ernest Riddle and the economic adviser (Sir) Leslie Melville to the 1932 Imperial Economic Conference, held in Ottawa. Richardson spent six months in the bank's London branch before returning to Sydney. At All Saints Church, Woollahra, on 20 November 1934 he married with Anglican rites Emily Constance Spencer, a nurse.

'Rich', as he was affectionately known, was appointed acting-secretary of the bank in 1937. When he became secretary in the following year, he was the youngest man to hold that office. He played a vital part in diffusing 'the gospel of central banking', and in promoting understanding between the board of directors and the departments within the bank—an important function, as the governor was not a member of the board. A succession of governors—Riddle, Sir Harry Sheehan and especially H. T. Armitage—were to rely on him. Richardson made the secretary's position 'the focal point of decision-making'.

Throughout World War II Richardson was closely involved in major developments in the role of the bank and in maintaining the co-operation of the private banks. From mid-1944 he worked in Canberra and Sydney on legislation, passed in 1945, which abolished the Commonwealth Bank's board and set up a small advisory council of Treasury and bank officials, of which he was one. In 1947 the Chifley Labor government tried to nationalize banking, but was successfully challenged by the private banks in the High Court of Australia. At the end of the court hearing, the solicitor-general (Sir) Kenneth Bailey thanked the Commonwealth Bank for its assistance in preparing the defendants' case, and praised Richardson for his 'direction of so much of what was done both on the intellectual and on the material side'. His efficiency, courtesy, composure and good temper had 'won him the admiration, and indeed the affection, of everybody concerned'.

In January 1949 Dr H. C. Coombs became governor of the Commonwealth Bank and Richardson was appointed his deputy. Coombs described it as a natural partnership: Rich's knowledge of the bank, shrewd judgement and capacity for work made him of 'fantastic value' in the two-man team. When a new board was set up by (Sir) Robert Menzies' government in 1951, Coombs and Richardson became chairman and deputy-chairman respectively. In 1956 they were re-appointed for seven-year terms as governor and deputy-governor. Richardson was appointed C.B.E. (1957).

In 1959 the central and commercial banking functions of the Commonwealth Bank were separated, and the Commonwealth Banking Corporation was established to control the commercial arm. Richardson was made managing director of the Commonwealth Banking Corporation and an ex officio member of the board. He left central banking with regret, but brought characteristic energy and enthusiasm to his new tasks. The first five years saw substantial growth under his leadership. Brisk and decisive, he was liked and respected in the bank, and in the wider community.

Richardson served as chairman of trustees of the Anzac Memorial, Hyde Park, Sydney, as a trustee of the Social Science Research Council of Australia, and as treasurer of the New South Wales branch of the National Heart Foundation of Australia. In the bank he was invariably interested in staff activities and welfare. Rather short and solidly built, he had played as a forward in the bank's Rugby League football team and 'attacked like a fox terrier'. Later in life he turned to bowls and golf. He died of cerebrovascular disease on 3 March 1965 at Richmond, Melbourne, and was cremated; his wife and their son survived him. A staff hostel in Canberra was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. L. Mobbs (compiler), Commonwealth Bank of Australia in the Second World War (Syd, 1947)
  • L. F. Giblin, The Growth of a Central Bank (Melb, 1951)
  • J. E. Matthews, The Commonwealth Banking Corporation (Syd, 1980)
  • H. C. Coombs, Trial Balance (Melb, 1981)
  • C. B. Schedvin, In Reserve (Syd, 1992)
  • Bank Notes (Sydney), Apr 1965
  • Australian Economic History Review, Sept 1983
  • private information.

Citation details

M. R. Hill, 'Richardson, Ernest Biggs (1903–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/richardson-ernest-biggs-11516/text20545, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 30 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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