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Richardson, Mervyn Victor (1893–1972)

by Richard V. Wood

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

Mervyn Victor Richardson (1893-1972), inventor, was born on 11 November 1893 at Yarramalong, New South Wales, second son of Archibald George Heron Richardson, a schoolteacher from Ireland, and his native-born wife Charlotte Martha, née Griffith. Archibald taught in country schools (1889-99) and in Sydney (from 1912). Mervyn's lack of formal education beyond primary school did not inhibit his flair as an amateur designer and mechanic. After being apprenticed to a jeweller, he worked as a signwriter. In 1916 he helped his elder brother Archibald to build a low-winged monoplane, for which they designed a radial engine with contra-rotating propellers. The brothers were filmed demonstrating the machine at Mascot, Sydney. Later that day Archibald, who had invested everything in the project, crashed the aircraft beyond repair.

In the 1920s Mervyn worked as a motorcar salesman. At the Methodist Church, Concord, on 26 June 1926 he married Vera Marie Bertram, a clerk. Next year he designed the Austin 'Wasp', a sporty, duck-tailed, coupé body for the locally assembled Austin 7 car. Undeterred by previous failures, he set up New South Wales Motors Ltd and opened a showroom in William Street. This venture gave him his first taste of success and financial security, but the business did not survive the Depression. By the early 1930s Mervyn, Vera and their baby son Garry were reduced to living in a single room at North Strathfield. Richardson regularly walked to the city in search of work and eventually became a travelling salesman for the Gold Star Coupon Co. To supplement his income, he studied logarithmic scales so that he could calibrate (by hand) and sell slide-rules.

A new job as an engineering salesman led to improved circumstances. In 1941 the family moved to a house in Bray Street, Concord, that Richardson had designed. When Garry started (1948) a lawn-mowing business during university vacations, his father made two complex reel-type mowers to help him. Driven by the desire to succeed again, Mervyn continued to build lawnmowers in his backyard workshop and registered the name Victa Mowers (a corruption of his middle name) in mid-1950. Over the next two years he built and sold sixty reel-type mowers, powered by imported Villiers two-stroke engines.

In 1948 Richardson had watched a public demonstration of the 'Mowhall' rotary-blade lawnmower, which required two people to push and pull it over long grass and was never a commercial success. In August 1952 he hit upon the idea of putting a Villiers engine on its side to drive a set of rotating blades. Within a few hours he had assembled the prototype of the Victa rotary lawnmower from scrap metal, billy-cart wheels, and a jam tin used as a petrol tank. To his family's amazement the contraption cut fine grass with precision and yet could plough through long grass and weeds.

Within three months thirty mowers had been sold. Burgeoning suburbs created an astonishing demand for the lightweight lawnmower which could turn backyards that had once been cow pastures or bush into civilized swathes of lawn. On Friday 13 February 1953 Richardson gave up his job and became full-time manager of Victa Mowers Pty Ltd. By 1958 the company had moved to a new factory at Milperra and its 3000 employees were building 143,000 mowers a year for export to 28 countries. In the 1960s Victa diversified: in addition to lawnmowers, the firm manufactured the 'red phone' (a private payphone system installed in shops and clubs), the Victa Airtourer (a light aircraft) and, for a short time, Victa project homes.

Richardson enjoyed the fame and trappings of life as a 'self-made' millionaire. He indulged in sports cars and ballroom dancing, yet still took a cut lunch in a paper bag to work each day. His life was the subject of a number of articles in popular magazines. At Pittwater he delighted in showing off the amphibious-aircraft hangar and boatshed of his ultra-modern house, Kumale, designed by the architect Peter Muller.

During the early 1960s Garry Richardson played an increasingly important role in the company and succeeded Mervyn as chairman in 1965. The company was sold to the Sunbeam Corporation Ltd in 1970. Survived by his wife and their son, Mervyn Richardson died on 31 December 1972 at St Luke's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated with Anglican rites. In 1994 the factory moved to Campsie, where the seven millionth Victa lawnmower was built in 1997. The Richardson radial aero-engine and the Victa prototype lawnmower (1952) are held by the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • R. G. Cull, Inventive Australians (Melb, 1993)
  • R. Renew, Making It (Syd, 1993)
  • Woman's Day, 30 Mar 1964
  • Sun (Sydney), 22 Feb 1957, 8 Feb, 2 Aug 1966
  • Sunday Mirror (Sydney), 17 Sept 1961
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 Dec 1992
  • private information.

Citation details

Richard V. Wood, 'Richardson, Mervyn Victor (1893–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/richardson-mervyn-victor-11517/text20505, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 27 November 2014.

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

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