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Thomas Richards (1831–1898)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published:

Thomas Richards (1831-1898), government printer, was born on 21 December 1831 in Pitt Street, Sydney, son of James Richards, builder, and his wife Mary, née O'Brien. He was baptized a Catholic. His parents died in his infancy and he was reared by his aunt, the daughter of a sergeant-major in the First Fleet, and educated at Ebenezer on the Hawkesbury River. Having answered an advertisement 'for an intelligent youth', on 1 January 1845 he was engaged as an apprentice in the Government Printing Office, where he advanced as clerk, proof-reader, compositor, pressman, overseer and, in 1854, superintendent. In June 1859 he became government printer and inspector of stamps at a salary of £500, which had been reduced from his predecessor's £850, but was raised to £600 in 1863; he had a staff of seventy. As he lacked 'London experience' his appointment was unpopular. From 1 July 1879 he was also registrar of copyright.

During Richards's innovative administration, with increasing volume of work, the office expanded its functions and techniques. In 1863 he introduced photo-lithography and, after he had observed plant in Victoria in 1864, he added stereo-typing and electro-typing. In 1868 following the establishment of extra branches a new fast process of photo-lithography was invented by John Sharkey whose experiments were encouraged and assisted by Richards. The Sydney Morning Herald praised the 'gems of photo-lithographic art' the Printing Office displayed at the 1870 Intercolonial Exhibition at Sydney. Later Richards initiated helio-type or photo-mechanical printing, introduced a perforating machine and invented a method of drying stamps with heat from gas. He devised an arithmotype bars system for numbering debentures which was adopted in all the colonies and England; he alleged the Bank of England took the patent without acknowledgment.

Frequently working long hours, Richards was criticized by some politicians for his administration and his publication of documents of allegedly 'limited public interest'. He defended himself adequately before the 1870 select committee on the Government Printing Office, resisting suggestions of reductions in salaries and praising his men for the 'finest examples of the modern technique of photo-lithography' seen in the colonies; and he admitted ambitions to produce an Australian geography and natural history, a year-book and dictionary of names for New South Wales. Looking back in 1891 he wrote, 'I had opposed to me a truculent minister, a truculent under-secretary and a truculent newspaper proprietor … I beat them but came out of the fray wounded in mind body and estate'. He also had trouble with trade unions in difficult industrial times for heads of government departments and in 1875 antagonized the Trades and Labor Council by threatening 'to close the Office against all union men'.

In 1877 Richards represented the government on an English committee to celebrate the quatercentenary of Caxton's introduction of printing. With twelve months' leave he also studied advanced methods and bought new machinery. At the 1878 Paris Universal Exhibition he won a silver and two bronze medals and at the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition he won five high diplomas for printing, bookbinding and photography. The 1883 Amsterdam Exhibition awarded him a gold and a silver medal, and the Printing Office was commended at other important exhibitions from 1862 to 1886. In 1882 Richards compiled, edited and printed the highly regarded New South Wales in 1881, which was translated into French; next year the office produced An Epitome of the Official History of New South Wales.

On 23 April 1861 Richards had joined the Volunteer Rifles as a second lieutenant. A good shot and member of the New South Wales Rifle Association, in 1885 he became lieutenant-colonel of the first regiment, Volunteer Infantry; he resigned next year. In November 1886, because of rapidly failing eyesight, Richards retired as government printer on a pension of £480; he left a staff of 400 and an office with sixty-one new departments. On 31 August 1898 he died at Manly and was buried in the Anglican cemetery there. On 29 January 1865, with Anglican rites, he had married Zara Bell, by whom he had three daughters and two sons who survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1870-71, 2, 1137, 1213, 1879-80, 2, 740, 4, 1007, 1881, 3, 981, 1883-84, 11, 615
  • Australasian Typographical Journal, Dec 1876, Sept 1898
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8, 10, 15, 26 Nov 1886
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 1 Sept 1898
  • Sydney Mail, 10 Sept 1898
  • Thomas Richards papers and manuscript catalogue (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Trades and Labor Council minutes 1875 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Govt Printing Office papers, 1/234-36, 1/269 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Richards, Thomas (1831–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 December, 1831
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


31 August, 1898 (aged 66)
Manly, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.