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Eric Stapleton Richards (1940–2018)

Eric Richards, n.d.

Eric Richards, n.d.

courtesy the Flinders University of South Australia

Eric Stapleton Richards was born on 3 August 1940 in Holt (a village outside Wrexham), North Wales, to William, the manager of a furniture store, and Jessie, née Pritchard, who worked as a nanny. One grandfather was a small farmer forced by economic pressures to leave the land; the other grandfather was a farm labourer.

Eric was educated at Wellington Grammar School, in Shropshire, and at Nottingham University where he graduated in Economic History in 1962. He commenced a PhD at Nottingham, then migrated to Australia as a ‘ten pound pom’ to take up a lectureship in Economics at the University of Adelaide, commencing in early 1964.

Completing his PhD (awarded by Nottingham University in 1967) Eric returned to Britain in 1967 to take up a lectureship at the newly founded University of Stirling. He remained at Stirling until 1971. This was a highly productive period for Eric – in addition to being one of the first appointments at Stirling, where he was heavily involved in establishing the new History Department, Eric also completed his first book, based on his PhD thesis, The Leviathan of Wealth: The Sutherland Fortune in the Industrial Revolution.

In 1971 Eric Richards returned to Australia to take up a lectureship in Economic History at Flinders University, where he rose rapidly to Senior Lecturer, to Reader and then, in 1975, to the Chair in History (while he was still in his mid-thirties). He was, for many years, Head of the History Discipline, reluctantly retiring (his ‘permanent sabbatical’) in 2012. He also held visiting positions at the ANU and at universities in Britain and the United States including Warwick, Glasgow, Florence, Cardiff, Cleveland (Ohio), both Birkbeck and King’s Colleges and, most recently as the Carnegie Trust Centenary Professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Dornoch.

Eric Richards was a prolific researcher and author. His books, all of them accessible and beautifully written, include:

  • The Leviathan of Wealth: The Sutherland Fortune in the Industrial Revolution (1973)
  • The Last Scottish Food Riots (1982)
  • A History of the Highland Clearances: Vol. I. Agrarian Transformation and the Evictions, 1745-1886 (1982), and  2. Emigration, Protest, Reasons (1985)
  • That Land of Exiles: Scots in Australia (1988)
  • Cromartie: Highland Life 1650-1914 (1989, with Monica Clough)
  • Patrick Sellar and the Highland Clearances: Eviction, Homicide and the Price of Progress (1999)
  • The Highland Clearances: People, Landlords and Rural Turmoil (2000)
  • The Australian Option (2001)
  • Britannia's Children: Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600 (2004)
  • Debating the Highland Clearances (2007)
  • Destination Australia: Migration to Australia since 1901 (2008)
  • From Hirta to Port Phillip : the St Kilda Emigration to Australia in 1852 (2010)
  • The Highland Clearances: People, Landlords and Rural Turmoil. (2013)
  • On the Wing: Mobility Before and After Emigration to Australia (edited, 2013), and
  • The Genesis of International Mass Migration: The British Case, 1750-1900 (2018)

Eric also contributed numerous articles to learned journals, including the Visible Immigrants series, Economic History Review, History, Past and Present, British Studies, Australasian Journal of Politics and History, Agricultural History Review, and History, The Journal of the Historical Association. In addition Eric prepared 22 entries for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, all reflecting his insightfulness and clarity of writing.

Eric attended and contributed to many national and international conferences, most recently to the Colonial and Wartime Migration, 1815-1918, conference at Amiens, a week before his death, at which he gave a well-received keynote address (soon to be published with other papers from that conference).

Eric Richards was honoured by his peers as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia (1984), as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities (1986), as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (1991) and as a Member of the Gaelic Society of Inverness (1998). He received both the Australian Centenary Medal for ‘Services to the Arts and Australian Society’ in 2003 and the NSW Premier’s Literary Prize in 2009, and won both the Book Award of the Scottish Arts Council in 1982 and the Scottish History Book of the Year in 1999. In 2012 he received the inaugural award of Historian of the Year from the History Council of South Australia.

He was appointed Emeritus Professor by Flinders University on his retirement.

In early 2017 the inaugural ‘Eric Richards Symposium in British and Australasian History’ was held at Flinders University. This is intended as a biennial conference for scholars working on British and Australasian history.

Emeritus Professor Eric Richards was a towering figure in the history of migrations and diaspora, deriving his understanding from his detailed studies of the Highland Clearances. His analysis and description of the economic forces, and the leading capitalist figures who gave effect to those forces, were combined with a lifelong empathy for those compelled to leave homes and move from countryside to town or from country to country. Perhaps his own life, and his family’s experiences, led him to focus on rural dispossession and migration and so gain a better insight into the events he studied and wrote about.

His death removes one of the most engaging and capable historians of modern times, about whom it can be said that personal memories are as much a legacy as his fine books, papers, and speeches. He will be remembered as a prolific researcher, as an inspiring mentor and role model, as an eloquent speaker and as a genuinely sincere, sensitive and humble human being, with a passion for his discipline, his family and for playing tennis.

Eric Richards died suddenly on 21 September 2018, in London. He was married twice: his first marriage to Jane, née Pollard, ended in divorce. His second wife, Ngaire Naffine, Bonython Law Professor at the University of Adelaide survives him, as do Lou and Sally, his daughters from his first marriage (his eldest daughter, Cindy, predeceased him), two grand-children, Stephanie and Bodie, and his sister, Marian.


 This tribute to Eric has been prepared by the editors of the Newsletter of the Professional Historians Association (SA) Inc. and is based upon the following.

  • The Flinders University tribute posted on the Flinders website,
  • The obituary prepared for the Australian Historical Association by Andrekos Varna (Flinders University) and Bethany Phillips-Peddlesden (University of Melbourne),
  • The notice, by Elizabeth Minchin, published by the Australian Academy of the Humanities,
  • The obituary, by Callum McCarthy, published in the Guardian, on 26 October 2018, com/books/2018/oct/25/eric-richards-obituary, and
  • The personal reminiscences of John M Mackenzie published in History Scotland on 16 October 2018, com/news/professor-eric-richards

These websites were last accessed on 15 December 2016.

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'Richards, Eric Stapleton (1940–2018)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 May 2024.

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