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An illustrious dynasty

pair of hands cutting and engraving leather

The Richardsons
Actors, pacifists, artists & scientists

The Richardson leather-making firm was founded in 1800 by the brothers Isaac and William. Isaac had already joined the Lit&Phil, in 1797, and William joined in 1801. The leather business flourished during the following century and several branches of the family were well known in Newcastle for their industry and philanthropy.

David Richardson, head of the Newcastle firm, married Catherine Fry, and they had seven children:

Hugh (1864–1936), Arthur (1865–1928), Edith (1867–1934), Lawrence (1869–1953), Gilbert Hancock (1871–1950), Catherine Mary (1874–1957), Lewis Fry (1881–1953).

Hugh was a science teacher at Sedbergh (1889-1897) and he married Mabel Spence Watson, Robert's eldest daughter, in 1896. In 1897 they moved to York, and he taught at Bootham School until his retirement in 1914 when he moved to his father's country property, Wheelbirks, at Stocksfield.

He joined the Lit & Phil in 1888, and gave two talks: “Butterflies at home and abroad” in 1900 and “The British Empire illustrated by its postage stamps for 50 years” in 1903.

Hugh, even as a Quaker, was exceptionally strong in his pacifism. During World War I, he visited prisoner-of-war camps in Scotland on behalf of the Emergency Committee of the Society of Friends and sent the prisoners seeds, linoleum, a sheet of rubber for printing, a stereoscope, a kaleidoscope, writing tablets, and books. He lobbied for the non-payment of taxes until the end of the war, proposed disarmament by general agreement, and was against supporting scientific research that promoted military science. In 1915 he complained to the Lit & Phil Committee “respecting the introduction of politics at lectures”, and later that year donated five controversial pamphlets that were referred to one of the vice-presidents (Dr. Dunn) before being accepted. He donated many other books to the Society, including several on the American Civil War (in 1919), as well as volume 1 of Genetic Studies of Genius (in 1928) and volume 3 (in 1932).

Arthur was an artist who exhibited at the Royal Academy, and taught art at Cheltenham Ladies College. His youngest son was Ralph Richardson, the actor. A visitors’ book records Ralph’s visits to the Lit & Phil early in the twentieth century.

Edith (also published as Eva and Emmeline) was also an artist as well as an author. She first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1899, and at various other Galleries including the Laing Art Gallery. Many of her books were written for children, but her output also includes Neutopia (1925), a work of science-fiction.

Lawrence went into the family firm. He joined the Lit&Phil in 1890, was elected to the committee for the first time in 1893, and was a vice-president from 1924 until his death in 1953.

He went to South Africa after the Boer War twice on behalf of the Friends Relief Committee. The South African Library holds the archive of material from this period.

On his election to a vice-presidency in 1924 the Annual Report comments, “He has rendered very valuable services to the Society over a number of years, especially in regard to astronomy and other scientific departments of the library.” He donated several books, including (in 1919) a copy of Artist Songs, by his sister Emmeline (Edith), and a biography of Frederick Douglass, a former slave whose freedom had been bought by Henry and Anna, distant relatives who also lived in Newcastle.

Gilbert Hancock originally studied science and worked in the family firm, but later became very active promoting Ido, a variety of Esperanto, donating many publications to the Lit&Phil, including nine that he wrote himself. They are often about scientific subjects, for example “Spaco e tempo” and “Laudo di Newton da Halley”.

A pamphlet published by the Elswick Local History Group in 1985 records some memories of workers at the leather works. There are several anecdotes about Gilbert, for example:

The Quakers gave nothing for nothing. Mr Gilbert would go up Scotswood road and see men out of work standing around. He would bring a few and give them a job of shifting bricks or stones from one end of the yard to the other. Then they were told to move them back and they were given a wage just to help them. They [the Richardsons] didn’t like you to be dishonest. No alcohol was allowed on the premises and there was no smoking but the men had a smoke room later on. No gambling for money was allowed.

Catherine Mary studied medicine and had a practice in Roker from 1911.

Lewis Fry Richardson's ground-breaking work on weather prediction needed the arrival of fast digital technology before it could be used in practice. The advances he made in mathematics laid some of the foundations of chaos theory. His later work on the analysis of conflict led to further insights that were significant in the early development of the theory of fractals, in particular a question that he considered, “How long is the coast of Britain?” is key to Mandelbrot’s explanation of the concept. There are six works by Lewis Fry cited in “The Fractal Geometry of Nature”.

He gave a talk at the Lit & Phil, “Weather forecasting”, in 1924.

There are several books and items relating the the Richardson family in the library of the Lit & Phil:

  • Edith - Artist Songs 821.89/393
  • Lawrence - Lawrence Richardson Selected Correspondence N922/12
                       - Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave 326.92/1
  • Lewis - Weather Prediction by Numerical Process 551.5/46
               - Collected Papers of Lewis Fry Richardson 551.5/78
  • Mandelbrot Fractals: Form, Chance, and Dimension 516.15/1 


Image courtesy of Angelina Litvin @ Unsplash

About the author

Paul Gailiunas

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