Denis Richards

Teacher and historian of the wartime RAF
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The Independent Online

Denis George Richards, historian, teacher and writer: born London 10 September 1910; Assistant Master, Manchester Grammar School 1931-39; Senior History and English Master, Bradfield College 1939-41; Narrator, Air Ministry Historical Branch 1942-43, Senior Narrator 1943-47; Principal, Department of Permanent Under Secretary of State for Air 1949-50; Principal, Morley College 1950-65; Longman Fellow, Sussex University 1965-68; OBE 1990; married 1940 Barbara Smethurst (four daughters); died London 25 November 2004.

How often has the command "Get out your Richards" been heard by schoolchildren across the English-speaking world? The reference is either to An Illustrated History of Modern Europe, which Denis Richards wrote in 1938 and sold to Longman for £500 to help pay for setting up home with his new wife, Barbara Smethurst. Or it might mean An Illustrated History of Modern Britain (1950). These two books and their subsequent editions, some with co-authors, have now sold over three million copies.

Richards' ability as a historian was recognised by the Air Ministry in 1942 when he was recalled from active service in the RAF to head up a team of some 40 historians and research assistants to prepare for the official history of the RAF in the Second World War. This eventually appeared, with Hilary St George Saunders as co-author, in three volumes (Royal Air Force, 1939-1945) in 1953 and 1954 and won the C.P. Robertson Memorial Trophy for the best presentation of the RAF in any medium.

After the war, Richards was appointed a Principal in the Air Ministry (one of the 50 direct entry principals of that time) but soon found peace- time work in the Civil Service insufferably tedious.

He applied for, and gained, the principalship of Morley College, the adult education establishment in Lambeth, south London. Here he developed the curricula and supervised, and influenced, the rebuilding of the college after extensive war damage. Distinguished artists like John Piper and Edward Bawden were commissioned to replace the pre-war paintings. Piper on one of his memorable visits had to take a saw to one of his masterpieces to get it to fit in the allotted space.

Richards was also a musical man and at Morley developed a series of remarkable and well-attended concerts and, in the process, helped launch the careers of Dame Janet Baker, John Shirley Quirk, Ben Luxon and others.

After 15 years of Morley, Richards, then aged 65, decided to devote his working life entirely to writing. He was appointed to a new Fellowship in History at Sussex University created specially by Longman for him. There followed, in 1978, Portal of Hungerford the life of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Portal of Hungerford, one of the three great wartime Chiefs of Staff with Churchill who were the architects of the British part in the Allied victories in 1945 and 1946.

Next came The Battle of Britain: the jubilee history (1989), co-authored with Richard Hough, followed by The Hardest Victory: RAF Bomber Command in the Second World War (1994) - Richards' answer to the US 15-volume Strategic Air Command. In 1990 he was appointed OBE for his writings.

Richards always claimed that "you're not old till you're 85," but he still played reasonable golf at that age and at 88, in 1999, published his delightful memoirs, Just to Recall the Flavour and It Might Have Been Worse.

Denis George Richards was born in London in 1910. He went to Owen's School in 1924 and was the first boy from his family to go to university. He gained a History Scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and was forever devoted to that "Hidden Hall". After a Double First in History he was appointed at the age of 21 as a history master at Manchester Grammar School and then in 1938 Senior History and English Master at Bradfield College.

Outside the office and his writings, Denis Richards was a great family man. He rejoiced in the success of his four daughters, Theresa as a businesswoman and management consultant, Caroline as a gifted musician and music teacher at the Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, Helena who chaired the Citizens Advice Bureaux service from 1994 until 1999 and was made a Dame for it, and Penny, who with her husband, John Pringle, and Ian Sharratt, has developed one of the most innovative and successful architectural partnerships of the day.

In clubland Richards was a great attendee at the Garrick and expressed a wish to be buried in the club tie. Both there and at the Arts Club he was a formidable performer round the billiard table. At the Hampstead Golf Club he was captain in 1977, the one and only president of the club in its centenary year (1993). Members recall with mixed amusement and pain how Denis would take an inordinate amount of time in all weathers to tee off whilst recounting some juicy snippet from the life of King John or Louis XVI.

Amid all this Richards found time to be chairman of the Women's League of Health and Beauty for 20 years, delighting in the opportunity to talk, and dally with, so many lovely ladies. He served as for a long time as treasurer of the English Centre of International Pen, and as chairman of the Purcell School for Young Musicians, chairman of the Friends of Morley College, and governor of Milton Abbey and other schools.

In his final years Richards was suffering from the ravages of Parkinson's disease and periodic epileptic moments, borne remarkably uncomplainingly. He leaves behind Barbara, his great support throughout many tribulations, his four talented daughters, six grandchildren, one most entertaining little great-granddaughter and some 18 volumes of well-written and well-researched history.

Patrick Shovelton