Sir Eric Richardson

Wise and influential educationist
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The Independent Online

John Eric Richardson, educationist: born Woodchurch, Cheshire 20 June 1905; Chief Lecturer in Electrical Engineering, Hull Municipal Technical College 1933-37, Head, Department of Engineering 1937-41; Principal, Oldham Municipal Technical College 1942-44; Principal, Royal Technical College, Salford 1944-47; Principal, Northampton Polytechnic, London 1947-56; Director, National College of Horology and Instrument Technology 1947-56; Director, Regent Street Polytechnic (later the Polytechnic of Central London) 1957-70; CBE 1962; Kt 1967; married 1934 Nellie Walker (died 1937), 1941 May Wilson (one son, two daughters, and one daughter deceased); died Plymouth 20 July 2006.

"Merseyside Apprentice": so Eric Richardson entitled the 73,000-word autobiography which he wrote two years ago at the age of 99, recalling both his humble origins and his life-long love of learning. He rose to become director of the Regent Street Polytechnic from 1957 until 1970, by which time it had become the Polytechnic of Central London (the predecessor to the University of Westminster). A wise educationist of wide influence and a greatly respected Christian leader, he retained a fertile mind and an active commitment to his family and his church to the end.

John Eric Richardson was born in 1905 in Woodchurch on the Wirral to a family of small means and little education. He left school at 15 and became an engineering apprentice on a wage of 8s 6d a week. Encouraged by his headmaster, he enrolled for a course in Electrical Engineering at Holt Technical School (later Birkenhead Technical College) which led in turn to an HNC at the Liverpool Technical College.

Richardson felt that was the end of the road for him academically, but the superintendent of his Methodist Sunday school persuaded him to apply to Liverpool University, despite the fact that he had neither the normal matric nor the funding. Remarkably, the obstacles were cleared. As Richardson wrote, "Unknown to me, the Birkenhead Education Committee had come up with the idea of a scholarship for the sons of working men who were able to profit from a university education."

This was a foretaste of the later access to degree courses irrespective of means and Richardson was awarded the scholarship for three years; it covered the annual fees of £52 10s and gave £75 p.a. maintenance allowance, to which the Sunday school superintendent himself and a friend each added £25 to make the venture possible. In 1931, having had to complete the four-year course in three years, Richardson graduated with a First Class degree in Electrical Engineering, followed by a PhD only two years later.

Richardson's rapid rise to distinguished posts in the academic world is clear from his subsequent CV. From Head of the Engineering Department at Hull Municipal Technical College he became Principal at Oldham and then moved via Salford and the Northampton Polytechnic to become in 1957 Director of the Regent Street Polytechnic in London.

Highly regarded by his peers and by government departments, he served as President of the Association of Principals of Technical Institutions, 1961-62, and represented the government in advising Commonwealth institutions on technical education, particularly in Nigeria and Hong Kong. He was appointed CBE in 1962 and was knighted in 1967. His final academic accolade was the award of an honorary DSc by the University of Westminster at a ceremony in London to which he travelled by train from Plymouth at the age of 99.

For 52 years, the Richardsons had their home in Ealing, west London. We were their close neighbours and, to me, Eric Richardson was not a polytechnic director but a kindly, assumed uncle, though as children my sister and I always felt in awe of him as he strode smartly and punctually across Ealing Common to catch the train to work or sat at the wheel of his Rover 90, proudly taking his family for an outing.

He would repair our watches and exhibit all manner of fascinating gadgets; he would show us his vegetable garden, regale us with stories of his travels or expound his latest theories in language which (for the most part) we could understand. These passions, some of them even boyish, never left him. When I visited him at his home in Plymouth around the time of his 100th birthday, he took delight in demonstrating and explaining the model hot air engine he had recently acquired and, taking us round his garden, he paused to point out the solar panel he had had installed on his roof. He was born too early to have had access to computers in his working life, but he quickly embraced the skill of e-mail in his final years.

Richardson had more than his fair share of tragedy: a sibling who died in infancy and an elder brother killed in a cycling accident in 1911, a first wife who died of tuberculosis after less than three years of marriage and a daughter of his second marriage who died at age three during surgery for a birth defect. Yet his deep Christian faith was strengthened rather than weakened by such adversity. He held science and faith as happy partners, never doubting God, but at the same time never ceasing to ask questions. His papers, most of them unpublished, illustrate this combination of faith and intellectual curiosity: "Creation - God's use of the electron", "How blind is the watchmaker?", "Joshua's long day and Hezekiah's sundial".

His contribution to the Church was extensive. Inter alia, he was the president of the London Bible College and the Crusaders Union, chairman of the Africa Evangelical Fellowship, the Leprosy Mission and the Graduates Fellowship and a deacon at Duke Street Baptist Church, Richmond, for 50 years.

Stephen Baldock