Eric Richards obituary

Other lives: Eminent historian of the Highland clearances and of emigration

My friend Eric Richards, who has died after suffering a heart attack aged 78, was the pre-eminent historian of the Highland clearances and of emigration, and emeritus professor of history at Flinders University, South Australia.

Eric was fascinated by the interplay between impersonal economic forces – “big history” – and their implications (tragic, painful or liberating) for individuals – “little history”. His final public lecture, delivered in Amiens, France, a week before his death, explicitly addressed these themes, but they informed all his work; his research and scholarly publications (a dozen books, more than 60 articles) explored how these had played out in varied contexts.

The range of his work was daunting. His books explored the specifics – the history of the Sutherland estates in The Leviathan of Wealth: The Sutherland Fortune in the Industrial Revolution (1973) or Patrick Sellar and the Highland Clearances: Eviction, Homicide and the Price of Progress (1999) – and the bigger issues behind, including the two-volume A History of the Highland Clearances (1982 and 1985), Britannia’s Children: Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600 (2004) and The Genesis of International Mass Emigration (2018).

In all of them, analysis and description of the economic forces and the leading capitalist figures who gave effect to these forces were combined with a lifelong empathy for those compelled to leave homes and move from countryside to town or from country to country.

Rarely can there have been a historian whose own family and life gave better insight into the events he studied and wrote about. Eric was born in Wrexham, north Wales, to William, the manager of a furniture store, and Jessie (nee Pritchard), who worked as a nanny. One grandfather was a small farmer forced by economic pressures to move to the town, the other a farm labourer; great-uncles emigrated to South Africa, Australia and Canada.

Eric himself, after attending Wellington grammar school in Shropshire and studying economic history at Nottingham University, emigrated to Australia in 1963 on an assisted passage as a “£10 Pom”, before returning to teach at Stirling University in 1967 – an institution for which he retained great and reciprocated affection.

In 1971 he went back to Adelaide, to Flinders University, where he rose from lecturer to the chair in history in 1975. He was a frequent visiting professor to universities in Britain and the US, and to Scotland in particular, where most recently he was the Carnegie Trust centenary professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands. He and his second wife, Ngaire Naffine, Bonython law professor at Adelaide University, formed a wonderful academic team whose intellect, mutual delight and compassion stimulated discussion and affection in universities (and among their friends) round the world.

Eric is survived by Ngaire; by two daughters, Louise and Sally, from his first marriage, to Jane (nee Pollard), which ended in divorce; by two grandchildren, Stephanie and Bodie; and by his sister Marian. His eldest daughter, Cindy, died in 2012.

Callum McCarthy

The GuardianTramp

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