RICHARDS, MICHAEL, captain and engineer in Newfoundland between 1697 and 1703; later brigadier-general and surveyor-general of the Ordnance; b. 1673, son of Jacob Richards; d. 1722.
Richards received a lieutenant’s commission in 1692 and saw service in Flanders with the artillery train. In 1697 he was commissioned to go with the expedition to Newfoundland under Gibsone and Norris*. On 7 June he landed at St John’s and was ordered to survey the harbour with a view to fortifying it. Work commenced under considerable difficulties: Richards’ superior, Gibsone, proved to be over exacting; Mr Leavis, Richards’ assistant, contrived to be always drunk; the seamen were unwilling to be commanded by an army officer; and the only available equipment was in a deplorable condition. By July the fort began to assume massive proportions and 600 palisades a day were going into the fortifications; nevertheless Gibsone continued to accuse Richards of negligence, and repeatedly threatened to send him back to England. As it happened the entire expedition returned to England in October 1697, leaving only some 300 men in garrison under Thomas Handasyde.
Richards probably returned to Newfoundland in 1700 with Commodore Fairborne. When the latter suspended the garrison commander, Lieutenant William Lilburne, who had been found guilty of gross cowardice in avoiding a duel with Arthur Holdsworth, Richards signed a deposition supporting Fairborne’s action. Richards found Newfoundland in a disturbed state: “the fishing so bad and debts so great,” and the “perpetual war” between the inhabitants and the annual fishing fleets continuing as in former years.
For the next three years Richards continued his work as engineer in Newfoundland. A redoubt was built covering the entrance to St John’s harbour, with the assistance of seamen from the fleet, and of the inhabitants, who were paid “reasonable wages.” The work provided something for the inhabitants to do when the fishing season was over, but its progress was interrupted by shortage of material. Richards persuaded trading masters to bring out building stone from England free of charge as ballast in their ships. The local stone had proved unsatisfactory. Nevertheless the work was so delayed that in 1701 Richards had to send home several artificers for whom no work could be found as well as an officer to make complaints on his behalf.
Richards had hoped to return to England in the fall of 1701, and was chagrined at his failure to do so: “for I want to return from this dismal place.” He found his fellow officers unscrupulous, uncouth, and much inclined to settle disagreements at sword point. By May 1702, Richards was captain of the Independent Company in Newfoundland. At that date many of the men had been in Newfoundland for six years; they were discontented and difficult to command. As only shirts and shoes had been sent out from England, Richards himself had to buy greatcoats for the men so that they could continue their work on the fortifications. Allowances for all ranks were very small; it was difficult to cook or to brew beer, and the inhabitants proved of little help in forwarding the works. In 1702 Richards wrote asking to be sent home. “I can’t but mention that the extremity of the last winter took from me the use of my limbs which I cannot reasonably propose to recover here.” He suggested that his assistant could finish the fortifications without him. The Board of Trade did not listen sympathetically to his plea but wrote telling him that he could not leave his post for so long, “especially considering that it is now a time of warr and danger, and that, as you write, the soldiers are too apt to mutiny or desert.”
Richards was to have taken part in the attack on Placentia (Plaisance) led by Vice-Admiral Graydon, and was present at the council of war on 3 Sept. 1703 when it was decided to abandon the expedition. Two weeks later, having put Lieutenant Lloyd in charge of the post, he sailed home with Graydon.
Although he had now left Newfoundland for good, Richards continued to urge the development of the colony for war purposes; he advocated stricter discipline and more prompt relief of the garrison. Unlike Lloyd, who thought that the garrison commander at St John’s should have supreme authority over the land forces, Richards believed that the annual naval commodore should be the commander-in-chief in Newfoundland. The Board of Trade heeded Richards’ advice, and the policy of spasmodic naval rule in Newfoundland was prolonged. On 29 July 1717, as a member of the Board of Ordnance, Richards suggested that the garrison at Placentia should be reduced and the non-fishing element discouraged. On 10 Feb. 1719, he urged that fortification stone should be taken, as ballast, from England to Placentia. On 3 April 1721, shortly before his death, he was still pressing the needs of the post.
After leaving Newfoundland, Richards was a successful commander of the train in the War of the Spanish Succession. He was appointed chief engineer of Great Britain in 1711; in 1712 he was promoted to brigadier-general; and on 2 Dec. 1714 he was made surveyor-general of the Ordnance – a post of considerable responsibility. Richards died, unmarried, on 5 Feb. 1721/22; he was buried at Old Charlton, Kent.
BM, Stowe mss 463 (Richards’ journal 1696–97), 464 (Richards’ letter book 1700–3). PRO, C.O. 194/2; CSP, Col., 1697–98, 1700, 1701, 1702, 1702–3, 1704–5, 1706–8, 1716–17, 1717–18, 1719–20, 1720–21. Dalton, English army lists, III. DNB. O. F. G. Hogg, The Royal Arsenal (2v., London, 1963). Whitworth Porter, History of the corps of royal engineers (2v., London, 1889), I. Prowse, History of Nfld.