“I’ve always had an unquenchable thirst for the past, and even more for explaining the past,” the Emeritus Professor of History at Flinders University said.
“History contains all human experience – it can explain where we’ve come from and in some ways it gives us an insight into the future,” he said.
Having dedicated more than 40 years to the discipline, it is no surprise that Professor Richards has just been named South Australia’s first-ever Historian of the Year.
Professor Richards received the inaugural honour – awarded by the History Council of South Australia last month – for his significant contributions to historical knowledge at the local, national and international levels.
“I was tickled pink and extremely surprised of course,” he said of the prestigious accolade.
Born in Wales, Professor Richards migrated to Australia in 1964 as a “Ten Pound Pom” and joined Flinders in 1972, where he specialised in economic and social history until his formal retirement earlier this year.
In 1986 Professor Richards edited the landmark social history volume of the Flinders History of South Australia – a work which remains a key reference today.
Adding to his remarkable career, in 2008 he published Destination Australia – a national history of migration to Australia over the course of the 20th century which has become the standard reference on the topic – following on from his 2004 study of emigration from the British Isles since 1600, entitled Britannia’s Children.
Internationally, Professor Richards is best known for his extensive published works on the depopulation of the Scottish Highlands in the 18th and 19th centuries, including The Highland Clearances: People, Landlords and Rural Turmoil, which was published in 2008 and is currently being revised for its fourth edition.
In 2014 he will be spending four months as the Carnegie Trust Centenary Professor at the Centre for History, part of the new University of the Highlands and Islands in east Sutherland, where he will continue his ground breaking work on the history of the Highlands.
Closer to home, Professor Richards has invested significant research exploring “the fundamental origins of the shift of people from the land to the cities”, which he says is one of the greatest evolutions in modern times.
“More than 50 per cent of the world’s population now live in urban places and people everywhere are on the move, which has momentous political and demographic consequences,” he said.
“Its historical origins are to be located in the 18th century British Isles but it’s a generic phenomenon which affects all modern societies and we need to know much more about the underlying dynamics of this great transformation of humanity.”
While he has officially retired from the University, Professor Richards said he was pleased to continue researching in the knowledge that history at Flinders was going from strength to strength.
“History at Flinders is now thriving – we have an increasing number of students who will one day become the new generation of historians and we’re about to appoint a new professor.”
“It’s a very stimulating time to be involved in history at this University.”