Theophilus Richards 1747-1828

theoTheophilus Richards (1747-1828)


The unadorned monument to Theophilus Richards can be seen on the left of the south exit door of the Cathedral, which names himself and his wife, Mary Bingham. Both of them were people who were baptised, married and buried in St. Philip’s, and all of their children were baptised here. Theophilus, the son of Thomas Richards, was baptised on 23rd August 1748, and his wife Mary, daughter of Thomas Bingham, on 17th March 1757.  They married on 30th November 1779 and proceeded to have ten children, of whom three died soon after birth.  (Theophilus also had the date of birth of his children listed in the church register, which was unusual.)

Thomas Bingham, baptised 9th January 1781

Mary Ann, baptised 31st May 1782, buried 14th April 1783

Eliza, baptised 26th August 1783

Theophilus, baptised 30th November1784, buried 27th February 1785

Mary Ann, baptised 19th May 1786

Theophilus, baptised 2nd May 1787

James Henry, baptised 29th May 1788, buried 9th May 1789

William Westley, baptised 30th November 1789

Charles Smallwood, baptised 15th June 1791.  (Charles was buried at St. Philip’s on 9th June 1800.  A note in Jackson’s Oxford Journal states that he died of a paralytic complaint with which he had been afflicted for eighteen months.)

Caroline, baptised 30th November 1792

After four deaths the Richards were therefore left with six children, three male and three female.


Mary Bingham (1757–1841) was clearly of a wealthy family, as in his will Theophilus arranged to safeguard her marriage portion of £1,000. It is likely that she was the daughter of the Thomas Bingham who was a maker of buckles and nutcrackers (which can be still be found in auction catalogues) and who lived at 12 New Hall Street and 54 Steelhouse Lane.  As her family worshiped at St. Philip’s it is likely that she had known her future husband since childhood, and it is equally likely that Thomas Richards purchased her father’s goods.  A Thomas Bingham, who may be a member of her family, was one of several people responsible for getting the new church of St. Paul’s in the Jewellery Quarter built as a chapel of ease to St. Martin’s in the Bullring.

Thomas Richards (died 1779) was the father of Theophilus, and as the owner of both a manufactory of guns and a toy shop is probably the originator of the fortunes of the Richards family in Birmingham. He is listed as taking on an apprentice in 1752 as a toymaker and again in 1772 as a jeweller.  The earliest mention of his businesses is in a directory of 1777 where at 82 High Street his shop is listed as Richard’s toy shop, “late Moodys”, and at 53 High Street as a gunsmith.  In a directory of 1787 he is listed as a gun maker at 53 High Street, and a silversmith, together with his son Theophilus, at 82 High Street, even though he was actually dead.  As he subscribed to a book called “Currencies of the British Colonies” in 1765, it suggests that he was trading overseas and doing well.  Most gun makers of this period made money from the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and from the slave trade in Africa, providing governments at home and abroad with guns; some of the guns Thomas Richards made are still in existence and highly prized.  He is known to have been one of a delegation from Birmingham in 1759 who visited Wales to look into the quality of iron produced for their goods.  There is a Thomas Richards buried in St. Philip’s on 18th September 1779 who is generally supposed to be the father of Theophilus, and his son probably continued to trade in his name for a few years until changing the name of the firms.

Theophilus Richards

In 1802 Nelson made a famous visit to Birmingham. He was already a national hero, although his final victory over Napoleon was not complete, and was so popular in Birmingham that the hotel where he stayed, situated opposite the Nat West bank on the corner of the churchyard, was surrounded by crowds.  Nelson had come to Birmingham, like many visitors of the time, to visit Matthew Boulton’s Soho works, but during his visit he found the time to visit the shop of Theophilus Richards in the High Street. The Concise History of Birmingham in 1808 tells us, “The shop of Theophilus Richards, in the High Street, is the toyshop of Birmingham; for the elegance of its appearance and the multiplicity of its valuable articles it is scarcely rivalled.”*

What were toys? The most interesting description of them I have come across is in an account in the Times of 30th March 1826 concerning the theft by one of the “shopmen” who lived in what had been the house of Theophilus senior (who had moved to Edgbaston) on the High Street, of “silver boxes, knives and forks, seals, necklaces, chains and various articles of plate and jewellery”.  (This poor man, named Henry Child, was sentenced to death; the article is headed “Betrayal of Trust”.) Other likely items on sale would include candlesticks, snuffboxes, toothpicks, tea boxes, papier mache trays, seals, silver gun furniture, buttons and buckles, the multifarious wares of a city founded upon metal.  As a curious contrast, Theophilus and his wife were both also licensed to sell hair powder.

Theophilus took over his father’s two businesses, and in turn his own sons took on his – his will of 1828 informs us that he had been in copartnership with his son William Westley Richards and in partnership with his son also named Theophilus. His eldest son Thomas Bingham Richards apparently acted as his agent in London.  It would appear that in addition to teaching his sons about business, he also taught them gold and silversmithing skills, as there are references later to all of them using their craft. Theophilus senior began to manufacture guns in his own name by 1799 and held a Royal contract for the manufacture of arms for the British Army.  In church records he is variously described as a silversmith, a goldsmith or a cutler, never a gun maker. Unlike other gunsmith businesses, which had separate gun parts made in various different workshops, the Richards’ fathers and sons always seemed to have had their own gun making factories on High Street, the factory belonging to Theophilus being called “The Royal Patent Waterproof Gun Manufactory”, indicating the continuing interest the family was to have in taking out patents for the improvement of guns.

As a wealthy merchant Theophilus played his part in the expansion of the town; in 1803 he was High Bailiff of Birmingham and in 1808 he sat on a committee with Boulton, Watt and the politician Thomas Attwood, dealing with new waterworks for Birmingham. His will shows that he invested in canal shares, as did most of Birmingham’s wealthier citizens.  A version of the William Westley map of 1731, printed after that date, states that Theophilus was a nephew of William Westley and was in possession of the plates of the map some years after it was produced; he is therefore presumed to be responsible for ensuring that the plates he owned were published, for which generations have owed him a debt of gratitude.

I am in no way qualified to discuss the patents and improvements made by Theophilus in the manufacture of guns, but it is known he was responsible for the Brown Bess flintlocks used by the Royal Ordnance, of which it was said that Wellington refused to change them. His businesses seem to have flourished and his children mostly became gentry and gained connection with aristocracy, whilst the executors of his will include Thomas Westley Oldham, who was High Sheriff of Leicester.

The earliest date I have found describing Theophilus as living in Edgbaston is 1815, but although living in Edgbaston he still chose to be buried in St. Philip’s. Edgbaston is described in Bradshaw’s as a place of fine villas built for rich merchants and was where two of his sons would also live. In his will he states that he gave up his businesses to his son Theophilus in 1825 (presumably he was retiring at the age of 78!), and in 1826 there is an advertisement in the Times stating that William Westley Richards was taking on responsibility for the business from Theophilus junior.   When he died Theophilus senior was living at Edgbaston Cottage, which is where his son Theophilus is living on the 1841 census, presumably because his mother Mary had died in January 1841; in his will Theophilus senior stated that his wife was to have his house and estate (which was on leasehold from Lord Calthorpe) until her death, and an income of £400 p.a. from William Westley Richards, as well as an annuity on £1,000 which was their marriage settlement.  He states that he had made a settlement on his daughter Mary Anne at her marriage and left £1,000 marriage settlement on Caroline, but there is no mention of Eliza, which suggests she may have died.

What happened to his businesses? The gun business most probably was absorbed into that of his son William Westley Richards.  For a short while William Westley was responsible for the toy shop in partnership with his nephew Henry, the son of Theophilus junior, and Henry a little later took on full responsibility when they dissolved their partnership.  Theophilus junior apparently was not interested in the toy shop, but carried on mercantile firms called Theophilus Richards and Co. and Theophilus Richards and Son in different parts of Birmingham.


The children of Theophilus and Mary Richards

 Thomas Bingham Richards (1781-1857), the eldest son, did not go into his father’s various businesses in Birmingham, and it has been said he studied law, although I have found no certain corroboration. He led a fascinating life.  He was the author of a book called “Letters from Sicily” in 1798, from which we learn that he was acting as an agent for his father in London and abroad at the age of 17.  In 1798 he managed to escape on the last available ship from Naples with the King of Naples (who was a Bourbon) going to Sicily.   By November 1814 he got to meet Napoleon on Elba, after which he wrote “An unpublished conversation with Napoleon” which was published finally in 1911.  (Rather curiously, he mostly appears to have discussed with Napoleon the provision of iron.)  This article informs us that he waited to marry until his prospects were good in 1816 and bought a “good house near the Foundling Hospital in London” which I assume to be in Battersea, as there is a report of a thief being apprehended at the house.  We learn from his will that he also owned another estate in London in Rotherhithe.  In 1816 he married Anne Francis in London but they had no children, and he writes that he liked to spend money on family and friends.

As an agent he was responsible for buying artefacts for the British Museum on behalf of Henry Salt of Lichfield, the British Consul General in Egypt, whom he first met at drawing lessons in Birmingham as a boy and with whom he was to remain friends all his life.  The Henry Salt collection of Egyptian antiques began the collection for which the British Museum is famous worldwide, and Richards also sold on Salt’s behalf a sarcophagus of Seti I to Sir John Soane.   After Napoleon fled Elba, Thomas earned his living acting as an agent for people shipping antiquities to London and retired about 1836.  He ended his life as a country gentleman in Kent where from 1832 he had an estate called Broomlands near Sevenoaks in Kent, his wife dying before him in 1852.  Having no children he left money to his two sisters, and half of his money to the Royal Literary Fund.  We learn from his will that like many rich people of this date he owned shares in railway and canal companies.  His sister Caroline came to live near him when she was widowed and he appears to have cared for her and her family.


Eliza Richards (1783-?) is a mystery as she is not mentioned in her father’s will of 1828 and there is no burial or marriage date for her in the registers of St. Philip’s.  I came across a mention of one Elizabeth Richards, a spinster of independent means living in Ashted Row who died in 1827, buried in St. Mary’s, a chapel of ease to St. Martin’s.  In a codicil of his will Theophilus mentions a great deal of property around Deritend and Moor Street which he has taken on from one Elizabeth Richards, so there is a possibility that both of these Elizabeths may be his daughter, but no certainty.  If this Elizabeth was his daughter, his death the year after her death is suggestive of great grief.


Theophilus Richards junior (1787-1874)**  took on his father’s firm, and was also therefore a gun maker, but removed himself from family businesses about 1826, whereupon he took on a wide range of interests. (It is usually stated by gun sources that he stopped making guns about 1833, but it is possible that his brother William Westley continued manufacturing them in the name of Theophilus from 1826 to 1833).  By 1835 he is listed simply as a merchant in Great Charles Street; in 1837 he dissolves a partnership for glass manufacturing, and he is known as being the first to suggest in 1836 an “Exhibition of Industry, including Foreign Manufacturers” in Birmingham which was one of the factors leading to the famous 1851 Great Exhibition in which his brother William Westley Richards was involved.  He had a patent in improving the cutting of wood in 1841.  He had a role at the Bluecoat School, and in 1840 wrote for the Children’s Employment Commission.  In 1843 he was one of the first thousand members of the British and Foreign Institute.  He consulted with the government in setting up a Department of Practical Art, was one of the founders of the Birmingham Society of Arts, left a collection of photographs of European tourist attractions to the Midland Institute and gave a rare species of crocodile to the Natural History Museum in 1851.  He moved to Leamington Priors but actually died in a hotel in Folkestone.

In 1823 he married Eliza Mount of Canterbury at St. George’s Bloomsbury, the service being officiated by Francis Pelly, the husband of his sister Mary Anne.  They had seven children, but one child, Edward Bingham Richards, was buried in St. Philip’s in 1831, even though his first five children were baptised in Edgbaston.  His son William Francis Richards was baptised in 1833 at the British Chaplaincy in Napoli, then baptised again in 1834 in Edgbaston. The birth of their last child, Theophilus, born in 1837, led to the death of Eliza at Handsworth Hall, where they seemed to have moved around 1834.  After Eliza’s death he never married again and was a widower for more than forty years, becoming richer than his brother William Westley Richards according to his will.  His daughter Mary Louisa married John Savage, a soldier who served in the Crimea and died of cholera.  His son Henry served in various roles for the Richards family firms and was an executor of several family wills.


William Westley Richards (1789-1865) is the most well-known of the children of Theophilus and Mary, and is the subject of a separate article. As the third son, William probably did not go to work in his father’s businesses when he became an adult (although he did so later) but opened his own gun making firm on the High Street in 1812 and in London in 1815, a firm which continues under his name to this day.  He married twice and had eight children, of whom three died soon after birth and another at the age of 16, and, like his father, stayed in the Birmingham area all his life.  William was to live long enough for photographs to have been taken of him.  His eldest son, Westley, would continue and expand the gun business.


Mary Ann Richards (1786–before 1861) married the rector of Seston in Gloucestershire, the Reverend Francis Pelly (whose brother became a baronet), on 16th January 1813 at St. Philip’s. There are hints in the family of Francis Pelly which remind one of Jane Austen, as his family had naval men, clergymen and large houses in their midst, and also included a distinguished soldier.  Mary Ann was Francis Pelly’s second wife and had eleven children.  The father of Francis Pelly was a governor of the Bank of England, a governor of the Hudson Bay Company and High Sheriff of Essex in 1780.   One of Francis’s brothers fought with Nelson, and another was a Lieutenant Colonel in the army, fighting in Egypt and the Peninsula Wars and gaining the Order of the Bath.  Francis Pelly died in 1844 leaving £500, and Mary Ann moved into Hertfordshire.  There is a portrait of their son Justinian Pelly, a merchant, available online, who had a son named Lancelot.  Justinian also had a daughter named Violet who married the bishop of New Westminster, British Columbia.  Mary Ann’s eldest son, named Theophilus, was the rector of Church Brampton, Northamptonshire.


Caroline Richards (1792–1869) was married in Edgbaston in 1825 to Charles Barker, graduate of Oxford, who was the schoolmaster of Bishop Vesey School in Sutton Coldfield after having been an Assistant Master at Rugby.  He leaves the distinct impression that he was a disaster in Sutton Coldfield, at times reducing the previously successful school to only one pupil, apparently due to his insistence on teaching the classics.  He was a warden of Sutton Coldfield Corporation and a J.P. for Warwickshire and died more than twenty years before Caroline.  We are told that in 1843 “he fell dead from the back of a horse which returned home without him”.  Of their five children, their eldest son died aged 6, their third son Francis died soon after birth, and the second son Charles died aged 35 unmarried.  The two girls, Mary and Catherine, never married.  On the death of her husband in 1842 Caroline moved first to Hastings, where she appears on the census as a landed proprietor, and then to Speldhurst in Kent where she was near her brother Thomas and is mentioned in his will.  The two unmarried daughters seem to have continued living there after their mother died aged 76, a few years after the death of her son Charles.  One has the impression of a family which did not thrive.


An afterthought

By my count Theophilus had at least 25 grandchildren, so one assumes his later life was busy. He lived through a period of incredible expansion and change in Birmingham, and among the events of his lifetime were the American War of Independence, the Priestley Riots, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.  He was living and working at the time when Birmingham became the first industrial city and its population exploded, and lived to see canals introduced and the setting up of Boulton’s Soho works.  Simultaneously he lived through the reign of George II, the madness of George III, the regency of George IV and some of the latter’s reign.  Although a rich man living eventually in the best area of Birmingham, he encountered a great deal of death with the decease of his children and several grandchildren.  He must have known many of the prominent citizens of Birmingham through business and through his worship at St. Philip’s, with which several members of the Lunar Society are linked.  It is impossible to know what he was like as a person, but there is in existence a letter touching on business he writes to his son Thomas Bingham Richards which he signs, “your affectionate father”.  In addition he subscribes to a volume of poetry by a female writer, Anna Sawyer.


* For a picture of the shop of Theophilus Richards and further information on the business, see the website “Mapping Birmingham”

** It is persistently stated online that Theophilus junior died in 1833. In fact there were three Theophilus Richards’ living in Birmingham around these dates, and the one who died in 1833 was a nonconformist.

Gill Partridge 12/2016



One thought on “Theophilus Richards 1747-1828

  1. Dear Gill Partridge
    I have been researching the much neglected 18th century gunmakers of Birmingham for the past few years including Thomas Richards who is still something of an enigma. I have new information on him and will be aiming to pursue this and eventually put it into print. I have only today come across your excellent research on the Richards family and other Birmingham gunmakers. I should like to use some of your research for this publication if you would agree to it and I will give you full credit for any material I use.
    Brian Godwin, Firearms Adviser to the National Trust


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