Richards, William (1749-1818) (DNB00)
RICHARDS, WILLIAM, LL.D. (1749–1818), historian of King's Lynn, was born at Penrhydd, near Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, towards the end of 1749. His father, Henry Richards (d. 1 July 1768, aged 59), was a farmer, who removed in 1758 to St. Clears, Carmarthenshire. He had but a year's schooling, in his twelfth year. In 1768 he was admitted a member of the particular baptist congregation at Rhydwillim, Carmarthenshire. He became an occasional preacher at Salem Chapel, St. Clears, projected by his father and erected in 1769. In 1773 he became a student in the baptist academy at Bristol, under Hugh Evans (1712–1781). Leaving in September 1775, he acted for about nine months as assistant to John Ash [q. v.], of ‘curmudgeon’ fame, at Pershore, Worcestershire. On the recommendation of Hugh Evans, he was invited to an unsettled congregation in Broad Street, Lynn, Norfolk, and agreed to go for a year, from 7 July 1776. During this year he succeeded in healing divisions and organising his flock as a baptist church; his settlement as regular pastor at Lynn dates from 1778. He declined a call to Norwich. Though not a popular (except in his native Welsh), he was an assiduous preacher, conducting three services each Sunday without notes. When absent on his frequent visits to Wales, his place was taken by Timothy Durrant. In 1793 he received the diploma of M.A. from Brown University, Rhode Island, a baptist foundation.
In September 1795 he left Lynn for Wales, being out of health. His ailments kept him from returning till March 1798; meantime he had more than once tendered his resignation as pastor. He was again in Wales, during the whole of 1800 and 1801, and did not minister to his flock at Lynn after 1802, though the connection was never formally dissolved. He remained theoretically a close-communion baptist, but abandoned Calvinism. While sojourning as a valetudinarian in South Wales he promoted an Arminian secession from the baptist churches, having relations with the new connexion of general baptists. He has been claimed by the unitarians, but held aloof from the Priestley school, and maintained, on Sabellian principles, the worship of Christ. During a part of 1802 he conducted a morning service in the vacant presbyterian chapel at Lynn. He was a strong advocate of slave emancipation, and was an honorary member of the Pennsylvanian society formed for the prosecution of that object. On the loss of his wife in 1805 he secluded himself from all society for seven years. In 1811 his successor at Broad Street, Thomas Finch, was dismissed for anti-calvinistic heresy, and Richards interested himself in the erection of a new building, Salem Chapel, opened (1811) on general baptist principles, but he rarely preached there. The congregation became unitarian, and is now dispersed.
In 1812 Richards published his best-remembered work, ‘The History of Lynn, Civil, Ecclesiastical, Political, Commercial, Biographical, Municipal, and Military, from the earliest accounts to the present time … to which is prefixed … an introductory account of Marshland, Wisbech, and the Fens’ (Lynn, 2 vols. 8vo; with aquatint plates after drawings by James Sillet [q. v.]). The valuable collections of Guybon Goddard (d. 1677), the brother-in-law of Sir William Dugdale—collections which had been freely used by Richards's predecessor, Benjamin Mackerell [q. v.], in his ‘History of King's Lynn’ (1738), and by Charles Parkin [q. v.] in his ‘Topography of Freebridge Hundred and Half’—were unfortunately lost before Richards began writing, and he was denied free access to the municipal records, so that his materials for the mediæval history of the town were strictly limited. The chronicles of Lynn are nevertheless brought down from Anglo-Saxon times to 1812, and the history proper is supplemented by biographical sketches, and by valuable topographical and statistical information, together with an account of the religious houses formerly in Lynn, and of the progress of dissent in the town. He estimated that the deists ‘would, if formed into a society, constitute perhaps the largest congregation in the place.’ Richards's work, though somewhat diffuse and lacking an index, retains its place as one of the most valuable local histories published in England. The essays on mediæval subjects display not only much acumen and research, but a power of applying the facts discovered far beyond that of most of the topographers of his time; the author's general views are broad, liberal, and tolerant. As a first essay in antiquarian work, the book is the more remarkable.
On 6 Sept. 1818 Richards was admitted LL.D. by Brown University, but did not live to be aware of the honour. He died at Lynn on 13 Sept. 1818 of angina pectoris, and was buried on 17 Sept. in the graveyard of the general baptist chapel, Wisbech. He was tall and strongly built, and spoke with a strong Welsh accent. He married (1803) Emiah (d. 3 Jan. 1805, aged 28), daughter of a Welsh farmer, but had no issue. His library, thirteen hundred volumes, he bequeathed to Brown University; his other property to his sister, Martha Evans.
In addition to the ‘History of Lynn,’ Richards published, apart from pamphlets and single sermons: 1. ‘A Review of … Strictures on Infant Baptism,’ &c., Lynn, 1781, 12mo. 2. ‘Observations on Infant Sprinkling,’ &c., Lynn, 1781, 12mo. 3. ‘The History of Antichrist, or Free Thoughts on the Corruptions of Christianity,’ &c., Lynn, 1784, 8vo; in Welsh, ‘Llun Anghrist,’ &c., Carmarthen, 1790, 12mo (these three publications are in controversy with John Carter, independent minister of Mattishall, Norfolk). 4. ‘A Review of the Memoirs of … Cromwell, by … Noble,’ &c., Lynn, 1787, 8vo (a work of merit; full of Welsh patriotism). 5. ‘A Serious Discourse concerning Infant Baptism,’ &c., Lynn, 1793, 8vo. 6. ‘A Welsh-English Dictionary,’ &c., 1798, 12mo; a companion English-Welsh dictionary was partly executed by Richards in manuscript; an edition of both dictionaries was published at Carmarthen, 1828–32, 12mo, 2 vols. 7. ‘A Word … for the Baptists,’ &c., 1804, 12mo (in controversy with Isaac Allen, independent minister of Lynn). 8. ‘The Perpetuity of Infant Baptism,’ &c., 1806, 8vo. 9. ‘The Seasonable Monitor,’ &c., Lynn, 1812–18, 12mo (seven parts). Posthumous was 10. ‘The Welsh Nonconformists' Memorial; or, Eambro-British [sic] Biography,’ &c., 1820, 12mo (edited by John Evans (1767–1827) [q. v.]; a very miscellaneous collection; much of it, including an account of Servetus, originally appeared in the ‘Monthly Repository,’ with the signature ‘Gwilym Emlyn.’ To the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ October 1789, he contributed a letter (dated 14 Oct. 1789, and signed Gwilym Dyfed), supporting the absurd story of the discovery of America by Madoc. He wrote for the three volumes of the ‘Cambrian Register,’ 1796–1818.[Memoirs by Evans, 1819, portrait (the date of death, 1819, on title-page is a misprint); Browne's Hist. Congr. Norfolk and Suffolk, 1877, p. 562; Rees's Hist. Prot. Nonconformity in Wales, 1883, p. 389; Stephens's Madoc, 1893, p. 78; notes kindly communicated by Walter Rye, esq. and by E. M. Beloe, esq., F.S.A.]