Edward Richardson was born in London, England, probably in 1830 or 1831, the son of Elizabeth Sarah Miller and her husband, Richard Richardson, a merchant. Edward was educated at the City of London School. He trained as a civil engineer with the London and South Western Railway Company, and as a mechanical engineer with the Great Southern and Western Railway Company of Ireland. In 1852 he went to Melbourne, Australia, and worked as a road engineer until 1855 when he went into partnership with George Holmes as a general contractor. He was also active in the volunteers and rose to be captain in the horse artillery. At Melbourne on 13 May 1856 he married Margaret Higgins; they were to have two children.
In 1861 Holmes and Richardson were contracted by the Canterbury provincial government in New Zealand to build the Christchurch–Lyttelton railway and tunnel; Richardson arrived on the Prince Alfred with 35 navvies and sufficient materials and equipment to begin the first stage between Christchurch and Ferrymead. He and Holmes drove hard bargains with the government, and were said to have swindled it severely. They carried out their work efficiently, however, and during 1862 Richardson travelled to Europe to study the latest equipment and techniques being used on the Mont Cenis tunnel. On his return his new expertise was used to good effect. The Christchurch–Lyttelton rail tunnel, supervised by Richardson and completed in 1867, was one of the greatest engineering feats of colonial times.
Richardson quickly made an impact in local affairs. He served on the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce committee and joined the Christchurch Club. In 1868 he became director of the Grey River Coal Company and later was the first chairman of the Lyttelton Harbour Board. Much of the credit for its success must be attributed to Richardson's knowledge and skill. He became a director of the New Zealand Shipping Company in 1879 and was a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
Richardson also developed extensive business interests, beginning with a flax mill near the Ashley Gorge bridge which he converted to a timber mill. He bought, cleared and stocked the surrounding bushland, and gradually absorbed neighbouring pastoral runs by purchasing extensive blocks of freehold land inside their boundaries. The justification for this ruthlessness was that it used the land more efficiently. Richardson was among the most successful of the 'gridironers'. During the 1870s he built up the Wharfedale and Albury runs in particular, planting acres of trees, diversifying into arable farming, and steadily freeholding nearly 12,000 acres at Albury and nearly 5,000 at Wharfedale; by 1879 he was able to sell land for small farms at £8 an acre.
Inevitably Richardson went into politics, and from 1870 until the abolition of the provinces in 1876 he was a member of the Canterbury Provincial Council for Lyttelton. In 1871 he was returned to the House of Representatives for Christchurch City West and in 1875 for City of Christchurch. He became minister for public works in 1872 in the Waterhouse ministry and retained that position in the Fox, Vogel, Pollen and Atkinson ministries.
Richardson's indispensability as minister for public works can be attributed mainly to his professional abilities as an engineer. At the start of Julius Vogel's public works scheme incompetent administration had caused delays and wasted money. Contracts had been entered into hastily and without adequate safeguards. During his brief ministry in September 1872, Edward Stafford reformed the department, separated it from that of immigration, and aimed to create efficiency and order out of the chaos in which corruption was threatening to breed. Richardson consolidated this policy. He was neither a fluent speaker nor a strong parliamentary personality, but was widely esteemed as the foremost expert in his field, his knowledge unrivalled by anyone in the House. He was the first political technocrat in New Zealand's history. In January 1877 he resigned ministerial office because of ill health and overwork.
During the first session of 1879 Richardson launched the damaging attack on the Grey government's unconstitutional behaviour over the Thames railway. He lost his City of Christchurch seat to Sir George Grey on election night 1879, but subsequently won it back on an electoral petition, Grey having already been elected for Thames. During that most bitterly fought and often violent election Richardson's speeches reveal him to have been a man of moderate liberal views on electoral and social matters and not a strong party man. The rabidly Greyite Lyttelton Times accused him of being a one-man band who had gone far into the liberal field and returned 'with something for every political ear'. By 1883 the same paper was praising him for being honest, experienced and knowing more about railway and harbour management than anyone else in Parliament.
Richardson was defeated at the 1881 election by Harry Allwright, the quiet but controversial working-class member for Lyttelton. (It was Allwright's casting vote on the parliamentary committee dealing with the electoral petition in 1879 that had unseated Grey and, ironically, allowed Richardson back into the House.) Richardson was re-elected for Kaiapoi at a by-election in May 1884 and represented that electorate until 1890. He resumed his position as public works expert, and as minister for public works between 1884 and 1887 was ranked third in cabinet below Robert Stout and Vogel. He was called to the Legislative Council in 1892 and remained there until 1899.
In February 1882 Richardson owned land valued at £132,000. However, the depression of the 1880s ultimately ruined him, and by the end of the decade most of his property had been taken by the Bank of New Zealand. After his retirement from politics in 1899 he had to work as manager of the Wellington Patent Slip Company.
Richardson's wife, Margaret, had died in Melbourne in 1861, and he had married Frances Mary Elizabeth Corke in Christchurch on 27 April 1864. She died on 1 October 1913. Richardson himself died at Wellington on 26 February 1915, survived by a son from his first marriage and four sons and two daughters from his second marriage. He had been appointed a CMG in 1879. Edward Richardson avoided controversy and made no political enemies. As a businessman he revealed very different qualities of toughness and hardness. He deserves to be well remembered as an engineer and administrator of the most beneficial aspects of Vogelism.