George Spafford Richardson was born at Ashton, Northamptonshire, England, on 14 November 1868, and registered as the son of Mary Ann Richardson. He later declared his parents to be Mary Ann Baxter and George Richardson, a farmer. After briefly working in Northampton he enlisted in the Royal Regiment of Artillery in 1886, and was stationed at Gibraltar for three years. By intelligence, dependability and hard work he rose within five years to the rank of staff sergeant instructor in gunnery.
Seconded to the New Zealand forces on a four-year engagement as instructor in gunnery and master gunner in 1891, Richardson, based in Wellington, soon impressed his superiors by his 'untiring energy, tact and perseverance'. Colonel F. J. Fox rated him 'as smart as it is possible for a man to be'. A number of his inventions facilitated artillery training. So valuable were his services in New Zealand that he was unable to persuade the government to let him serve in the South African War (1899–1902). Richardson liked New Zealand and readily agreed to extensions of his secondment. His determination to stay permanently was increased by his marriage to Caroline Warren at Clareville, southern Wairarapa, on 29 September 1892; they were to have six children.
Richardson had early been seen as a candidate for promotion from the ranks. On 16 April 1907 he was commissioned as a captain in the New Zealand Militia, and became chief instructor of artillery services. It was noted in 1909 that he was 'the hardest worked officer in the service'. With the reorganisation of the New Zealand military forces in 1911, he was transferred to the newly created New Zealand Staff Corps; he was promoted to major in 1912. Although failing narrowly to pass the examination for admission to the Staff College at Camberley in July 1911 he was nevertheless selected to attend, and left New Zealand on 4 November. While en route one of his sons was accidentally killed on military duty in Wellington. In December 1913 he succeeded Colonel A. W. Robin as New Zealand's representative on the Imperial General Staff in London.
When war broke out in August 1914, Richardson was well placed to take the opportunities offered by the rapid mobilisation. He soon displayed his organisational skills, assisting in the formation of the Royal Naval Division from surplus naval personnel. He helped Bernard Freyberg, whom he had met in Wellington, to obtain a commission in the division.
Richardson went to France in mid-September and became part of the division's improvised headquarters staff during its brief, unsuccessful deployment in defence of Antwerp in early October. After narrowly avoiding being taken prisoner, he again served in France before returning to Britain in November 1914, when he was confirmed as assistant adjutant and quartermaster general. From March to December 1915 the division took part in the Gallipoli campaign. So well did Richardson perform that he was made a CMG and promoted deputy adjutant and quartermaster of XII Corps at Salonika with the rank of brigadier general.
In February 1916 the New Zealand government reclaimed Richardson's services. Characteristically he put duty to New Zealand before his personal preference to remain in the field, where he had good prospects of advancement. He became New Zealand's military representative in London, as well as taking charge of the administration of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and commanding all New Zealand troops in the United Kingdom. Richardson quickly made himself indispensable, evolving a system of organisation for the NZEF in England which its commander, Major General Sir Alexander Godley, described as 'in every way excellent'. He took a special interest in soldier education and was made a CB in 1917, and a CBE on 31 December 1918.
After relinquishing his position on 10 February 1919 Richardson returned to New Zealand, where he took charge of administration at General Headquarters in Wellington with the rank of brigadier general. He chaired the Reconstruction Committee, which sought to re-establish a peacetime organisation for the defence forces, and sat on the Air Board. But, in indifferent health, he did not find peacetime soldiering satisfying. An offer to retire in 1920 was not accepted, and he remained at his post until appointed administrator of New Zealand's mandated territory, Western Samoa, in February 1923. Shortly before taking up his duties on 19 March he was promoted to the rank of major general.
In Samoa Richardson typically sought to familiarise himself with his charges, even learning to read Samoan, although he never gained more than a superficial understanding of Samoan society. He instigated a series of reforms and development schemes which he pursued vigorously. His paternalistic approach appeared to outsiders to be successful. So pleased was the government with his performance that it persuaded him, reluctantly, to extend his term. He was made a KBE in June 1925.
Richardson was soon confronted with a Samoan reaction to his efforts. Resentment and frustration at New Zealand rule in Samoa, which pre-dated Richardson's advent, now revived in more vigorous form, reinforced by distaste for Richardson's evident indifference to Samoan political traditions. This agitation was given focus by the Mau, a nationalist group organised in 1926 by O. F. Nelson, a wealthy part-Samoan businessman and leading critic of the administration. With support for the Mau growing rapidly, Richardson found himself engaged in a contest with Nelson for power and influence, in which his failure to understand the Samoan roots of the movement placed him at a major disadvantage. Convinced that the agitation had been inspired by a few self-interested part-Samoans like Nelson, he refused to negotiate with the Mau. His patronising attitude towards, and tactless treatment of, ordinary Samoans compounded the problem in a situation demanding political rather than administrative skills. Richardson's authority was further undermined by an inability to enforce attempted coercive measures. A royal commission set up in 1927 vindicated his actions, which had become a political issue in New Zealand, and Nelson and other Mau leaders were deported in early 1928. Far from collapsing, the Mau began to challenge the administration more directly by deploying their own 'police'. Richardson fell back on his military instinct to use firmness, but a naval show of force and the arrest of the Mau police proved futile.
Hopes that Richardson's retirement from Samoa on 31 March 1928 would assist a settlement were not fulfilled. In June 1928 he represented New Zealand at the meeting of the League of Nations' Permanent Mandates Commission; he defended New Zealand's actions effectively, but was criticised for not being firmer. He later resented 'being made a scapegoat for the Samoan agitation'.
Richardson retired from the public service on 31 December 1928, and took up residence in Remuera, Auckland. He worked assiduously for returned servicemen, especially the disabled. In May 1935 he entered local body politics as a member of the Auckland City Council; he was deputy mayor at the time of his sudden death on 11 June 1938, survived by his wife and five children. Two thousand people attended the funeral service of this unpretentious man, who never forgot his humble beginnings and who throughout his military career, at least, displayed a rare ability to engender confidence among his superiors and loyalty from those serving under him.