According to family information Christopher William Richmond was born in London, England, on 12 July 1821, the son of a barrister, Christopher Richmond, and his wife, Maria (Lely) Wilson. The major influence on his upbringing was that of his mother, a woman of wide interests and reading, for his father died when he was 10, leaving him the oldest of a family of four. William (as his family called him) and his mother shared responsibility for the care of the family. Both parents were Unitarian in religion; William was sent to Unitarian schools in Brighton and in London. For a time, too, he was a day boy at the Hackney Grammar School. He was a small and delicate youth; for most of his life he suffered severely from asthma.
For health reasons he spent much of the years 1841–43 in France. From 1844 he worked in various lawyers' offices. At about this time he formed what was to be a lifelong friendship with Richard Holt Hutton, later a well-known theologian and editor of the Spectator, whose father, Joseph, was the Unitarian minister at Carter Lane Chapel which the Richmonds attended. Another friend was Arthur Clough, the poet. Richmond developed strong literary, philosophical and other intellectual interests, which he maintained throughout his life.
In 1847 Richmond was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple. Paying business, however, proved hard to find and he was often depressed about his future, like many other members of the English middle class. In 1842 a family connection, John Hursthouse, had migrated to New Plymouth. There was talk of a family migration. In 1850 James Crowe and Henry Robert, Richmond's two younger brothers, joined Hursthouse.
On 15 September 1852 William married Emily Elizabeth Atkinson, the sister of a friend of James Crowe Richmond, at Frindsbury, Kent. 'Em' was a very striking person. Joseph Hutton wrote to William just before his marriage that he thought her 'a remarkable woman of singular intellectual power, moral earnestness and charming spontaneity of character.' And Richmond's mother wrote, 'There is a raciness and originality about her quite refreshing and a more frank and generous nature I never saw.' Two years later Jane Maria, William's sister, married Arthur S. Atkinson, thus establishing a strong family connection.
Two months after their marriage William and Emily set sail for New Zealand. On board the Sir Edward Paget were also Arthur and Harry Atkinson and other relatives. They were to form what they called 'the mob' of Richmonds and Atkinsons in Taranaki. On his arrival in New Plymouth in 1853 Richmond practised law and found employment as clerk and attorney to the new provincial council. In November 1855 he was elected to the House of Representatives and six months later joined the ministry of E. W. Stafford, holding a variety of positions until 1861; the most important were colonial treasurer (1856–61) and minister of native affairs (1858–60). In politics Richmond was a centralist; he wished to curb the powers of the superintendents and restrict the provincial governments to local affairs. In a country with a powerful and warlike indigenous population he believed it was essential to have strong central government.
Richmond was concerned with 'native' questions from 1856. The administration of Māori policy was complex, indeed confused. When responsible government was introduced in 1856 the governor, Thomas Gore Browne, retained control of Māori affairs. However, day-to-day authority was very much in the hands of the native secretary, Donald McLean. The elected government also exerted a strong influence on Māori policy through the power of the purse and legislation. In 1858 Richmond was responsible for several measures intended to deal with problems in race relations. There was a Native Circuit Courts Act and a Native Schools Act. The Native Districts Regulation Act provided for the introduction of a species of indirect rule in which Māori would participate. This was an attempt to adapt British institutions to Māori needs.
Although the Native Territorial Rights Act was disallowed by the Crown, it illustrates Richmond's approach to Māori policy. It provided for the award of Crown titles to individual Māori owners of land. The land, thus individualised, could then be sold to settler buyers, the sale subject to a 10s. an acre tax, which would provide a land fund for the government. To objections to this tax, Richmond wrote that the idea that a Māori was entitled to 'an absolute grant in fee-simple' of whatever land his tribe made over to him was a doctrine 'mischievous and unfounded'. Richmond wanted to destroy what he called the 'beastly communism' of Māori society by introducing private property in land. 'Chastity, decency, and thrift cannot exist amidst the waste, filth, and moral contamination of the Pahs'.
Richmond knew almost nothing about Māori culture or land tenure. He simply believed that it was necessary to 'civilise' the Māori, that is, to lead them to adopt British habits and practices. He had no sympathy for Māori society. He objected to the land purchase officer, Robert Parris, 'hanging about' Māori settlements and wrote, 'It rather lowers the Government to have its Officers running after a pack of contumacious savages'. While Richmond had lived in Taranaki there had been fighting between Māori wishing to sell land and those wishing to keep it. Richmond sympathised completely with the former. Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke, the leading anti-land-seller was, Richmond considered, 'the bad genius of Taranaki'. Richmond wrote of Kīngi, who was living on his tribal land at Waitara, that his attitude was one 'of pure hostility to the interests of the settlement of which he has been occupying a part of the destined site'. A more specifically settler point of view would be hard to conceive.
Richmond was present, with the governor and McLean, at the fateful meeting in New Plymouth in 1859, at which Te Teira offered to sell part of this land to the government. The acceptance of this offer and attempts to survey the land led directly to the New Zealand wars of the 1860s. As acting premier in Stafford's absence Richmond cannot escape all criticism; he was under heavy family pressure to open up disputed lands and did nothing to restrain proceedings. Nor did he feel that an error had been made. He vigorously defended the government's actions. He believed that Wiremu Kīngi had no rights, as a chief, to prevent the sale of the land and that he was acting as leader of a land league, aiming to veto land sales. No such league existed.
Richmond did not enjoy politics. He thought the times 'too strong for the men – at least too strong for me.' Photographs show him looking emaciated and frail at this time. The government lost office in July 1861; in 1862 Richmond resigned his seat and went into partnership with T. B. Gillies in a lucrative law practice in Dunedin. He already had an economic interest in Otago, through a share in the Idaburn run, purchased in 1858 with Stafford and others. In 1861, together with Frederick Whitaker, he had adjusted the provincial debt between Otago and Canterbury. Conveyancing and other solicitor's work, however, were not to his taste. Later in the year he accepted an appointment to the Supreme Court in the Otago and Southland district, with a salary of £1,500, a high one at the time. As a judge of the Supreme Court Richmond was an original member of the Court of Appeal and sat with his brother judges when the Court was first convened in Christchurch in 1863. He regarded his judgeship as a 'harbour of refuge' and did not accept Stafford's invitation to return to politics as premier in 1865. He remained in Dunedin until 1867, when he was appointed to the district of Nelson and Westland. In 1873 he moved to Wellington.
He was said to be 'essentially a strong judge; probably no stronger judge has occupied the bench of this colony', the Otago Daily Times asserted in its obituary article. He was not always severe. In 1868 there were Irish demonstrations on the West Coast in protest at the execution of three Fenians in Manchester. Shortly afterwards an Irishman tried to assassinate the Duke of Edinburgh in Australia. Father William John Larkin and six other West Coast Irishmen were arrested and charged with seditious libel and unlawful assembly. In his summing up Richmond said that, 'Love of Ireland must not result in hatred of Britain, which was treason.' He gave a 'masterly exposition of the law relating to political offences'. However, he was 'wisely light' in his sentences. Larkin and another leader were sent to prison for a month each on the charge of seditious libel; they were all fined £20.
In 1890 Richmond sat on the Court of Appeal in the case of Goodall v. Te Kooti. Te Kooti and numerous followers had set out for Poverty Bay, where he had attacked settlers years before. He was charged with unlawful assembly and bound over on his own recognisance of £500 and two sureties of £500 each. The magistrate's ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court: none of Te Kooti's people had done anything to cause alarm. In the Court of Appeal Richmond ruled that a peaceful assembly might be unlawful if it were likely 'to provoke counter-demonstrations', and overturned the judgement of the Supreme Court. He described Te Kooti as 'doubly dangerous', because 'his supernatural power' gave him complete sway over his followers. 'At the same time he is intemperate in his habits – a Maori prophet and a drunken one to boot.'
The attorney general, Patrick Buckley, praised him as without equal in Australasia as a jurist, a gentleman and a scholar, and considered him probably as eminent as any British colonial judge. This was hyperbole, but pardonable. He was among the more learned of nineteenth century New Zealand judges, and was often consulted by brother judges and lawyers on matters of propriety.
He was a studious man, an intellectual of a type rare in the colony. People were impressed with his earnestness, his great industry and intelligence; and with the 'powerful mind enshrined in a frail body'. In his youth he had been attracted to Christian socialism, but he later became very conservative, regarding universal suffrage as absurd, votes for women as a subject for satire, and the Liberal land and income tax as dangerous. He sometimes lectured on philosophical topics. Three of his addresses were published, Man's place in creation (1869), The modern aspect of natural theology (1869) and Materialism (1881). He died in Wellington on 3 August 1895. His last attendance at the Court of Appeal had been only seven days before. His wife, Emily, with whom he had had five daughters and four sons, survived him until 1906.