Norman Macdonald Richmond was born in Wellington on 23 October 1897, the son of Flora Hursthouse Macdonald and her husband, Maurice Wilson Richmond, a barrister and later a professor of law at Victoria College. Norman grew up in a politically conscious and active family. Educated at Nelson College between 1911 and 1914, he won a university Junior Scholarship and was gymnastics champion in 1914. He commenced studies in mathematics and philosophy at Canterbury College in 1915 and completed his BA in 1917, with nationally outstanding results in pure and applied mathematics. During this period he captained the college First XV.
After enlisting in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1918, Richmond saw seven months' active service in France followed by three months in the army of occupation in Cologne: 'enough of war', he wrote, 'to make me a pacifist for the rest of my life'. The deaths of his brother James in France and his father in New Zealand brought Richmond early repatriation. Back in Christchurch he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 1919. He taught for a while at Christ's College before taking up the scholarship in 1920.
At Oxford he began reading for honours in mathematics at University College. However, he found the teaching of maths at Oxford far below the standard of his New Zealand professor and, after a single term, changed over to the honours school of modern history and political science. He graduated BA with second-class honours in 1923.
Returning to a housemaster's position at Christ's College, Richmond studied education at Canterbury College with Professor James Shelley. In 1925 he was appointed assistant tutor-organiser for the WEA with a position on the staff of Auckland University College. There he was responsible for the development of classes in Northland and Waikato. On 1 June 1926, in Christchurch, Richmond married Hilary Wall, daughter of Professor Arnold Wall. In 1928 he was appointed director of the WEA tutorial classes in the Auckland district. Over the following 10 years, despite financial and ideological pressures imposed by the depression and a conservative government, Richmond worked intensely and productively to define and develop his vision of a more economically and socially just society, in which adult education was a primary means to social development.
'Education in an unsatisfactory community must bend itself above all to social change,' he wrote in 1936, and for Richmond schools and universities were the ‘seed-beds of social change'. He travelled extensively to bring education to people in the towns and rural districts of the Auckland province. He was first and foremost a teacher, committed to heightening the awareness and capability of his students, preferably through study untrammelled by separation into disciplines: 'The struggle for a world fit for human beings to live in is one struggle,' he wrote, 'in which politics and economics, science, art and literature present a united front.'
In 1932, with his university colleague John Beaglehole, and in a similar incident in 1934, Richmond defended the right of academics to express radical social and political views in public. Such a right was not supported by the university authorities or the government. Moving to Australia in 1938 to head the Queensland WEA, Richmond again encountered political conservatism: in 1939 a state government commission of inquiry was established to look into the organisation. Despite a positive report, government funding was terminated and the University of Queensland withdrew its support. Richmond was appointed to a full-time position in history at the university and both the WEA and the tradition of university adult education in Queensland disappeared. Richmond had by this time joined the Communist Party of Australia (he resigned in the mid 1950s), and was active in civil liberties and peace organisations.
Apart from his tremendous output of written lectures and material for the discussion-group method of distance education he devised, Richmond published very little: six articles between 1936 and 1943 on adult education, a few later book reviews and articles on regional planning. From Queensland he moved to lecturing positions in history at Canberra University College in 1945 and in political science at the University of Melbourne in 1949. He was forced into early retirement by mental illness in 1950. Intermittent institutionalisation followed, both in Australia and in New Zealand where he returned in 1959. Norman Richmond died in Wellington on 13 July 1971, survived by four children. Hilary Richmond had died in 1962.
Richmond was a controversial thinker and an energetic innovator in distance and workers' education. His friend John Beaglehole once commented, 'He was the only School of Political Science we had in New Zealand for very many years, and we shall probably never have a better.'