Richard Hellaby was born in Thurvaston, Derbyshire, England, according to family information on 5 January 1849, the son of William Hellaby, a farmer, and his wife, Eleanor Audenwood. After minimal schooling Richard was apprenticed to a butcher before setting up his own butcher's stall. In 1867 he followed his older brother, William, to New Zealand in the Arvion Queen, arriving at Bluff Harbour early in 1868.
Hellaby started goldmining in Otago, but after losing his few possessions in a flash flood returned to butchering. In May 1868, when he saw a message for him inserted by William in a local newspaper, he left his shop and set out to join his brother at Thames. He walked most of the way, doing odd jobs for food and shelter.
After the reunion with William, in late 1868 or early the following year, Richard Hellaby moved on to Auckland where, he had heard, there were opportunities for hard workers to prosper. By 1873 he had saved enough to buy out his employer, a butcher called F. H. Hammond, and with William's financial help he opened the butcher shop of R. & W. Hellaby on 1 November 1873.
Richard Hellaby's great strength allowed him to perform any task he set his workers; he worked exceedingly long hours and expected them to do the same. Yet he knew all his employees by name and would unobtrusively give them generous financial assistance without expecting repayment. They were also provided with a large, free breakfast each working day. During hard times, destitute townspeople were given hot Bovo – a by-product of the meat-canning process – if they came to the works. On cold days, the same hot drink was sent to operators at the nearby telephone exchange.
A tough buyer at the saleyards, Hellaby selected only the finest beasts and paid the keenest prices. Yet he would allow competitors to choose from stock he had purchased, and trusted them to pay their share of the price. He rested cattle in barns with water and hay bales before they were slaughtered; refused to buy stock at depression prices, aware that Hellabys' profitability depended on that of the farmers; and paid cash for stock the day after arrival, giving credit for usable parts of the carcasses, even if stock arrived injured or dead. He built a reputation for fair and honourable dealings, and farmers from all over the country bypassed the saleyards to send him stock directly.
As the business grew Richard Hellaby gradually assumed the leading role, but the two brothers remained close colleagues and friends. They offered a wide variety of goods, and a delivery service to town and country customers alike. The firm prospered, despite competition from other butchers. Hellabys' expanded into the frozen-meat trade in the 1880s; growth remained steady despite the depression and by 1898 it was the largest butchering firm in New Zealand. In 1900 the brothers doubled their capital and formed a limited liability company: they were poised for further years of profitable growth.
When the New Zealand Frozen Meat and Storage Company was liquidated in 1889, Richard Hellaby acquired a number of the assets, sold some and invested the profits in the Northern Roller Milling Company. He became one of its largest shareholders and remained a director for the rest of his life. The remaining assets – freezing facilities at Westfield – were left for future development.
Richard Hellaby had married Amy Maria Briscoe at St Mark's Church, Remuera, on 20 January 1885. They were to have three daughters and three sons. When both William and his wife died suddenly in late 1900, Amy and Richard had to assume responsibility for their five nephews and nieces. Richard also shouldered the task of turning the derelict meat company works into a useful adjunct to his business. He worked even longer hours than usual, until his heart, weakened by the rheumatic fever which had cut short his schooldays, failed him and he died suddenly in Auckland on 20 June 1902. He and his wife had been poised to move into Bramcote (now known as Florence Court), a large house they had built in Omana Avenue, Epsom. Their youngest child, Freda, was only three months old. Amy Hellaby outlived her husband by 53 years.
Richard Hellaby was tall, heavily built, bewhiskered, friendly and outgoing. He acted as a judge of fat stock and sheep at the Auckland agricultural shows, and always drove fine horses in smart traps. He did not involve himself in politics, community groups or the church, but was active in any movement aimed at the progress and development of Auckland. His funeral cortège was over a mile long – testimony to the esteem in which he was held. He had built up one of the largest privately owned businesses in New Zealand, and had shown that honesty and humanitarian principles were not incompatible with success and wealth.