Mary Elizabeth Richmond was born at New Plymouth, New Zealand, on 30 August 1853. Her parents, Christopher William Richmond, a barrister, and his wife, Emily Elizabeth Atkinson, had emigrated from England with others of their kin group in December 1852 to join an extended family of Richmond brothers, Hursthouses and Stephenson Smiths who had already settled about New Plymouth. Mary Richmond was brought up in comfortable circumstances. She was educated by private tutors and her father's prominence as a lawyer, a member of the first Stafford ministry and finally a Supreme Court judge gave her an assured position in colonial society.
Mary was the eldest in a family of nine children and this fact was the predominant influence in her life. Her mother had little capacity or time for domestic matters and, urged on by her father, whom she revered, Mary at an early age assumed responsibility for managing the Richmond household. In later years she was to describe her practice in housekeeping and in looking after children as the most formative part of her education.
After living briefly at New Plymouth the Richmonds shifted in turn to Auckland, Dunedin, Nelson and Wellington. In 1875 they went to Europe to further the children's education. Mary's brothers and sisters attended various schools, and one sister went to Newnham College, Cambridge. Mary stayed with her mother as a companion and as a nurse, when required, to her family. Her letters from this period, when she was in her 20s, reveal a conflict of emotions; she felt her family could scarcely manage without her, and to a degree she relished her position, but at other times she longed to be free.
Back in Wellington in 1879, although still bound up with family duties and responsibilities, she enlarged her area of concern. Like her father she was a Unitarian and she became involved with the Forward Movement which attempted to match liberal Christianity to the complex conditions of contemporary society. She also wrote poetry of an uplifting ethical nature. From 1884 until 1890 she was a teacher at Wellington Girls' High School. In 1890 she was in England and spent part of 1891 at Newnham College before coming back to Wellington in 1892.
Her father's death in 1895 was, seemingly, a liberating factor. She wrote of his influence: 'He was a leader I could follow with my whole heart and since his death I have become a leader myself'. She returned to England and in September 1896 began kindergarten training at the Froebel Institute in London. In 1898 she opened a private school in Wellington which catered for children from kindergarten to preparatory level. She continued with the school until December 1911, but in the early 1900s she also initiated a scheme to help poorer children receive a pre-school education. An excellent speaker, she addressed meetings, raised funds and in 1905 founded the free kindergarten movement in Wellington. The first of the Richmond Kindergarten Schools, named after Mary and her father in 1911, was opened in 1906. The nurture of children she always regarded as of supreme importance and the prime responsibility of women.
Other women's groups in which she played a leading role were the League of Mothers (she also edited the league's journal), the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children, and the Women's Social Progress Movement. She was parents' representative (1906–16) and the first woman on the Wellington College and Girls' High School board of governors. From 1910 to 1915 she served on the Wellington Hospital and Charitable Aid Board. In England, where she lived during her 60s, she joined the Kensington Society for Female Suffrage and went on lecture tours for the British League of Unitarians and Other Liberal Christian Women.
Richmond published slim volumes of poetry in 1898, 1903 and 1942. She was a prolific writer of letters, articles and sermons, and of songs, plays and stories for children. Her Bindy ballads published in 1924 show a delightful sense of humour. Mary Richmond was made a CBE in 1949 and died, aged 95, at Wellington five months later on 3 July 1949. She had never married.
Although devoted to the welfare of women and children, Mary Richmond did not seek equal opportunities for women nor did she see intrinsic merit in their higher education. 'Girls,' she warned kindergarten trainees, 'do not think that the cleverer you are in the halls of the University the stupider you should be in the kitchen', and in an autobiographical fragment written when she was 88 she stated that 'you cannot find anywhere a more highly educated woman than an experienced and successful mother'. It was a role she had studied and practised all her life but, ironically, one to which she had no natural claim.