Richard Southey, Cape civil servant and politician, was the son of George Southey and his wife Joan Baker. In 1820, at the age of 12, he came to the Cape Colony with his family in a party of British settlers headed by his father. Landing at Algoa Bay in May, they settled on a farm between Bathurst and Grahamstown. Young Southey worked as a clerk in Grahamstown from 1824, but in 1828 volunteered for military service and was stationed at Fort Beaufort. The next year he undertook a hunting trip in Pondoland and Bomvanaland (on the Transkei coast) and then settled down as a farmer until the outbreak of the Sixth Frontier War in 1834. After active duty during this war he was appointed resident agent and justice of the peace at Mount Coke until 1836, when he settled as a farmer in the division of Graaff-Reinet. In 1843 he entered a stock farming partnership with William Shaw, but had enough free time to practice as a law agent in Graaff-Reinet. From 1847 to 1849 he held an appointment as private secretary to Sir Harry Smith. In 1848 he was present when Smith proclaimed the Orange River Sovereignty (now the Free State) and remained there as president of the war-tribute commission to investigate the participants in a recent rebellion. From 1849 he was called upon by the government of the Cape Colony to perform various special duties until he was appointed secretary to the lieutenant-governor in Grahamstown in March 1855.
Southey's competence and wide experience of colonial affairs led to his appointment as treasury-general of the Cape Colony in January 1862 until he succeeded R.W. Rawson* as colonial secretary in 1864. He held this post until the Cape was given responsible government in December 1872, a development which he strongly opposed. During these years he strongly advocated the extension of British authority over regions such as the Transkei, Basutoland (now Lesotho), and Griqualand West. When he retired as colonial secretary at the end of 1872 he was created a Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) and appointed as lieutenant-governor of Griqualand-West. He held this post until August 1875, when he returned to the Eastern Cape. In September 1876 he was elected as member of Parliament for Grahamstown, serving until August 1878. He then retired to Wynberg, Cape Town, and in 1891 was honoured as a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in recognition of his services.
Throughout his career Southey participated in the activities of various societies and organisations that promoted science and agriculture. While residing in Grahamstown he was elected a member of the committee of the newly established Eastern Province Agricultural Association in November 1855. By January 1856 he was a member of the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Grahamstown and served on a sub-committee which organised the presentation of classes and lectures to expand the society's role in the community. After this society had been renamed the Literary, Scientific and Medical Society he was elected joint vice-president in June 1856, a position he held to about 1860, and in October 1858 was elected a trustee of the society's Albany Museum. Meanwhile in May 1858 The Albany Agricultural Society was founded, with Southey as joint vice-president. He was elected its president in July 1859 and re-elected in July 1861.
In 1860 Southey was appointed by the governor as chairman of the newly established Meteorological Committee of the Cape Colony, the first official weather service in southern Africa. The committee initiated meteorological observations at a number of stations, but enthusiasm for the project gradually declined, with the result that no observations were recorded after 1868. Southey remained chairman, if only in name, to 1873. The failure of the committee may well have been caused by his inability to attend to its affairs as a result of more pressing official duties. Meanwhile he had been appointed as one of the three trustees of the South African Museum, Cape Town, in 1864, serving in this position to 1874 (though he was absent from Cape Town during the last two years). In 1877 he became a foundation member of the South African Philosophical Society and remained a member to his death. When the City and Suburban Horticultural Society was established in July 1885 he was elected joint vice-president. Towards the end of his life, in the early eighteen-nineties, he was president of the Western Districts Game Protection Association. In 1898, at the age of 90, he was still a trustee of the Albany Museum and hence an ex-officio member of the Literary, Scientific and Medical Society of Grahamstown.
Southey was married twice, first to Isabella Shaw in 1830, with whom he had five sons, and after her death (in 1869) to Susanna M.H. Krynauw in 1872. He was a prominent freemason and in 1863 was appointed provincial grand master (renamed district grand master in 1866) for South Africa under the Grand Lodge of England. In 1896 he was elected an honorary member of the Lodge De Goede Hoop, Cape Town.