At a very early age, Richardson was apprenticed to a printer, whose daughter he eventually married. He lost his first wife along with their five sons, and eventually remarried. With his second wife, he had four daughters who reached adulthood, but no male heirs to continue running the printing business. While his print shop slowly ran down, he wrote his first novel at the age of 51 and immediately became one of the more popular and admired writers of his time.
Richardson knew leading figures in 18th-century England, including Samuel Johnson and Sarah Fielding. He was also close friends with the eminent physician and behmenistGeorge Cheyne and with the theologian and writer William Law, whose books he printed. At the special request of William Law Richardson printed various poems by John Byrom. In the London literary world, he was a rival of Henry Fielding, and the two responded to each other's literary styles in their own novels.
His name was on the ''Index Librorum Prohibitorum'', a list established by the Pope containing the names of books that Catholics were not allowed to read.