William Ridgeway was born on 6 August 1858 in King’s County, Ulster, to Marianna and the Reverend John Henry Ridgeway. He was sent to Portarlington School and studied at Trinity College, Dublin, from which he graduated as senior moderator in classics and modern literature. Having attained a remarkable collection of academic prizes, he advanced to Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he stayed for two years before moving to Gonville and Caius College. There he was elected scholar and, in 1880, came in fifth in the Classical Tripos and was elected Fellow.
In 1881 Ridgeway was turned down in his application to fill a vacancy on the classical staff at Gonville and Caius College. Two years later he was appointed to the chair of Greek at University College, Cork. During this period he still retained an attachment to Cambridge, and was able to spend just under half of every year there. In 1892 he returned to Cambridge permanently, having won the Disney Chair in Archeology. Then, in 1907, he advanced yet further to the Brereton Readership in Classics. Numerous honours were bestowed upon him in recognition of his scholarship, including honorary doctorates from the universities of Dublin (1902), Manchester (1906), Aberdeen (1908) and Edinburgh (1921).
Ridgeway’s work and teaching ranged over philology, anthropology, archaeology and the classics. His two most significant works, The Origin of Metallic Currency and Weight Standards (1892), and The Early Age of Greece (1901) (the second volume of which was published posthumously in 1931), were of significance to all of these fields of study. His first work rejected the orthodox view that Greek coins developed from a religious beginning, and that many objects once thought of as items involved in ritual and worship were actually used for barter and commerce. The first volume of The Early Age of Greece revised accepted views on the Myceans, and the Homeric Achaeans of the Iron Age and their immigrant sources. In these and other cases, Ridgeway’s work was quickly accepted despite strong resistance from certain parties.
Although in many ways a reformer, Ridgeway was no liberal; he was a forthright traditionalist, resisting institutional reforms in Cambridge University such as the proposals to allow women to take degrees and to drop Greek as a compulsory subject. It was perhaps a consequence of this sternly traditionalist mindset that his work lost its relevance faster than his contemporaries expected. The assumptions and approach of his later work did not so much challenge existing thought, but were more challenged by a changing world. Nevertheless, he made an enduring mark on the establishment. As a result of his influence, the Cambridge school of anthropology was founded. He received a knighthood in 1919.
Ridgeway died suddenly from illness at Fen Ditton, on 12 August 1926, just three months after the death of his wife, Lucy, who he had married in 1880.
Other works by Ridgeway include The Origin and Influence of the Thoroughbred Horse (1905), Who were the Romans? (1907), The Origin of Tragedy, with Special Reference to Greek Tragedians (1910), Dramas and Dramatic Dances of Non-European Races (1915). A volume of Essays and Studies in Honour of William Ridgeway was presented on his sixtieth birthday in 1913.