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. He graduated as senior moderator in classics and modern literature, and at the same time attained a remarkable collection of academic prizes. He then advanced to Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he stayed for two years until he moved to Gonville and Caius College, where he was elected scholar. He came in fifth in the classical tripos of 1880, and in the same year 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 found success in his appointment 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 areas.
Although in many ways a reformer, Ridgeway was no liberal, but instead a forthright traditionalist, resisting institutional reforms in Cambridge University such as the proposals to allow women to take degrees, and plans to drop Greek as a compulsory subject. He was clearly a figure who changed many minds in many ways, but his temperament was such that he would not allow his to be changed. It was perhaps a consequence of this sternly traditionalist mindset that his work lost its relevance rather more quickly 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. They 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 were presented on his sixtieth birthday in 1913.