Sir William Ridgeway. August 6, 1853—August 12, 1926. By Professor J. L. Myres, M.A., F.B.A.

The death of Sir William Ridgeway removes from among us a picturesque figure, a stimulating teacher, and an original and fertile worker. Born in King’s County of an old fighting stock, ipsis Hibernis Hibernior, most of all while protesting that he had nothing to do with them, he went to Cambridge from Trinity College, Dublin, with a fine record of scholarship in ancient and modern literatures, graduated from Gonville and Caius College with high honours in 1880, and was elected in due course to a fellowship there. It had been his not unreasonable expectation that a teaching post would be found for him at Cambridge, but colleges, like china-shops, expect, and indeed require, a technique of handling which does not come naturally to everyone. Ridgeway had his own technique—in research, in controversy, above all in teaching. “I trail my coat before the young men till they learn to hit me,” he would say, “and I like them to hit me hard” : and certainly the game of treading on Ridgeway’s coat was the best sport in the world, if (like the total immersion which usually followed) “the child shall well endure it.”

In 1883 Ridgeway was appointed to the Chair of Greek in University College, Cork. Here, though it was his mood to call it exile, he was in his element, teaching classics in his own inimitable way, composing topical Greek plays for student performance, linking class-work with his own researches and current controversy in vivid digression, writing copiously on every department of humane studies, a staunch friend to the highest interests in Irish education, and during vacation residence —not indeed in Cambridge, but in a delightful old house and garden a mile or two out of town—an acute critic of academical matters there, and one of the founders of a distinguished school of archaeological and anthropological workers. His own output during this period was voluminous, but discursive; he was amassing stores of information, which his lively intellect and scholarly fancy put to the most unexpected and unsettling uses. Wherever he descended, there was a stirring of the waters; and it is no reflection on his work if he raised more questions than he solved.

His appointment to the Disney Chair of Archaeology in Cambridge, in 1892, followed by a Fellowship at his old College, and the Brereton Readership in Classics restored him wholly to the surroundings most congenial to him early enough for his versatile energy to set its mark on the history and the politics of the place. Professing unqualified conservatism on such current problems as the admission of women and Greek-less persons to the University, and ruthless in his handling of them, he will be remembered more justly as a fearless and persuasive advocate of far-reaching innovations in the traditional outlook of the University on the “humanities.” The scientific study of archaeology was clearly distinguished in his mind from the department of aesthetic criticism with which it has sometimes been confused, to the detriment of both those disciplines; and the services which archaeological study is able to render both to literary interpretation and to systematic philology were the more convincingly represented by one who was both a fine scholar and a man who had begun to make his mark in philology before these other interests claimed his chief devotion.

Both in archaeology, therefore, and in the newer subjects of anthropology and ethnography, the liberal provision now made at Cambridge for advanced study owes much to Ridgeway’s advocacy, as well as to his outspoken criticism. But most of all have they been indebted to his personal influence as a teacher and guide of students.  His quiet home at Fen Ditton became, and remained to the end, a place of pilgrimage for travellers, excavators, colleagues in each of his manifold enquiries, as well as for generations of undergraduate friends. If you had to wait for your own talk with Ridgeway, there were sure to be men there whom you had wanted the chance to meet; and there was a gracious presence quietly making everyone most truly at home. The house was a library, a museum, a work-shop. Ridgeway talked best when he was handling one of his many treasures; and even on a journey was seldom without them. On one occasion, at least, the succession of gems and precious stones which he produced from his pockets in the train roused the suspicion of fellow-travellers as to how he had come by them; for his unusual appearance, and abrupt manner of speech, did not at first sight betray the Cambridge professor.

In middle life, Ridgeway took his full share in the work of the London societies interested in his various subjects—his services to the Royal Anthropological Institute are too well known to readers of this journal to need description—and his knighthood was well deserved recognition of work none the less public in its importance, in that it was carried on by personal discussion and private correspondence. His introduction of a deputation to Mr. Asquith as Prime Minister, urging greater facilities for anthropological training and research for civil servants abroad, was skilful and dignified advocacy of a subject very near his heart; and there were many occasions of that kind.

Difficulties of eyesight, which had probably been apparent to bystanders even before they were a serious handicap to Ridgeway himself, gradually restricted the range of his own reading, and made him more dependent on the newer information of his visitors; certainly not diminishing the variety and interest of his own talk, or of the friendly discussions of which he remained the centre. How many fresh notions, or queer bits of knowledge, have been put in suspense till we could discover “what Ridgeway will say about it!”

Among his more systematic writings, the most significant, at the time of its appearance, is probably his “Origin of Metallic Currency and Weight Standards”, published in 1892, the year of his Cambridge appointment. It combines careful metrological researches, in which his interest was lifelong, with those illuminating comparisons between classical and non-European data, in which he delighted, while he was seldom happier than when dispelling other people’s illusions about such arguments. It marked a turning point in the interpretation of ancient measures of weight, and (still more) of value, even more by the width of its outlook, and the robust common-sense of its treatment, than by the permanence of the particular conclusions to which his own study of the data led him.

Of his “Early Age of Greece,” the first volume appeared in 1902. It was a restatement of theories which he had advanced some years before, and his fuller treatment of them was unduly influenced by an unfortunate controversy over his original article in the Journal of Hellenic Studies : still more was his reception of the criticisms, which the book itself provoked, animated by the wish, quite frankly expressed, to “show up those other fellows” in the style of which he was a master. It was indeed current jest at the time that “the second volume would be the third," if it ever appeared—so voluminous were his drafts for the preface to it, in which opponents were to be “justified,” in the Scottish sense of the term. But no second volume came, for all the proof-corrector’s toil: and in great part because the first had “advanced knowledge” in so many directions by the shrewd questions and bold conjectures to which it was for others to supply answer and the test of positive discoveries.

Instead, five years afterwards, we had the "Origin and Influence of the Thoroughbred Horse,” not at first sight a topic relevant to the origin of the Homeric Achseans whose doings had dominated the “Early Age of Greece.” But one of Ridgeway’s early essays had dealt with the stature and other peculiarities of Homeric horses, and he was himself—as befitted his antecedents—as much at home in the stud-farm, as in the coin-room of the British Museum; and while he castigated the vagaries of the comparative method in others, he saw no inconsistency in the careful observation of ducks at Fen Ditton, as a supplement to Darwinian literature. That his arguments proved equally clearly that Egyptian horses were pea-green—as one of his reviewers put it—troubled him not at all; for his book was received with equal delight by lovers of the horse who read no Greek and lovers of Homer who knew little about horses.

In the same year, 1907, he turned from breeds of horses to strains of human descent, in a memorable essay “Who were the Romans?” which restated older arguments for a composite origin in the light of Conway’s researches among Italic dialects and the new anthropological treatment of ancient skulls and portraits. It was the counterpart to his argument about the origin of the Greeks, and a serious contribution to Mediterranean ethnography.

In quite another field, at first sight, his “Origin of Greek Tragedy” (1910), and its sequel “The Dramas and Dramatic Dances of Non-European Races,” put forward exceedingly suggestive and provocative views both about the mature drama of historic Greece, and (once again) about the significance of its peculiar conventions, in relation to that ever-insistent problem of the composition of the Greek people.

In spite of increasing infirmities, Ridgeway remained amazingly active to the end. The death of his devoted wife early in the present year did not prevent him from preparing for the meeting of the British Association—a favourite battleground with him—a paper on the “Origin of the Scottish Race” and he intended to present it in person. But at the last moment the visit was cancelled, and on the day following that on which the paper was to have been read, the end came suddenly, of a strenuous, inspiring, whole-hearted pursuit of “humanity,” in the finest sense of that word, by a man of many interests, many pupils, and many friends; a memorable figure in his own University, and a stimulating force wherever his work was known.    


This obituary first appeared as: Myres, John L.. 1926. 'Sir William Ridgeway. August 6, 1853-August 12, 1926'. Man Vol. 26, pp. 173-175. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

MYRES, JOHN L.. 1926. 'Sir William Ridgeway. August 6, 1853-August 12, 1926'. Man Vol. 26, pp. 173-175. (available on-line:


HADDON, A. C.. 1926. 'Sir William Ridgeway'. Man Vol. 26, pp. 175-176. (available on-line: