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William Ridley (1819–1878)

by Niel Gunson

This article was published:

William Ridley (1819-1878), Presbyterian minister, was born on 14 September 1819 at Hartford End near Chelmsford, Essex, England, son of William Ridley, miller, and his wife Maria, née Dixon. Reared in a prosperous Dissenting family, he was educated at King's College, University of London (B.A., 1842), and put aside a legal career for conscientious reasons. Rejected by the London Missionary Society because he had once held Plymouth Brethren beliefs, in 1849 he was recruited by Rev. J. D. Lang and arrived at Sydney in the Clifton on 19 March 1850. He hoped to work with the Aboriginals, but was persuaded to become classics professor at the Australian College.

In 1850 Ridley was ordained in the Scots Church by Lang and on 11 April married Isabella, daughter of Rev. J. R. Cotter, rector of Donoughmore, Cork, Ireland. In 1851 he was appointed to Dungog where friendship with an Aborigine, Harry of Bungulgully, and the failure of Lang's Grafton mission led him to reconsider Aboriginal work and in May 1853 he began a widespread itinerant ministry in the New England district. In 1855 he extended his mission to Moreton Bay, formed the Moreton Bay Aborigines Friends' Society in February and itinerated through the Darling Downs. His Report … of a Journey Along the Condamine, Barwan and Namoi Rivers (Sydney, 1855) was reprinted by Lang in 1861. He published Gurre Kamilaroi: or Kamilaroi Sayings in Sydney in 1856. The same year he refused to be reordained by Bishop Barker and his proposed mastership of an Anglican Aboriginal institution lapsed.

Frustrated and indigent, Ridley resumed parish work in 1857 with the United Presbyterian Church of Victoria at Portland. Next year he returned to pastoral work in Sydney because of his wife's health and in 1861 became a journalist. As assistant editor of the Empire, and then editor of the Evening News in 1873, and the Australian Town and Country Journal, he won repute for his writing and 'English liberal' political views. He also helped to edit the Australian Witness for two years and wrote for the Sydney University Magazine.

Ridley served on committees of the Presbyterian Church, founded a Presbyterian cause at Kogarah, and preached most Sundays until his death. In 1864 he gained an M.A. at the University of Sydney; in 1867 he helped to found St Andrew's College there and became a theological tutor in 1875. A competent linguist, he had learnt Gaelic and, in 1877, Chinese in order to take charge of the Chinese Mission in Sydney, but devoted much of his time to his Aboriginal studies. With Dr R. Steel he obtained government aid for the Maloga mission. Besides contributions to learned societies Ridley published Kamilaroi, Dippil, and Turrubul: Languages Spoken by Australian Aborigines (Sydney, 1866), revised and enlarged as Kamilaroi and Other Australian Languages in 1875: it won him the acclaim of ethnologists, notably Professor Max Müller. He also contributed to the works of R. B. Smyth and E. M. Curr and several of his sermons and lectures were published.

Ridley treated all men with equal consideration and earned a reputation for transparent goodness. Even-tempered, his friendship with Lang was 'never once broken by a quarrel'. Always delicate, he succumbed to overwork, died of apoplexy at Paddington on 26 September 1878 and was buried in the Devonshire Street cemetery, survived by his wife, two sons and four daughters. His journal, which he kept as a young man, was published in Sydney in 1892.

Select Bibliography

  • J. D. Lang, Queensland, Australia (Lond, 1861)
  • J. J. Westwood, The Journal of … (Melb, 1865)
  • G. King, Reminiscences (Syd, 1887)
  • A. D. Gilchrist (ed), John Dunmore Lang, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1951)
  • J. Greenway, Bibliography of the Australian Aborigines and the Native Peoples of Torres Strait to 1959 (Syd, 1963)
  • N. Gunson, Australian Reminiscences and Papers of L. E. Threlkeld, vol 2 (Canberra, 1974)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1883, 3, 930
  • Sydney University Magazine, Oct 1878
  • Life (Sydney), 2 Oct 1878
  • Town and Country Journal, 5 Oct 1878
  • Sydney Mail, 12 Oct 1878
  • J. D. Lang papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Colonial Secretary's papers, special bundles 1871-75 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Niel Gunson, 'Ridley, William (1819–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


14 September, 1819
Hartford End, Essex, England


26 September, 1878 (aged 59)
Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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