From Ashbrooke to the battlefields of Serbia

SPORTING HISTORY: The creation of Ashbrooke Sports Clubs at West Lawn, several years before William was a member.
SPORTING HISTORY: The creation of Ashbrooke Sports Clubs at West Lawn, several years before William was a member.
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A WEARSIDE historian turned detective to track down details of a Great War hero.

Keith Gregson came across the name William Robert Ridley when researching the 56 men listed on the World War One roll of honour at Ashbrooke Sports Club.

But when Keith – the club’s official archivist and historian – tried to trace further information on the brave sportsman, he hit a brick wall.

“Back in 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany, William was a member of Sunderland Cricket and (Rugby) Football Club,” he said.

“But finding William, and the reason for his appearance on the roll and in the club membership book, took some Sherlock Holmes-type sleuthing.”

The official membership book revealed William was a doctor working at Sunderland Infirmary in 1912, but no further information existed.

Indeed, even after trawling The Genealogist website, Keith could only find one possible match – the doctor son of a Northumberland bank manager.

“The website showed that this particular William had been born in Rothbury in 1881, later qualifying in medicine in Edinburgh,” said Keith.

“But, although he was listed as Royal Army Medical Corps on the Ashbrooke roll, I could find no record of him in any Great War internet records.”

Eventually, Keith decided to try his luck with a general internet search – turning up “half a dozen” valuable hits in the process.

“The Bailiffgate Museum at Alnwick recorded the death of local William Robert Ridley, noting he ‘served with the Serbian Red Cross’,” said Keith.

“Other websites showed his name in a Rothbury memorial book and several war memorials. His award of ‘the Serbian Red Cross’ was also mentioned again.”

Finally, as a last resort, Keith decided to try historic online copies of the British Medical Journal for any further details – and came up trumps.

“The BMJ for December 5, 1914, contained an obituary for William Robert Ridley, who died of dysentery on November 3 at Kragujevatz in Serbia,” he said.

“He had gone out from England in early September to take charge of a field hospital, and was said to have been a genial and friendly sort.

“It was also stated he had worked for some time at Sunderland Infirmary, which cements his link with Ashbrooke – where he must have played rugby, cricket, tennis or hockey.”

Two other online sites helped Keith to complete the story of William – who treated Wearside’s sick and injured for two years before signing up to fight for King and Country.

“The University of Edinburgh First World War Roll of Honour noted that he had studied at Charles Stewart College from 1900 to 1910,” said Keith.

“After that, he had joined the Serbian Medical Service, serving as a major and receiving the Serbian Red Cross Diploma and Decoration.

“A further source of information was a Great War discussion site, which recorded that in 1914 many medics over 30 were recommended to the Red Cross and service in Serbia.

“The RAMC at the time was looking only for men under 30, so the medics would have gone to Serbia – where the war started – as mere civilians.

“With the bravery of medical practitioners in the current Ebola crisis, it is timely to reflect on one who died under vaguely similar circumstances a hundred years ago this month.”

* Keith is author of the book A Tommy in the Family (History Press 2014) and writes a monthly column on the war for Family Tree Magazine.

He can be contacted on