George Ridgeon | A wheelchair bowls icon
Obituaries like this one often include the words: ‘There was only one so-and-so…’ But, believe me, there really was only one George Ridgeon (writes David Rhys Jones).
The former firefighter and Isle of Man TT motorcycle racer was paralysed in an accident while fighting a fire in November 1981, but went on to make his mark in bowls, charity work and politics.
He died peacefully at his home in Churchdown in Gloucestershire, on Easter Saturday, just a week-and-a-half after his 78th birthday.
George was 37, and in his prime, when the unsecured ladder on which he was attempting a dramatic rescue from an upper floor of a blazing house collapsed. He was taken to Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where he received the news that he would never walk again.
His spinal injury was such that he had no movement below the waist, and very little above. He was a tetraplegic.
We can only imagine the drive and energy he brought to his activities as a fireman and a racer, but he needed to mine untold depths of defiant determination to respond to this horrific and life-changing event.
The next 40 years bear witness to his strength of character and indomitable spirit. Yes, in those days, the Stoke Mandeville Indoor Bowls Club was based in the grounds of the hospital, which had close ties with the Stoke Mandeville Stadium.
This was where Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a German neurologist, pioneered the use of sport in the rehabilitation of people with spinal injuries, and where he became known as ‘the father of the Paralympic movement’.
George was duly introduced to bowls at Stoke Mandeville. And, as patron of the British Wheelchair Bowls Association for many years, I can testify to the vigour and infectious enthusiasm he brought to our sport.
Energetic, inquisitive and tenacious, he would never take no for an answer. He was a shining example, not only to people who suffer life-changing injuries, but also those of us who could be described as able-bodied.
While paraplegics, paralysed from the waist down, can and do play bowls with no concessions being made, tetraplegics, who have a high spinal lesion – and whose upper-body strength and arm movements are therefore severely affected – are normally thought to be incapable of propelling a bowl to a long jack, even on fast indoor greens, and play a limited game with carpet bowls.
Trouble is – no-one told George about this, and he was hell-bent on playing ‘proper’ bowls on equal terms with his able-bodied friends and rivals. Not only did he succeed in doing so, but, after winning para bowls competitions, he proceeded to join various indoor bowls clubs, and went on to win the club singles title at more than one of them.
He was a popular member of the Fire Service Association Bowls Club, and represented them on many occasions, and he even joined the Professional Bowls Association, and competed in the play-offs for World Bowls Tour events.
In the world of wheelchair bowls, he was an inspirational icon – even when he was being annoying! What a character!
Yes, we knew this was coming. George himself, an avid poster on Facebook, often referred to the limited amount of time he had left. And he held a special birthday party on March 31 this year to say goodbye to his many friends. But the news still came as a shock and made us all very sad.
Yes, there’s no doubt that George Ridgeon will be missed by many – but his influence will still be felt in all sorts of ways. Rest in Peace, George. You certainly made your mark.
Indeed, his funeral service at Gloucester Crematorium proved to be fittingly unusual – it was unlike any funeral I had ever attended.
First of all, the coffin containing George’s body arrived at the Crematorium in a sidecar hearse – a nod to the fact that George once raced motorcycles in the Isle of Man TT. Two fire engines accompanied the motorcycle and sidecar – and a guard of honour was provided by local firefighters.
Emotional and amusing tributes were paid by a couple of his friends, Frank Prentice and Andy Hoare – but the most extraordinary feature of the service came towards the end, when George appeared on a video screen and performed a routine, rather like a stand-up (or in his case sit-down) comedian.
In a message he had recorded especially for the occasion, he ran through the list of things that God was unwilling to allow him to take with him into the beyond, and launched into a series of doctor jokes. “The doctor said, ‘I haven’t seen you for ages!’, to which I replied, I know – I’ve been ill!’”
Thanks for that, George – and for a life full of energy, humour, dynamism and endeavour. Despite your debilitating spinal injury, you were as dedicated a bowler as I have ever met, and you never took no for an answer. You were an inspiration to us all.
A comprehensive tribute to George Ridgeon, referencing his penchant for collecting strange artefacts which included Winston Churchill’s false teeth, and progress on his autobiography Ridgeon Rides Again, which he requested a copy to be sent to Her Majesty the Queen, can be found in the June 2022 issue of Bowls International, the world’s most respected bowling magazine.
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