Edward Joshua Riddiford was born on 7 August 1842 at the Hutt, Wellington, the third of 12 children of Harriot Stone and her husband, Daniel Riddiford, an emigration agent in the New Zealand Company. Around 1845 the family took up residence near the mouth of the Orongorongo River, 30 miles from Wellington. On 1 April 1848 Daniel Riddiford acquired a lease from local Maori of 7,000 acres of the Orongorongo lands between the Wainuiomata River and the Mukamuka Stream and the family moved again. In 1848 or 1849 he leased Te Awaiti, an unbroken 30,000-acre block on the east coast of Wairarapa, and during the 1850s he purchased 500 acres of the Orongorongo run and 44 acres at Woburn.
Edward Riddiford attended Christ's College, Christchurch, from 1857, and he and his two friends, Willie Fitzherbert and Alexander Bowler, introduced a primitive form of football (using a bullock's bladder) to the school. At the age of 16 Edward was sent to live with his paternal grandmother, Harriet Evans, in Melbourne, Australia, where he attended Scotch College. At the age of 18 or 19 he spent six months droving cattle from Queensland to Victoria.
In 1861 Edward headed for the goldfields in Otago, New Zealand. While there he received a letter from his mother urging him to 'waste no more time in vain speculations' and to return home immediately: 'I am not satisfied with Te Awaiti. There is much to be done to put it in proper training, and I consider, dear Edward, you are the person who ought to do it'.
Edward Riddiford was appointed manager of Te Awaiti in 1862. The land, with its dense bush and precipitous hills overlooking an exposed coastal strip, had scarcely been farmed. Two Highland shepherds were the sole employees. Edward had no one to guide him and 'very little money to make both ends meet'. Over the years the land was gradually broken in, but profits were slow-growing. Eventually, Edward was also asked to manage the Orongorongo property, and by 1869 he established the Romney stud flock which was to bring wealth and fame to that run. On his father's death in 1875, Orongorongo, Te Awaiti and Woburn passed to Edward.
At Te Awaiti and Orongorongo Edward Riddiford interacted constantly with the local Maori population, as he had done when he was a child. He spoke their language, employed them, shod their horses, and bartered domestic products, foodstuffs and clothing for crops and wild pork. He played cards and drank with the men; he slept with the women. Out of admiration for his forceful leadership, commanding personality, and physical prowess the Maori called him 'King'. Because of his influence, Riddiford was able to acquire Maori land for leasehold or freehold on favourable terms.
Not quite six feet tall, Riddford had powerful shoulders, dark hair, a ruddy complexion and a heavy black moustache. He was very hard-working, a skilled horseman and able to withstand extremes of fatigue. When the Ruamahanga River was in flood he would be the first to swim across with the beasts, fetching the canoe for others to use. When returning from military parades at the Hutt (he was a lieutenant in the militia during the 1860s) Riddiford would ride through the night to Te Awaiti, exchanging horses waiting on the way, and on arrival immediately go out on the land with the shepherds.
In the early years at Te Awaiti, Edward Riddiford frequently intervened to prevent men from fighting one another. From time to time he himself used force to settle a dispute, but seems to have regretted doing so. He drank little himself and was contemptuous of others who drank and lost control. He hired steady, sober workers who could be trusted and, except for medicinal purposes and the requirements of managers, alcohol was banned from the station.
On 3 October 1878 at St James' Church, Lower Hutt, Edward Riddiford married Eleanor (Nellie) Caroline Bunny, daughter of the Wairarapa runholder and politician Henry Bunny; she was 17 years of age, he was 36. They were to have four sons and three daughters. Edward bought Nellie a carriage and horses and purchased Fern Grove, a 270-acre farm in the Hutt, for their residence. Because of his immense landholdings and his family connections, Edward was drawn into society and he and Nellie were frequently invited to Government House. While at Fern Grove, Edward accompanied Nellie on her social calls, attended 'at homes', dinner parties and balls, and went to church and the races. He also attended to business matters, including the collection of rent from his Newtown properties.
Riddiford, however, belonged to two worlds. Away from the refined pleasures of the town, he was able to give full rein to his considerable energies. Soon after the wedding, on 18 October, he willingly returned to his responsibilities at Te Awaiti. Nellie was abjectly miserable after his departure – 'wish my lovey was back again' – and occupied herself with calling and her music lessons. In later years she was to reproach Edward, commenting that if she had dropped dead beside him he would not have noticed.
Meanwhile, Edward continued to expand his landholdings. He moved constantly between his properties implementing innovative farming techniques. By 1882 he owned (excluding leasehold) 51,810 acres of country land in Hutt county, Wairarapa and Manawatu, as well as urban land in Lower Hutt and Wellington. He made further purchases in Manawatu in the 1890s and bought Glenburn station, north of Te Awaiti, in 1900 and Tablelands, near Martinborough, a little later. He was a member of the Wairarapa South County Council and the Wellington Agricultural and Pastoral Association, attended highway board meetings and took a keen interest in horse-racing. Riddiford enjoyed litigation and was frequently involved in court cases over such matters as payment of wages, boundary fences, grazing rights and trespass.
In 1892 Edward Riddiford placed his brother-in-law, Oliver Bunny, on Te Awaiti as manager. Bunny received a continual barrage of orders and advice. Times were hard for pastoralists and Edward ordered that staff wages be reduced, that swaggers be fed re-heated scraps only, and that improvements and contracts be halted. To Bunny, Riddiford imparted much of his homespun philosophy: 'business must be attended to before pleasure'; 'the man that is first in with his crop is the first out'; 'there is no sense in singing out when the shoe pinches, provisions must be made before hand'; and 'when once a man deceives me I will never trust him again not even my own brother'. Riddiford's autocratic hold on the station was illustrated by his attempt to influence the men in 1896 to vote for the conservative opposition parliamentary candidate W. C. Buchanan rather than support the 'unblushing corruption and gross extravagance' of Liberal candidate J. T. M. Hornsby.
Edward Riddiford died of a sudden heart attack at Longburn, Manawatu, on 2 May 1911. He was survived by his wife, and three sons and three daughters of his marriage. According to family sources, he died in the arms of long-standing companion Mere Skipworth, with whom he had had a son, Harry Teoti Riddiford. At his death 'King' Riddiford's estates were valued at £584,622. All his property near Palmerston North was sold to pay death duties and his and Nellie Riddiford's sons inherited the Wairarapa lands.