Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McNally, Ward (1915–1991)

by P. A. Howell

This article was published online in 2020

Ward McNally (1915–1991), criminal and author, was born on 14 July 1915 at Auckland, New Zealand. His autobiography relates that his birth parents were not married and his father had been killed in action during World War I. In late 1916 he was adopted by Milton Bernard Keane, builder, and his wife Emma Julia Blanche, née Browne; she had already given birth to a daughter. Named Clifford Douglas Keane, he was dressed in tailored clothes, and showered with toys. He was educated locally and enrolled in a children’s club conducted by the Auckland Star.

His adoptive father’s business prospered until the Depression but then collapsed when several clients could not pay their debts. The marriage also broke down and Cliff was shunted between his parents. He began to play truant from school and, falling in with a delinquent set of his contemporaries, bullied other children into surrendering their pocket money or chocolates. In his mid-teens he ran away, living rough in the vicinity of Auckland’s wharves, where he cadged meals from fishermen. His behaviour brought him to the attention of the police and led to spells in reformatories. From 1933 he was, ‘at frequent intervals’ (Auckland Star 1937, 11), convicted of increasingly serious crimes and spent more than eleven of the next sixteen years in prison.

On 22 March 1939 Keane married Joyce Katherine Fowler at the registrar’s office, Auckland. The union was short-lived and they would divorce. In 1942, for twenty-one offences including forgery and housebreaking, he was sentenced to five years hard labour which he served in Mount Eden Prison. He had often used assumed names and was notorious for his escapes from custody, including while under police escort on a train and when being led from a courthouse. During one period of freedom he found refuge in the home of Fr Michael McNally, who was surprised to discover Keane’s skill in creative writing. The priest urged him to study journalism when he was next incarcerated, and helped him to secure the publication of his first journal articles. On regaining his liberty, Keane found that no editor would retain him once they learned of his past.

Keane’s reformation, though, was still incomplete and, to avoid a new charge of robbery with violence, he stowed away aboard a ship bound for Sydney in 1950. Taking up a position as a security officer in Melbourne, he assumed the name ‘Ward McNally,’ having been a ward of the state and after the priest who had helped him. On 17 November 1955 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, he married Joyce Lilian Hall, a New Zealand-born nurse. Among other jobs, he was employed as a journalist in Hobart in the early 1950s, then as assistant editor of the Fiji Times and Herald (1956) and editor of the Centralian Advocate (1962) at Alice Springs, Northern Territory. He was unafraid of ‘twigging the nose of the establishment’ (McQueen 1973, 15) and accumulated powerful enemies. In each case, soon after his employers learned of his criminal background, he was dismissed.

Unwilling to conceal his past any longer, McNally wrote Cry of a Man Running (1968), a frank account of his early years. In 1969 he became public relations officer to the Liberal and Country League of South Australia. His appointment was opposed by the LCL leader and premier, Steele Hall, a mild advocate of progressive social change. McNally was again dismissed because of his history. Four years later he was press officer to Senator James Cavanagh, minister for works in the Whitlam Labor government. But persistent attacks in Queensland’s Legislative Assembly under the protection of parliamentary privilege, denouncing McNally as a notorious criminal, led to another forced resignation. Nevertheless, sociologists lauded his efforts to become reformed in the face of critics (advocates of law and order) who denied ex-convicts the right to take their place in society.

McNally could be abrasive but his experiences had also given him ‘a powerful sense of justice’ (NLA MS 2403). Ever since he had lived in Alice Springs, he had been appalled at the circumstances of Aboriginal people. He wrote scathingly of Australia’s record of poor treatment and discrimination in the press and in several of his books, and appeared in 1973 before the Senate standing committee on the social environment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Likewise he was outspoken about the deficiencies he perceived in rehabilitation programs offered to convicted offenders. Meanwhile, he scraped together a living by journalism, writing books, and receiving small grants from the Commonwealth Literary Fund. His prose had many rough edges and he could never resist a good yarn. Critics claimed that the only books of McNally’s worth reading were those produced by publishers who had engaged skilled sub-editors to iron out their defects. Besides fiction, biography, and autobiography, his output included Australia: The Challenging Land (1965); New Zealand: The Which-Way Country (1966); Australia, the Waking Giant (1969); Goodbye Dreamtime (1973); The Angry Australians (1974); and Aborigines, Artefacts and Anguish (1981). Some were best sellers, reprinted several times.

A minor celebrity, McNally spoke on rehabilitation to clubs and societies, appeared on television, and featured in glossy magazines and the American press. In 1977 his story was the subject of an episode of the television program This Is Your Life. He spent his last decades living quietly in the outer suburbs of Adelaide. Widowed on 24 June 1991, he died on 24 December, during a visit to Brisbane, and was cremated. He was survived by his two sons and two daughters.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Auckland Star. ‘Youth’s Crimes. Career of Five Years. Further Chance Refused.’ 8 April 1937, 11
  • McNally, Ward. Cry of a Man Running. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1968
  • McNally, Ward. Man from Zero. Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1973
  • McQueen, Humphrey. ‘How Political Positions Folded on McNally.’ Canberra Times, 9 November 1973, 15
  • National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA). This Is Your Life. Episode 3/035, recorded 23 September 1977. Ward McNally: Documentation
  • National Library of Australia. MS 2403, Papers of Ward McNally, 1962–1983

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'McNally, Ward (1915–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcnally-ward-29682/text36718, published online 2020, accessed online 29 November 2020.

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