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Ward, Charles Melbourne (1903–1966)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Charles Melbourne Ward (1903-1966), actor, naturalist and marine collector, was born on 6 October 1903 in Melbourne, younger son of American-born parents Hugh Joseph Ward, theatrical manager, and his wife Grace, née Miller, a concert singer. As a child 'Mel' travelled with his parents: his schooling was erratic and included a year (1917) at a private school in New York, and some years at the Marist Brothers' High School, Darlinghurst, Sydney. In 1919 he left school to go on the stage mainly as an acrobatic and eccentric dancer and comedian, making his début in The Bing Boys on Broadway. He played the saxophone and clarinet (claiming to have performed with the first jazz band to appear on the Sydney stage), toured with his father's productions and frequently visited the United States of America.

From early childhood Ward had been fascinated by the crabs he found on beaches and in rock pools; as a schoolboy he haunted the American Museum of Natural History. After a small red crab that he discovered on a Queensland beach was named (1926) Cleistostoma wardi after him, he abandoned the stage for marine zoology. By the late 1920s, he had collected not only in Australia, but also in Samoa, Fiji and Hawaii, along the Atlantic and Californian coasts of the U.S.A., and in Cuba, Panama and Mexico. By using his athletic skills he managed to catch a particular crab that lived in quicksand in Cuba. He was a member (1926), fellow (1936) and life-member (1947) of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales. In 1929 he was elected a fellow of the Zoological Society, London, and appointed honorary zoologist at the Australian Museum, Sydney, where his friends Tom Iredale and G. P. Whitley worked. Ward also belonged to the Royal Australian Historical Society, the Royal, Linnean and Anthropological societies of New South Wales and the Art Galleries and Museums Association of Australia and New Zealand. He published in Australian and international scientific journals.

Possessing independent means, in 1930-31 Ward embarked on a scientific 'Grand Tour': he worked with Dr Mary Rathbun at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, lectured at the British Museum, London, studied in museums in Berlin and Paris, and collected in the Mediterranean. Back in Sydney, he married Halley Kate Foster on 27 October 1931 at the district registry office, Randwick. Accompanying American film-makers to New Guinea in 1932, he became interested in the people and collected artefacts and zoological specimens. In December 1933 the Wards went to Lindeman Island on the Great Barrier Reef as entertainers, playing duets on the clarinet and guitar for tourists. They combed the reef at every low tide. He found turtle-riding 'a fascinating sport, as exciting as anything I know'. Mel set up a museum and laboratory. In the 1930s he collected for the Australian Museum, carried out research for the Raffles Museum, Singapore, and the Mauritius Institute, and exchanged specimens with other museums and collectors. Sun-browned and stocky, he had big blue eyes and 'a mass of curly dark hair'; later he was 'grey-maned'.

They returned to Sydney in 1935, lived at Double Bay, and spent many months on camping trips, collecting and learning Aboriginal lore, as Mel took an increasing interest in indigenous people and their relationship with the local fauna and flora. During World War II Ward, rejected for military service on physical grounds, offered himself as an honorary entertainer, and lecturer to the Australian Army Education Service. Soon he was teaching Australian jungle fighters tropical hygiene and how to live off the land in the Dorrigo rainforest.

In 1943 Ward moved to the Blue Mountains and opened his Gallery of Natural History and Native Art in a long, narrow fibro building at the Hydro Majestic Hotel, Medlow Bath. As well as his own natural history collections, including 25,000 crabs, he had inherited from his father 'old Japanese armour, weapons, and valuable relics from many foreign lands as well as souvenirs of stage productions'. Ward also acquired convict relics, historical documents and rare Australian books. The museum incongruously combined 'old curiosity shop and scientific exhibits'. He delighted in expounding the minutest detail to visitors. In the late 1950s he appeared on television in Channel 9's 'Mickey Mouse Club' and 'Ninepins' show. He wrote for Outdoors and Fishing and lectured to many groups.

Childless, Ward 'adopted' Blackheath Public School: he talked to the boys, taught them bushcraft, let them loose among his collections and helped with the school plays, 'putting on make-up and lending stage props'. He suffered from diabetes mellitus and died of a coronary occlusion on 6 October 1966 at his Medlow Bath home; he was buried with Anglican rites in Blackheath cemetery. His wife survived him. He left his scientific collections and library to the Australian Museum. At least sixteen species or sub-species were named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Devanney, Bird of Paradise (Syd, 1945)
  • People (Sydney), 17 Jan 1951, p 26
  • TV Times, 21 Oct 1961, p 16
  • Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 24 Feb 1967, p 15
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 1929, 7 Aug 1930, 16 Jan, 9 May 1931, 24 Apr 1933, 23 Dec 1937, 16 Sept 1942, 25 May 1943
  • Sun (Sydney), 19 Oct 1966, p 50
  • V. Mauldon, Melbourne Ward's Gallery of Natural History and Native Art (Dip. Museum Studies, University of Sydney, 1989)
  • Ward papers (Australian Museum, Sydney).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Ward, Charles Melbourne (1903–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ward-charles-melbourne-11958/text21433, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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