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Hugh Joseph Ward (1871–1941)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Hugh Joseph Ward (1871-1941), by Talma & Co., 1905-15

Hugh Joseph Ward (1871-1941), by Talma & Co., 1905-15

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38782/1040

Hugh Joseph Ward (1871-1941), actor and theatrical entrepreneur, was born on 24 June 1871 at Preston Retreat, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America, son of Hugh Ward, an American-born labourer, and his English wife Mary, née O'Connor. Educated in Philadelphia, at 16 Hugh joined a minstrel troupe and learned his trade with stock companies at Salt Lake City, Denver, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It was a hard school: after twelve years he had a repertoire of over 300 parts and had endlessly 'talked the philosophy of acting' with fellow thespians. On 30 June 1897 he married Mary Grace Miller in St Paul's Cathedral, Pittsburgh.

Accompanied by his wife, Ward visited Australia with Charles H. Hoyt's comedy company, arriving in Sydney on 10 June 1899. He first appeared as the decrepit dude in A Stranger in New York; on tour he also played Ben Guy in A Trip to Chinatown. Engaged as a comedian by J. C. Williamson for the Christmas pantomime, Little Red Riding Hood, Ward then joined Williamson's Royal Comic Opera Company, playing in most of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas and performing his favourite role, Cyrus Gilfillan, in Florodora (1900-01). He was 'one of the greatest masters of make-up known to the Australian stage'.

In July 1903 Ward returned to the United States. At Christmas he was a sensation with his scarecrow dance in the pantomime, Humpty Dumpty, at Drury Lane, London. Described by one critic as 'all on hinges', Ward was a 'slim and dazzling dancer', 'a master of eccentric attitudes'. After a dancing turn at the Empire with Adeline Genée, in December 1904 he again appeared at Drury Lane, this time as a baboon, illustrating the Darwinian theory with grotesque humour. Following a five-month season in Paris, he played for a year in New York under Marc Klaw and Claude Erlanger.

Having organized an English company with George Willoughby, Ward opened in Sydney in May 1906 in The Man from Mexico and toured Australasia for eighteen months. Returning to London in 1908, he formed his own comedy company and played in India, Burma, China and the Straits Settlements. He brought the company to Australia and settled his wife and children in Sydney. Grace Miller Ward became well known on the concert platform and as a teacher of singing; she 'discovered' Gladys Moncrieff. In 1909-10 A Bachelor's Honeymoon and The Fencing Master proved popular throughout Australasia; in New Zealand, Ward raised £27,000 for hospitals in Wellington and at Dunedin. He appeared for the last time on the stage in The Girl from Rector's in Brisbane in April 1911 and joined J. C. Williamson Ltd as managing director in Sydney in May.

Described by Claude McKay as 'well-groomed, middle-sized, with sparkling blue eyes and boyish manner', Ward visited Europe and North America on behalf of the government and from 1913 sat on the advisory committee that chose Henri Verbrugghen as foundation director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. After Williamson's death in 1913, Ward became managing director of 'the Firm', but sometimes differed with (Sir) George Tallis. Ward frequently went abroad in search of plays and talent, competing with the Taits.

Already known for his success in raising money for hospitals in Sydney, to Governor Sir Gerald Strickland Ward was 'the man who starts all the big things'. During World War I he and his wife worked for innumerable patriotic causes; Grace sang at concerts and entertained the troops. Asked by the government to organize Belgian Day, Hugh raised £142,000. He was the moving spirit in promoting 'Australia Day', collected for the Australian Red Cross Society and personally induced subscriptions of over £5 million to the Commonwealth war loans. With the peace, Ward helped to organize victory celebrations and the visits of Viscount Jellicoe, General Sir William Birdwood and the Prince of Wales. Appointed chevalier of the Belgian Order of Leopold II in 1919, Ward was twice unsuccessfully recommended for a knighthood. He was naturalized in 1922.

Resigning as managing director of J.C.W. in 1922, he set up Hugh J. Ward Theatres Pty Ltd in partnership with the Fullers. He was a member of the Green Room Club, London, the White Rats Actors' Union of America and the famous New York club, The Lambs. A founder of the Millions Club (1913), Ward was a director of Sydney Hospital (1918-41). Retiring in 1926, he became a devotee of the cinema; a member of the executive committee for the sesquicentenary celebrations, he tried to arrange the visit of an Empire cricket team in 1938. A 'white-haired, merry-faced veteran', Hughie was a great raconteur who kept friends amused for hours.

Survived by his wife and two sons, Ward died of a coronary occlusion on 21 April 1941 at his Potts Point home and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His estate was sworn for probate at £33,805.

Select Bibliography

  • British Australasian, 20 Apr 1911, 23 Apr 1914
  • Theatre Magazine (Melbourne, Sydney), 1 Aug 1914, p 12, 1 Jan 1918, p 17, 1 Oct 1919, p 17, 2 Aug 1920, p 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 1899, 22 Feb 1917, 26 Mar, 5 Apr 1918, 6 Sept, 27 Nov 1919, 9 Mar 1922, 30 Aug 1923, 1 Oct 1926, 7 Feb 1931, 22 May, 23 Nov 1936, 22, 26 Apr 1941, 28 Dec 1952
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26 Feb, 16 Dec 1900
  • Australasian, 4 July, 19 Dec 1903, 13 Feb 1904, 9, 23 June, 28 July 1906, 18 Sept 1915
  • Bulletin, 5 July 1906, 22 July, 12 Aug 1909, 24 Feb 1910, 18 May 1911
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 27 May 1911, 25 Aug 1915
  • Punch (Melbourne), 4 July 1912, 3 June 1915, 16 Mar 1922
  • Table Talk, 22 Apr 1926
  • CO 440/15 f477, 447/118 f18 (microfilm, National Library of Australia)
  • naturalisation file, A1/28/8913 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Ward, Hugh Joseph (1871–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Hugh Joseph Ward (1871-1941), by Talma & Co., 1905-15

Hugh Joseph Ward (1871-1941), by Talma & Co., 1905-15

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38782/1040

Life Summary [details]


24 June, 1871
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America


21 April, 1941 (aged 69)
Potts Point, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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