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John Manning Ward (1919–1990)

by Julia Horne

This article was published:

John Manning Ward (1919-1990) historian and vice-chancellor, was born on 6 July 1919 at Burwood, Sydney, eldest of three children of New South Wales-born Alexander Thomson Ward, commercial traveller, and his Queensland-born wife Mildred Boughay, née Davis. Raised in a Presbyterian family, John was educated at Fort Street Boys’ High School. He overcame deafness to win a public exhibition and studied at the University of Sydney (BA, 1939; MA, 1945; LL.B, 1946). Among his professors were (Sir) Stephen Roberts (history) and John Anderson (philosophy), whom Ward believed personified ‘that secular tough-mindedness that Melbourne critics so often detect in Sydney’. Roberts, ironically a product of the University of Melbourne’s history department, was an important influence on Ward.

Declared medically unfit for service in World War II, Ward worked for the retired premier of New South Wales, (Sir) Bertram Stevens, as well as completing his degrees and lecturing in history at the University of Sydney from 1944. He was admitted to the Bar on 12 March 1948, but never practised. A book based on his master’s thesis, British Policy in the South Pacific (1786-1893), was published in 1948.

In 1949 Ward succeeded Roberts as the Challis professor of history. While voyaging to England to take up a Dominion fellowship at St John’s College, Cambridge, he met Patricia Bruce Webb, a former student of the University of Sydney’s history department; they married on 2 November 1951 at the Presbyterian Church, West Kirby, Chester. She was in Britain as part of a teachers’ exchange to study the school library movement. Subsequently, she retrained as a librarian, pioneering the local studies library movement in Australia.

During his tenure at the history department in Sydney Ward presided over the parsimony of the 1950s and the boom of the 1960s and early 1970s, a consequence of Sir Keith Murray’s 1957 report on Australian universities. The history department expanded from a staff of three to thirty-nine, continuing the established expertise in ancient and European histories, as well as creating specialist positions in American, Asian, Australian and medieval history.

Ward’s principal intellectual interests were in British colonial expansion, especially the ‘making of a ‘‘self-governing empire”’, a theme explored in both British Policy in the South Pacific and in Empire in the Antipodes: The British in Australasia 1840-1860 (1966). His work in Australian history was circumscribed by this interest in the British Empire and the belief that Australians were ‘derivative Britons’, but he rarely engaged with contemporary nationalist debates in Australian history. Defined by a strong curiosity in the practical effect of legal systems, his work included studies of the emergence of the liberal-democratic state such as Earl Grey and the Australian Colonies 1846-1857 (1958) and his acclaimed Colonial Self-Government: The British Experience 1759-1856 (1976), in which Ward challenged past interpretations of Lord Durham’s 1839 report on the affairs of British North America, and asserted the significance of colonial self-government and democracy for the whole Empire. In later years he embarked on a study of Australian conservatism, with James Macarthur: Colonial Conservative, 1798-1867 (1981), the first of a planned trilogy. The second volume, The State and the People: Australian Federation and Nation-Making, 1870-1901 (2001), was in draft form when he died.

As head of the department Ward presided over its modernisation, including its commitment to supporting new disciplinary fields. He maintained the executive decision-making role of professor and department head, rarely consulting departmental colleagues except informally. Nonetheless, the history department changed to a system of democratic governing more easily than many other university departments. A pragmatic approach underlay his liberal-conservative style. When the time came to replace the university’s professorial board with a partially elected academic board, effectively ending the era of the ‘god-professor’, he approached the task dispassionately despite deploring this assault on professorial authority. He had been appointed to oversee the transition, and acted constructively, if conservatively, to create the best possible form of academic government rather than be an obstructive renegade for a lost cause.

This relatively smooth transition probably brought Ward’s administrative skills in chairing (1974-77) the professorial, then academic, board to the attention of the university senate. Long attracted to the role of senior administration, he had been dean of arts in 1962 but believed that his hearing impediment would thwart his prospects. When approached, he served as deputy vice-chancellor (1979-81) and vice-chancellor (1981-90). On retirement in January 1990, he said that he wished to be remembered ‘as the Professor of History who unexpectedly became Vice-Chancellor’.

Ward’s style of leadership reflected the approach he admired in certain historical figures, not seeking ‘change for its own sake’, yet also not holding ‘obstinately to practices which must prove fatal to his or her most cherished principles’. He sought reform within the university, in the structure of senior management, the programs offered to graduates, and the establishment of a faculty of education. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to reform the faculties of arts and economics, where his interventions were resisted and labelled by some as reactionary. The Federal government’s introduction of the unified system of higher education was a change he broadly agreed with, but not without warning of ‘the subordination of higher education to the Ministry’ and the consequent undermining of Australia’s intellectual life. In responding to these reforms, he secured for the university five former colleges, including the Sydney Institute of Education and the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. These acquisitions resulted in a diversified curriculum and a considerable increase of students and staff.

A tall, lean man, who wore three-piece light grey suits, Ward had a natural courtesy with a formal Oxbridge manner. He served on the New South Wales working party of the Australian Dictionary of Biography for its first ten volumes. In 1983 he was appointed AO and in 1990 was awarded an honorary doctorate of the University of Sydney. Interested in railway history, he was a supporter of 3801 Ltd, the company that restored the historic steam engine. On 6 May 1990 he travelled on a special charter of the 3801. After a Sydney-bound commuter train ran into the back of the vintage train at Brooklyn, he died of multiple injuries. His wife and their elder daughter also died. Survived by his younger daughter, he was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Pascoe, The Manufacture of Australian History (1979)
  • B. Caine et al (eds), History at Sydney, 1891-1991 (1992)
  • W. F. Connell et al, Australia’s First, vol 2 (1995)
  • Teaching History, vol 9, pt 1, 1975, p 22
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 75, pt 1, 1989, p 3, vol 76, pt 2, 1990, p 83
  • Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, vol 19, no 2, 1991, p 129
  • Australian, 8 May 1990, p 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 1990, p 8
  • U. Bygott and W. Connell, interview with J. Ward (typescript, 1987, University Sydney archives)
  • Ward papers (University Sydney archives)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Julia Horne, 'Ward, John Manning (1919–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 July, 1919
Burwood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


6 May, 1990 (aged 70)
Brooklyn, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

train accident

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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