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Edward John (Eddie) Ward (1899–1963)

by Ross McMullin

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Edward John Ward (1899-1963), by unknown photographer, 1956

Edward John Ward (1899-1963), by unknown photographer, 1956

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L21653

Edward John (Eddie) Ward (1899-1963), politician, was born on 21 March 1899 at Darlington, Sydney, fourth child and elder son of native-born parents Edward James Ward, tramway labourer, and his wife Mary Ann, née Maher. Known to his family as Ned, he grew up in a Catholic working-class family at Surry Hills. He began his education at the convent school of St Francis de Sales, but the small fees were beyond the family budget; he was transferred to Cleveland Street then Crown Street Superior Public schools. His militancy was already apparent: he organized a snap strike against school 'conditions' (which failed when classmates deserted him). Leaving school at 14, he had a succession of jobs—fruit-picker, printer's devil, hardware-store clerk and tarpaulin-maker.

World War I reinforced Ward's radical instincts. He joined the local branch of the Political Labor League at 16, the earliest possible age, and his active involvement in the 1917 general strike cost him his job at the Eveleigh railway workshops. Itinerant employment ensued. A non-smoking teetotaller, he busied himself with boxing and athletics, educational reading (a lifelong priority) and the pursuit of his future wife Edith Martha May Bishop, a packer from Parramatta. Six feet (183 cm) tall and solidly built, he was strong and fit; he boxed professionally to supplement his erratic income but was frequently broke—sometimes after visiting Edith he walked some 16 miles (26 km) home to Surry Hills.

On 27 September 1924 Ward married Edith at St Patrick's Church, Parramatta. He toiled as a labourer and chainman on the tramways, and consolidated his reputation as a fiery orator and pugnacious class warrior. Capable and committed, he became a prominent militant in his union, president of the Surry Hills branch of the Australian Labor Party and an alderman (1930-34) on the Sydney Municipal Council. His advancement in the strife-torn State labour movement was accelerated by his admiration for Jack Lang and friendship with Jack Beasley. He was Beasley's campaign director in the 1929 Federal election, which ushered in the Scullin government.

Ward gained pre-selection for a Federal by-election in the Labor stronghold of East Sydney, which he won on 7 March 1931. His arrival in Canberra as an uncompromising Lang supporter increased tensions in the government. On 12 March, at his first caucus meeting, he joined Beasley and four other Langites in a walk-out, and eight months later they voted with the Opposition to bring down the government. In the ensuing landslide on 19 December even East Sydney was captured by the United Australia Party. Ward, however, was reprieved: J. J. Clasby, who unseated him, died within a month. In the fiercely contested by-election on 6 February 1932—Lou Cunningham stood on behalf of federal Labor (the 'official' A.L.P.)—Ward narrowly beat Bill McCall to regain his seat. The 'Firebrand of East Sydney' was to hold it until his death.

With his machine-gun oratory and hard-hitting style most suited to Opposition, Eddie Ward (as he was publicly known) established himself as a formidable parliamentary 'bomb-thrower'. He gradually distanced himself from Lang as the ex-premier's influence waned and the Langites rejoined (1936) the federal A.L.P., now led by John Curtin. In the face of disturbing international developments, Ward maintained his iconoclastic isolationism and exacerbated the complex challenges confronting Curtin. Renewed upheaval in New South Wales resulted in 1940 in another A.L.P. split, but this time Ward did not join Lang and Beasley in breaking away.

Minister for labour and national service from 7 October 1941, Ward openly opposed and frequently unsettled Prime Minister Curtin. He and Arthur Calwell became known as the 'terrible twins'. Amid searing exchanges on conscription, Curtin broke down after Ward accused him of 'putting young men into the slaughterhouse, although thirty years ago you would not go into it yourself'.

Although he was a generally competent administrator, what Ward accomplished as a minister was overshadowed by his notorious agitation concerning the 'Brisbane Line'. In pursuing sensational allegations with characteristic vindictiveness, he was evidently prompted by information he believed genuine. Curtin abetted him for political reasons, then suspended him from the ministry while an abortive royal commission evaluated an aspect of the controversy. Ward's campaign enraged the Opposition and helped Labor to win the 1943 general election, but he was demoted to the portfolios of transport and external territories on 21 September; Curtin observed that the 'Japs have got the external territories and the army's got the transport'.

Ward had a more amiable relationship with Ben Chifley, but maintained his hostility to policy initiatives he found unpalatable, most notably, during the Chifley government, the ratification (1947) of the Bretton Woods international monetary agreement and the 'monstrous' measures to quash the 1949 coalminers' strike. In 1948 he again stood down temporarily as a minister after an old Langite friend, John Garden, implicated him in corruption. Garden, exposed as a liar and forger, was gaoled; Ward was exonerated by a royal commission.

Following Labor's defeat on 10 December 1949, Ward spent the remainder of his career in Opposition. Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies was a favourite target; observers enjoyed their jousts. Ward described Menzies as a 'posturing individual with the scowl of Mussolini, the bombast of Hitler, and the physical proportions of Goering', and was fond of saying that Menzies' burgeoning military career had been halted by the outbreak of World War I.

Les Haylen regarded Ward as an unusual 'Labor ranter', being 'meticulously dressed, his iron grey hair swept back from his forehead . . . He looked like a dentist ready to drill. He had a rocket take-off—not for him, the preamble, the body of the speech, the lead off and the peroration. He was airborne from the time his hand hit the table'. An opponent, Sir Percy Spender, found him 'a formidable antagonist, a supremely confident demagogue, and an outstanding rabble-rouser' who 'spat out his vituperations as lava erupts from a volcano'. To Ward's colleague Gil Duthie, he was a 'devastating verbal swordsman' whose 'whole life was wrapped up in politics'. The journalist Edgar Holt discerned an 'air of an East Sydney Robespierre, a pea-green incorruptible with an Australian accent'.

Ward shunned vulgar anecdotes, did not swear and refused to wear a dinner suit. In private he could be amiable and amusing, but not with Labor's opponents—to him they were 'enemies inside the House and enemies outside'. He was a successful litigant in libel cases, receiving lucrative damages. His dramatic exposés were a product of careful preparation and an unrivalled intelligence network. Even friends were wary of him; he had a dossier on every Liberal and, Clyde Cameron suspected, 'on most of his colleagues as well'.

During Labor's internecine strife in the 1950s Ward was a predictably fierce adversary. His prominence in fighting Menzies' Communist Party dissolution bill (1950) was followed by conduct that inflamed the Labor caucus ructions. More than once during this tumultuous period he involved himself in fisticuffs with colleagues. His unforgiving hostility to Labor 'rats' was underlined when he refused to attend a function honouring Billy Hughes's fifty consecutive years as a parliamentarian, explaining that he did not eat cheese.

Ward's bids for the deputy leadership in 1946, 1950, 1951 (twice) and 1956 were unsuccessful, as was his challenge to Bert Evatt's leadership after the 1958 election. His narrow defeat by E. G. Whitlam in 1960 when he had been expected to become Calwell's deputy rankled most of all. Embittered, he remained assiduous as ever in his parliamentary duties, but was sidelined with heart disease and diabetes mellitus for months in 1960-61. He joked that his first inkling of ill health came when he 'took a swing at Gough Whitlam—and missed'.

By 1962 Ward had been a member of the House of Representatives for three decades, a longer uninterrupted span than anyone else then serving; no member since Federation had matched his fourteen suspensions. In May 1963, on the last sitting day before the winter recess, he was again suspended; he never returned. Survived by his wife, and their daughter and son, he died of myocardial infarction on 31 July that year at St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney; he was accorded a state funeral and was buried with Catholic rites in Randwick cemetery.

Heartfelt eulogies underlined how much rank-and-file 'true believers' relished his implacable combativeness. Calwell later described him as an irrepressible fighter and unrelenting hater. Curtin had dismissed him as a 'bloody ratbag'. Some commentators highlighted his limited horizons and achievements. On the other hand Arthur Hoyle believed that many of Ward's generation revered 'the most authentic voice that the working class in Australia has had'.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Spratt, Eddie Ward (Adel, 1965)
  • L. Haylen, Twenty Years' Hard Labor (Melb, 1969)
  • E. Holt, Politics is People (Syd, 1969)
  • G. Duthie, I had 50,000 Bosses (Syd, 1984)
  • D. Connell, The Confessions of Clyde Cameron 1913-1990 (Syd, 1990)
  • R. McMullin, The Light on the Hill (Melb, 1991)
  • A. Hoyle, Eddie Ward (Canb, 1994)
  • P. Burns, The Brisbane Line Controversy (Syd, 1998)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Aug 1963
  • Ward papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ross McMullin, 'Ward, Edward John (Eddie) (1899–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Edward John Ward (1899-1963), by unknown photographer, 1956

Edward John Ward (1899-1963), by unknown photographer, 1956

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L21653

Life Summary [details]


21 March, 1899
Darlington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


31 July, 1963 (aged 64)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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.