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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Leonard (Len) Ward (1905–2000)

by John Farquharson

Len Ward, the first literary editor of the Canberra Times, was one of those versatile journalists of the old school, who could handle with skill and confidence any assignment a newspaper might throw at them.

During the course of a long and varied career, spanning more than 50 years, he worked as a reporter, editor, motoring editor and correspondent, literary editor and book reviewer. In fact, he continued to read and review books until shortly before his death on Easter Sunday, six days after suffering a heart attack while sitting in the sun, reading a book in the garden of his home in the Canberra suburb of Waramanga. He was 95.

His capacity to review books on almost any subject or genre was reflected throughout his career in journalism, in which he also had a reputation, not only as an authoritative motoring writer, but as a keen newsman. As an editor, no work load was too great to daunt him. Veteran journalist and columnist, David McNicoll, once a colleague on the Sydney Morning Herald, has said of Len that he ‘ensured I would never skip reading a road test’.

Born in Sydney on 2 January 1905, part of his education was undertaken at Trinity Grammar School, before he entered journalism. Some years were spent on Sydney afternoon newspapers, though motoring journalism occupied a good deal of his early career. He was a journalist on Motor Life magazine from 1923 to 1930, before joining the Sydney Morning Herald as motoring correspondent in 1935. He remained at the SMH in that capacity until 1940, when he and three other Herald colleagues, David McNicoll, Harry Williams and Stacey Coote, joined the Militia. They were in camp at Dapto, NSW, in 1940 when volunteers were being sought for a new AIF unit, Seventh Division Cavalry ( an armoured regiment). The four-man SMH contingent all volunteered and went on to serve with the AIF in the Middle East, Cyprus and other theatres of war.

Their troop leader was Lieutenant Sam Hordern, well-known businessman, grazier and community leader until his untimely death in a car accident after the war. Len was the driver of Hordern’s command tank. During 1942 he returned to Australia and was selected to take part in an expedition which turned out to be a highlight of his army service.  In July-August of that year, he joined Cobb Force and took part in an epic motor journey to Cape York Peninsula through one of Australia’s last great tracts of wilderness. The expedition, comprising some 20 vehicles left Landsborough, in southern Queensland, for Cape York, with the object of establishing whether the cleared ribbon of country along the overland telegraph line could be traversed by motor vehicles, as the Government wanted to treble the line to cope with the increasing flood of signals traffic from Papua New Guinea. Three and a half weeks later, Len and a companion toasted each other in unadulterated Scotch as they stood on the northern most tip of mainland Australia and looked out over the sparkling waters of Endeavour Strait.

In February 1943, after having transferred to the 22nd Australian Cavalry Regiment, Len shifted to the Northern Territory Printing and Press Unit. He went over as a journalist and was commissioned as a lieutenant. In August 1944 he was promoted temporary captain before becoming managing editor and officer commanding the unit. He stayed with the unit until demobbed in March 1946 and was placed on the reserve list with the substantive rank of lieutenant. He rejoined the SMH reporting staff and in less than a year was seconded to the Daily Advertiser, Wagga Wagga, on three-months trial as editor. On being confirmed in that position, he resigned from the SMH in October 1947 as the Wagga paper was part of the newspaper group operated by the SMH’s then managing director, the formidable Rupert Henderson.

Ward’s Wagga appointment seems to have owed much to his fine reporting when the SMH assigned him to a country beat covering Orange and Tamworth, NSW. The Herald’s then news editor, Angus McLachlan, in a comment on his work, said, ‘Ward rounded up good stories at Orange, where no support facilities were available to him. At Tamworth, where he has had the advantage of a proof service, he has shown initiative by getting out and chasing stories on his own. In fact, there have been protests from the Tamworth paper that he has been scooping them too often’.

As managing editor of the Wagga Advertiser for 15 years, Ward was regarded as a ‘very fair man’ and is particularly remembered for having fostered the strong sporting coverage for which the paper became noted throughout the Riverina and southern NSW. However, in 1962, he was recruited by Arthur Shakespeare, managing editor of the Canberra Times to do ‘a lightning survey of the possibility of the Canberra Times putting out an afternoon daily and, if his findings were favourable, to take charge of the new project’. In the event, Ward’s advice was that Canberra was not yet ready for an afternoon daily.

Remaining at the Canberra Times, he became acting editor upon the death of Ray Walker and then associate editor when David Bowman, who had been Canberra political correspondent of the Murdoch–owned Adelaide News and assistant editor of the Sunday Mirror, came in as editor. Under Bowman’s editorship, Ward became the paper first literary editor, until succeeded by Virginia Gerratt, when the Canberra Times was sold to the old Fairfax company in 1964 and John Pringle became managing editor. Ward was then appointed motoring editor and continued in that position until his retirement in 1970. However, his connection with the paper was not severed, for he became a regular book reviewer as well as preparing the annual Legacy supplement, which the Canberra Times published for many years. In between time, he also did some proof-reading work for a Fyshwick printing firm.

His work with Legacy had begun in Wagga Wagga in 1954 and continued in Canberra where, for many years, he was responsible for the Legacy Bulletin. Paying tribute to his devoted work for Legacy, ACT branch president Miles Pickering said Len was greatly respected for his wisdom and depth of knowledge, which was often drawn upon. As a journalist, he was, in the words of David McNicoll, one of ‘a great breed, staggeringly proficient at shorthand, never bothering how many hours they worked’.

He is survived by his wife Jean, a stepdaughter and a grandson.

Leonard Ward born Sydney, 2 January 1905; died Canberra, 23 April 2000.

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Ward, Leonard (Len) (1905–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

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