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Mel Ward




© Warren Fahey

WARD, CHARLES MELBOURNE (1903-1966), actor, naturalist and marine collector, was born on 6 October 1903 in Melbourne, younger son of American-born parents , 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 and 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 filmmakers to New Guinea in 1932, he became interested in the people and collected artifacts 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.

(Australian Dictionary of Biography Online)

As a keen bushwalker and youth hosteller in the early 1960s I visited Mel Ward every time I went to Katoomba (there was a YHA hotel in Katoomba). He was always extremely generous with his time and loved the fact I was interested in Australian bush song and traditions. I was fascinated with him and his somewhat eccentric museum. It was difficult to miss him if you visited the Three Sisters as his ‘museum’ was on the same strip.

In 2006 I looked at his manuscript collection in the State Library of New South Wales and was surprised to read several handwritten articles (and drafts) on various aspects of folklore. Mel obviously had a very loose interpretation of ‘folklore’ and used it liberally as a series of ‘curious histories’. These included ‘The Folklore of Swords’ (his father had left him a collection), ‘The Folklore of Happiness’ (he was a pioneer ‘self improvement’ writer), ‘The Folklore of Birds’, and so forth. There were also short form drafts of subjects that he was considering giving the ‘Folklore of…..’ treatment to.

Mel was of stocky physique, sunburnt, and had an imposing grey beard. I thought he looked very mysterious – a cross between a hermit and a philosopher.

I was delighted to find in the collection (three boxes) a roneoed form and a selection of responses concerning superstitions in Australia. The form, distributed on behalf of an American folklorist, was foolscap, undated (but most probably circa 1960) and offered:

Dear Friend,

We have been requested by Mrs Kring, a student of Folklore from the United States, to collect Superstitions prevalent in the white communities of Australia. She is tracing the beliefs of the peoples of the British Isles, so does not require Australian Aboriginal superstitions. So if you have any handed down in your family we hope you will help us to carry out this research as a friendly gesture to an American student by filling in this form and returning it to us.

With anticipation of your cooperation,

Mel. Ward
‘Pyala Museum’ Echo Point

The form then continued with the following sections:

Birth date and Place
Nationality Background
Source of superstition

And a note to ‘use blank side of paper if required..’

I paraphrase some of the documented responses. Since these appear to be the originals I can only surmise they represented some late arrivals that were never forwarded to America. I also note that several informants ignored the request for ‘birth date’, obviously deeming it an inappropriate question for a lady.

Betty Quickfall. B. Rockhampton 1916.
Residing Thornleigh, Sydney.

Never walk under a ladder.
Never put new shoes on a table.
Make a wish if you sight an Evening Star.
Cross your fingers if you see a white horse and then make a wish then uncross your fingers at the first sighting of a dog.
(Betty) believes everyone has a lucky number and lucky birthstone.
Break a mirror means 7 years bad luck.
If you see a falling star a relative has fallen pregnant.


Mrs Nita Higgins. B Albury, NSW.

Two knives crossed is a symbol there will be a row (fight).
If you put a garment on inside out it is unlucky to change it.
It is unlucky to cut your nails on a day with ‘r’ in it.
Seeing a magpie means disappointment.
Seeing two magpies brings joy.
A black cat is bad luck (running across your path)
‘See a pin,
Let it lay,
You will have bad luck all day.
See a pin,
Pick it up,
You will have good luck.


Mr Stanley Boyd. B. Cooktown 1888.

Never start a new job on a Friday.
Or the 13th of a month.
‘A whistling woman and a crowing hen are neither fit for God nor men.’
Two knives crossed means an accident that day.
If you meet a cross-eyed person during the day you can expect trouble before you return home at night.
If you spill salt you must throw it over your left shoulder.
If a dog howls on your front step there will be a death in the family.


Mrs Mary Riley. B. Katoomba 1928

Never use a loaf of bread with a hole in it. The hole represents a grave.
(You can, however, use the bread for puddings, breadcrumbs etc)


Ivy Adams. B 1912

Bad luck come sin 3’s
No umbrella should be opened in the house – very bad luck.
Do not give cutlery to a friend as a present as it breaks the friendship.


Gary Young. B. 1949
Never light a third cigarette from the one match.
If you do a thing wrong twice you’ll do it wrong again.
Don’t sweep dirt out the front door as it wills weep your luck out.


Mrs Colles. B Perth.

Never give parsley seeds as a gift as it gives sorrow.
Never put May blossoms in your house – very unlucky.
One crow means good luck
Two crows means bad luck
Three crows means a wedding
Four crows means a burying.