Thursday, August 24, 2023


Mackay and Whitsunday Life


Melbourne (Mel) Ward - one of the “characters” of the island history of the Whitsundays.

Born in Melbourne in 1903 (hence his name), Mel Ward was the son of Hugh J. Ward, a well-known American theatrical entrepreneur of the early 1900s. This led to Mel’s taking to the stage early in his life as an acrobatic dancer, musician and comedian. However, he soon tired of that life and in the 1920s retired from the stage to pursue his hobby and obsession, marine zoology; a field in which he became an internationally acknowledged expert and an honorary lecturer to the Australian Museum in Sydney.  A small red crab which he discovered on a Queensland beach in his early days was named after him - Cleistostoma wardii.

Mel’s connection with the Australian Museum led to his becoming a private lecturer on marine life to members of the Embury Expeditions which had their first outing on Lindeman Island in December 1928, a role for which he was well suited, his theatrical background giving him the ability to make his lectures entertaining and absorbing. (The story of the Embury expeditions were detailed in earlier editions of this paper – March 3 and March 10)

In the accompanying photo of Mel with a catch as big as himself and taken during the Embury Expedition, he comes across as the character and extrovert he was and it confirms a description of him in the Australian Dictionary of Biography - “Sun browned and stocky with big blue eyes and a mass of curly hair.”

Mel’s experience on Lindeman Island must have made a big impression on him because, in 1933, he and his wife, Halley,* moved to Lindeman Island to take up residence in the old bungalow which had served earlier as the main living quarters for guests to the island.  There, until 1935, Mel conducted a detailed study of the island’s marine ecology, along the way setting up a small museum of marine life in one half of the bungalow.  Once again, his background served him well in entertaining visitors to his museum. In fact, he and his wife more directly entertained visitors to the island by playing duets on saxophone and guitar.

When the association of the Nicolson family with Mackay Tours in developing the island’s tourist potential was concluded, a syndicate was formed to carry on the task. It comprised of Angus Nicolson, George Gordon-MacLeod and Mel Ward but, in 1935, he resigned from the syndicate, selling his shares to Lachlan Nicolson who later was to become the leading figure in the development of the resort.  

Thereafter, Mel returned to Double Bay in Sydney to take an increasing interest in indigenous people and their relationship with local flora and fauna.  During World War II, he became an honorary entertainer and lecturer to the Australian Army Education Service and taught Australian jungle fighters tropical hygiene and how to live off the land in the Dorrigo rainforest. In 1943, he moved to the Blue Mountains to open his Gallery of Natural History and Native Art at the Hydro Majestic Hotel.  

Mel Ward died on October 6, 1966 at Medlow Bath in the Blue Mountains. Thus passed a man of extraordinary talent, known in world-wide zoological circles for his research capabilities and achievements and one of the characters in the history of the Whitsunday Islands.  

* It is the understanding that Halley was born in 1910 and named after Halley’s Comet which made a spectacular display when it passed by in April that year.

Story and photo courtesy of Proserpine Historical Museum and “The Whitsunday Islands – An Historical Dictionary” by Ray Blackwood.

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