When Thomas William Ward died in 1926, he had owned during his lifetime enough warships to make up a respectable fleet. He had founded T.W. Ward in 1877 and left what was probably the largest ship-breaking, iron, and machinery business in the world.
Once upon a time, businessmen had looked with suspicion on the scrap iron merchant and second-hand machinery business, but by honesty and square trading, Thomas lifted his business to the pinnacle which commanded the respect of the industrial community.
He was the son of Thomas William Ward of Wadsley Bridge and was born in Sheffield in 1853. He started his business career with Moss and Gamble, and in 1877, aged 24, launched out with his brothers as a coal, coke, and iron merchant. Within five years, he had cleared off obligations incurred in his father’s business and soon added the sale of machinery to his activities, extending the area of operations to deal with obsolete works and battleships.
Thomas had had the idea of dismantling old ships and recycling the material for other ‘useful’ purposes.
The business became a limited company in 1914 and such was the remarkable progress that it embraced 32 distinct undertakings in all parts of the United Kingdom.
The company dismantled many famous works, including Abbots Works, Gateshead; Bowling Ironworks; Kelham Rolling Mills, Sheffield; Derwent Rolling Mills, Workington; Dearne and Dove Works; Birchills Furnaces; West Cumberland and Whittington Works.
Many large battleships and merchant vessels were dismantled at Ward’s works, the list extending into several hundreds, including the steamers Luciana, Adriatic, H.M.S. Inflexible, H.M.S. Dreadnought, H.M.S. Magnificent, H.M.S. Prince of Wales, the German battleships Helgoland and Westfalen, and the steamer Canopie.
After World War One the company bought 1,000 tanks, the record purchase of 115 war vessels from the Admiralty, the acquisition of the Palestine pipeline, the Lartigue Railway, and the Marconi Wireless Station, Cliften, all for dismantling purposes.
Thomas Ward never sought public office but served as a J.P. and in 1913 had the unique honour of serving as president of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce and Master Cutler, both at the same time. He also gave advice to several commissions in connection with the Merchandise Marks Act and the National Insurance Act
While conducting business, he travelled a great deal visiting America, South Africa, Australia, Sweden Norway, Spain, Germany, and Italy.
“I have succeeded because I worked very hard at the beginning, and as a young man I studied mechanics and metallurgy.”
His younger brother, Joseph, was involved in the business from the start, becoming chairman and managing director, while another brother, Arthur, and nephew, Ashley, were joint assistant managing directors. Together they erected an imposing headquarters on Savile Street, known as Albion Works, with other extensive premises at Preston and Wednesbury.
Thomas was a member of the Wesleyan Church, holding many lay offices, and gave generously to the church. He was an enthusiastic horticulturalist, and his gardens at The Grove, Millhouses, and then Endcliffe Vale, were a source of great pride and pleasure to him.
He died at Endcliffe Vale House, aged 72, in 1926, and was buried at Crookes Cemetery.
The company was run by the family until the latter part of the 1950s, by which time there were five divisions – raw materials, construction, engineering, motor distribution and industrial supplies. Through acquisitions the Ward Group consisted over 35 companies by the 1960s, but its fortunes dwindled in the following decades.
The Group was acquired by Rio Tinto Zinc in 1982 but after significant losses an administration order was granted to the parent company, Ward Group, in 1992 and although the subsidiaries traded normally, most were subsequently sold.
The machinery division was acquired by an MBO in 1983 and is now known as T.W. Ward CNC Machinery, still operating at Albion Works.
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