Joseph Ward was born and baptised on 21 August 1817 at Tixall, Staffordshire, England, the son of Anne Redwood and her husband, Joseph Ward, an estate agent and tenant farmer on the Tixall estate. Ward's very broken education included being tutored by a Roman Catholic priest and attending Sedgley Park, a notable Roman Catholic school. Ward was for a period a surveyor and estate agent at Tixall, where he married Martha Redwood on 28 April 1842; they were to have 12 children. After their marriage Joseph and Martha Ward, and members of Martha's family, emigrated to Nelson, New Zealand, on the George Fyfe, arriving on 12 December 1842. The group settled at Waimea West, where Ward engaged in farming and surveying, did some tutoring for the Redwoods, and acted as an agent for some absent landowners.
In March 1847 Ward and his brother-in-law, Cyrus Goulter, discovered Wards Pass, a new but not particularly practicable route from the Waimea to the Wairau. Later in 1847 Ward assisted in the survey of the Wairau. In 1848 he selected a property in the Omaka area, eventually called Brookby, and stocked it with sheep, and his family moved there in 1854. In 1849–50 Ward and Goulter surveyed Waitohi (Picton). In 1861–63 Ward periodically supervised the surveying of the town and suburban sections at Kaikoura by a group led by his son Augustine.
Between the late 1850s and the late 1870s Ward acquired extensive runs in the Clarence Valley. By 1877 he held 79,074 acres leasehold and 16,670 acres freehold on the south bank of the Clarence River. In 1879 he had 46,000 sheep on the Warden and Tytler runs. Scab caused problems, however, and in 1886 he lost both runs. He had already conveyed to his wife the 2,334 acre Brookby property, as well as Blythefield, a property near Blenheim, which he had bought in 1877.
Ward represented Wairau on the Nelson Provincial Council from 1853 to 1857. He was an active promoter of the separation of Marlborough from Nelson, and served on the Marlborough Provincial Council from its inception to its abolition, representing Flaxbourne and Clarence (1860–62), Clarence (1862–69), and Wairau Valley (1869–76). He served on Marlborough's executive council in 1860, 1862 and 1867–69, and was deputy superintendent in 1867–68. He fought unsuccessful campaigns for a seat in the House of Representatives in 1871 (Cheviot), 1872 (Wairau), 1876 (Cheviot) and 1884 (Wairau), but represented Wairau at the 1875 session, during which he opposed the abolition of the provinces.
Joseph Ward was forthright and somewhat rigid in politics and religion. He was a stern disciplinarian, who avoided contact with non-Catholics, disapproved of novel-reading, and held fast to his religious principles; yet he was cultured and widely read. A moderate conservative in politics, he was a fluent orator with a ready wit. He died at Blythefield on 12 November 1892.