Joseph Thomas Ward was born at Chelsea, London, England, on 25 January 1862, the son of Mary Sarah Clark and her husband, Francis Ward, a licensed victualler. From an early age Joseph showed a keen intellect and read widely. He was educated for the Catholic priesthood but decided instead to go to sea. After serving as a sailor on a merchant ship, he migrated to New Zealand in 1879 or 1880. By this stage he had become interested in astronomy and it was in this field that he would ultimately achieve local and national renown.
Ward worked for several years as a shepherd and shearer in Marlborough and then as a saddler in Wellington. He was married in Wellington on 12 October 1894 to Ada Evelyn Wright. In 1896 the Wards settled in Whanganui where Joseph started a lending library and later opened a bookshop and stationery business. He also taught the violin and, as time allowed, renewed his acquaintance with astronomy. Around 1899 he purchased a 4½-inch refracting telescope, and when a bright comet appeared in 1901 people in the town flocked to view it through this instrument.
In 1901 Ward helped organise a series of public lectures in Whanganui. The first of these, held on 12 July, featured Professor Richard Maclaurin from Victoria College speaking on astronomy. Within a few weeks the Whanganui Astronomical Society was formed and in early August Joseph Ward was elected president. One of the first decisions of the new society was to establish an observatory. Ward led a deputation to the Whanganui Borough Council asking for a site at Cook's Gardens; the council granted a site on 27 August.
Ward located a second-hand 9½-inch refracting telescope in England which the society purchased for £450. It was installed in the newly constructed Whanganui Observatory, which was officially opened by Premier Richard Seddon on 25 May 1903. Ward was appointed honorary director, a post he would hold until his death. In 1926 the astronomical society gave the observatory, debt free, to the Whanganui City Council in trust for the citizens of Whanganui. It is now known as the Ward Observatory.
Ward was quick to recognise the research potential of the large refractor and in 1904 he and his assistant, local lawyer Thomas Allison, began systematically searching selected areas of the southern sky for new double stars. In the course of the next six years they catalogued more than 200; unbeknown to Ward, some had previously been detected by others. However, 88 are recognised as 'Ward doubles' and appear with New Zealand Observatory listings in international double star catalogues, thereby serving as a memorial to Ward's international contribution to this specialised field of astronomy.
In addition to double stars Ward observed sunspots, the planet Mars and comets. Although he forwarded drawings of Mars to the British Astronomical Association on various occasions, contrary to some claims he actually published almost nothing on astronomy. Rather, his most important contribution was in astronomical education. He frequently gave talks to the Whanganui Philosophical Society, of which he was vice president from its inception in 1911. Two evenings a week he ran public viewing nights at the Whanganui Observatory, where he eagerly shared his love and knowledge of astronomy with visitors. He delivered the Cawthron lecture in Nelson in 1926 and brought astronomy to a wide audience in a column he wrote for the Wanganui Herald between 1904 and 1926.
Ward was also a pioneer New Zealand telescope-maker, and over the years produced numerous mirrors, mainly in the 6- to 14-inch range. These mirrors found their way into private and society observatories throughout the country and many are still used for research purposes and for popularising astronomy. Ward's largest mirror, 20½ inches in diameter, was completed in 1924, and for more than 40 years remained the largest telescope made by a New Zealand amateur astronomer.
Ward was an accomplished violinist and wrote poetry which was well regarded in his day. Brought up a Catholic he gradually turned his back on religion and became a prominent member of the New Zealand Rationalist Association. He was described as unassuming, quiet, gentle and kindly, and generous to a fault. Joseph Ward died of peritonitis in Wairoa on 4 January 1927, after becoming ill during a visit to a daughter. He was survived by his wife, four sons and three daughters. One son, William Herschel Ward, was honorary director of the Ward Observatory between 1927 and 1959. After Joseph Ward's death Sir Robert Stout was moved to write: 'I know no man in the Dominion of greater intellect and reasoning power than the late Mr Ward.'