Josephine Ward and Maisie Ward Sheed: a mother & daughter

Contributed by Julia Courtney (parishioner of St. Patrick’s, Sandown).

Members of the Isle of Wight Catholic History Society will be familiar with the life of William George Ward, convert from Anglicanism, associate of John Henry Newman and, through an unexpected inheritance, owner of large areas of the Island including much of the town of Cowes. Although the most celebrated Ward, this brilliant and larger than life theologian was not the only member of the family to make a huge contribution to Catholic life. In the next generation his daughter in law Josephine Ward and his granddaughter Maisie Ward Sheed were widely- known and fearless apologists for their Faith; and both had strong ties with the Island. Born in 1864, Josephine Hope was orphaned by age eight and brought up by her grandmother the Duchess of Norfolk and her aunt Lady Mary Howard. In 1887 she married Wilfrid Philip Ward (picture – below), a younger son of W. G. Ward, thus allying traditional aristocratic Catholic mores with the world of the intellectual, influential and eccentric Ward family. Wilfrid Ward edited The Dublin Review from 1903 until 1915. He was a close friend of Friedrich von Hugel, a neighbour of Thomas Huxley and a prolific biographer and writer. Josephine Hope was already a published novelist before her marriage; she then chose to write as Mrs Wilfrid Ward despite the confusion this caused with the successful novelist Mrs Humphry Ward. Having grown up on the Island, Wilfrid Ward brought his new wife to live near Totland, where the elderly Alfred Tennyson was a close neighbour. In January 1889, Josephine went to Shanklin for the birth of her first child, a girl christened Mary Josephine but always known as Maisie. On her return to Totland, the baby was proudly displayed to Tennyson who commented, ‘She looks exactly like Henry VIII’ which may have been quite appropriate as Maisie was of solid build throughout her life.

Possibly because of difficult relationships with Wilfrid’s eccentric elder brother Edmund, the Wards moved to the mainland, firstly to Eastbourne, where another four children were born to them, and then to Dorking in Surrey. Maisie recalled that they all loved holidays on the Island, when ‘enchantment began as we stepped on to the little steamer and the whole visit was steeped in it.’ Beginning with the success of One Poor Scruple in 1899, Josephine Ward’s career as a writer took off; between 1903 and 1913 she produced six novels which in subtly different ways illustrated the action of divine grace on often faulty characters immersed in the moral problems of Edwardian life. Unfairly neglected today, at the time these novels were hailed as ‘remarkably powerful’, one (Horace Blake, 1913) in particular being ‘a masterpiece in the psychology of conversion.’

Maisie Ward (picture – above) later wrote that ‘Mother and daughter can, I believe, get closer than anyone else except husband and wife.’ Josephine and Maisie shared such a relationship, with thirteen year old Maisie supporting her grief stricken mother after the tragic death of the Wards’ eldest son ‘Boy’ in 1902. In 1916, they helped each other through another exceptionally difficult period. Not only was the elder surviving son, Herbert, serving in the Army, but the Ward family became embroiled in a contentious inheritance suit sparked by the complex will of Edmund Ward, who died in 1915. By now Wilfrid was a sick man and he died in the following year, leaving Josephine and Maisie with the task of editing and publishing his papers and lectures.

But as the War ended, both mother and daughter became enthusiastic members of the Catholic Evidence Guild. Founded in 1918, this body sought to spread Catholic teaching to a sceptical and even hostile public, through open meetings and street preaching.

Both women took the stage at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, a particularly brave act for Josephine: as Maisie wrote, ‘what must it have been in her late fifties, traditionally educated, wearing the widow’s dress that was still customary’ and recognised by horrified aristocratic friends..

It was through the Guild that Maisie met her future husband the Australian lawyer Frank Sheed; and it was at Josephine’s prompting that the couple, together with Maisie’s younger brother Leo and Josephine herself, set up the Catholic publishing house of Sheed and Ward. Maisie’s biographer Dana Greene notes that the firm ‘helped form the reading habits of educated Catholics for more than four decades, exposing them to the best in theological writing.’

Translations, biographies, including Maisie’s work on G K Chesterton, Josephine’s later novels, and much else was issued as the enterprise grew.

Maisie and Frank were married in April 1926. Maisie’s brother Herbert had inherited Northwood House (which he later gifted to the town of Cowes) and Egypt House also in Cowes; after a wedding at the Church of St Thomas of Canterbury celebrated by the Bishop of Portsmouth, a family party reception was held at Egypt House, in sight of the Solent.

Josephine Ward lived until 1933, publishing her last novel, Tudor Sunset, in 1932. By this time, she had supported Maisie through serious illness and the birth of two children, Rosemary and Wilfrid. She remained closely involved with the affairs of Sheed and Ward, to which she brought the expertise of an experienced novelist and the intellectual power of a participant in English Catholic culture for several decades.

Maisie’s life was to become even richer and fuller in the coming years. Always active, enthusiastic and totally devoted to Catholic endeavour, she was involved with the Distributist Movement, with Catholic Housing Aid in post-war Britain, with the Catholic Worker movement in the United States,the French worker-priest initiative, and Indian Land reform; with Frank Sheed, Maisie successfully took the enterprise of Sheed and Ward to New York. Together with all this she wrote copiously, for example on John Henry Newman, on the lives of her parents, on Chesterton and on the mystic Caryll Houselander.

When Maisie Ward died in 1975, she was in New York, many miles away from her Island birthplace. Yet in her autobiography Unfinished Business, she wrote this:

I came to know my birthplace so well later that I feel I must have known it always in its astonishing variety. The Isle of Wight is forty miles by seventeen and in that narrow compass are sharp white and brilliant sandstone cliffs, bare green spines of down and heather clad expanses with deep clefts, called chines, covered with shrubs and trees running down between the hills, always with the sea as a constantly changing background. My love for the sea may have begun in infancy; the sound of it, the sight of it, especially through trees.

Both Josephine Ward and Maisie Ward Sheed were talented and influential women who deserve to be remembered on the Island they loved.

Written by Julia Courtney

Earlier this year Julia gave a short paper on Josephine Ward’s novels at the Durham University Centre for Catholic Studies. If anyone would like a copy of the text please contact here via the IoW CHS.