Walking Class Heroes – GHB ‘Bert’ Ward (1876-1957)

GHB Ward was a walkers’ rights campaigner who founded the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers, considered to be the first working class walking group. This is the third excerpt from the recent book Walking Class Heroes, in which the lives of 20 pioneers of the Right to Roam are examined.

Black and white photo of a man sitting beside a rock

The exhortation by GHB ‘Bert’ Ward (1876-1957) about the forthcoming Revellers’ Ramble of the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers’ Club for Sunday, January 10, 1926, could not have been clearer:

‘We go wet or fine, snow or blow, and none but the bravest and fittest must attempt this walk. Those who are unwell, unfit, inexperienced or insufficiently clad, should consult their convenience, and ours, by staying at home. Ladies, on this occasion, are kindly requested not to attend.’

Such was the typically authoritarian, not to say sexist, tone of Ward, so-called King of the Clarion Ramblers, who for half a century led one of the earliest and foremost rambling clubs in Britain, leaving behind a unique legacy of outdoor literature.

Almost single-handedly, Ward produced the tiny Clarion Handbooks for over 50 years, and he was fond of inserting pithy (and equally-sexist) aphorisms in them, such as: “The man who never was lost never went very far,” and “A rambler made is a man improved.” They also included quotations from literary giants such as William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, and from across the Atlantic, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.

Early life

George Herbert Bridges Ward was born in 1876 in Derwent Street, Sheffield, but 10 months later his family moved to Glen Cottage, Park Farm, then on the edge of the smoky grime of the Steel City.

He attended St John’s National School until he was 13, when he won a scholarship to Sheffield’s Central High School. But probably due to family circumstances (his mother had died when he was nine), he didn’t take it up. Instead he started work as an errand boy at a Sheffield silversmiths, but was sacked for refusing to work on a Saturday (probably because it interfered with his walking expeditions). He subsequently found another job at a stay busk manufacturing company [making supportive strips for the inside of corsets], where he stayed from 1891 to 1900, serving an apprenticeship until 1897, when he qualified as an engineer fitter.

The year 1900 was to prove highly significant in Ward’s life. His father and his maternal grandfather both died, and he left the engineering company in 1900 and had a long holiday in the Canary Islands – which was not exactly a typical holiday destination for a Sheffield fitter at the time.

This sparked in Ward a life-long interest in Spain, which became the subject of his only published book, The Truth about Spain (1911), in which he accurately predicted the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and its consequence in the Second World War.

Sheffield Clarion Ramblers

On Sunday, September 2, 1900, Ward organised the first Sheffield Clarion ramble, a round of the then-forbidden 2,000-foot moorland plateau of Kinder Scout, the highest ground in the Peak District. Jack Jordan, one of the walkers, claimed after the 20-mile walk: “…if our feet were on the heather, our hearts and hopes were with the stars.”

Ward had apparently done a reconnaissance of the route, and he claimed to have advertised the ramble in Robert Blatchford’s national socialist newspaper, The Clarion – after which the subsequent rambling club, the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers, was named.

The route taken by those original Clarions took them from Edale station up Jacob’s Ladder to Edale Cross and by Coldwell Clough and down into Hayfield for lunch. The group had lunch and “a good sing-song” at a pub in Hayfield, and then they went up the Kinder Road to Kinder Bank and William Clough (scene of the 1932 Mass Trespass) and down Ashop Clough, where the men even had time for a swim.

Black and white photo of man skinny dipping in a rock pool

Tea was enjoyed at the Snake Inn, where the landlord, unused in those days to seeing such a large group of walkers, set to and baked them some fresh bread cakes. The total cost per head of this fine repast of bread cakes, boiled ham etc. was the princely sum of 1s 3d (6p). After tea, the group took the road down to Alport Bridge and then up to Hope Cross, finally descending to Hope station to catch the train home to Sheffield.

Annual ‘round of Kinder’

The Round of Kinder became an annual anniversary ramble for the club, and the forbidden plateau itself – the Holy Grail for ramblers – soon also attracted members, despite the threatening presence of stick-wielding gamekeepers.

Cover of 1910 Sheffield Clarion Ramblers bookThe following April, Ward married Fanny Bertha, and the couple eventually had six children who survived infancy – four sons and two daughters. From 1901 to 1912 Ward worked as a fitter at Kelham Island Power Station, and he was involved in trade union political work which initially gave him less time to devote to rambling.

In 1912, Ward started working for the Ministry of Labour, and the First World War took him to work in London at the Ministry of Munitions, where he became acquainted with the whaleback Surrey Downs. But he continued to write and edit the Clarion handbooks and to join club rambles at weekends.

He returned to Sheffield in 1919, when he moved with his growing family to a house at Owler Bar, on the Derbyshire outskirts of the city, where he lived until his death in 1957. After the war he continued his work in Sheffield as a Conciliation Officer until his retirement in 1941, when he was able to devote himself more fully to rambling and access to the countryside.

The Gentle art of trespass

Although he is still sometimes erroneously described as one of the organisers, Ward played no part in the 1932 Kinder Scout Mass Trespass. As a civil servant, he knew his job would have been at risk, and he was a member of the official Ramblers’ Federation which had officially opposed the action.

Having said that, Ward was no stranger to what he dubbed “the gentle art of trespass.” He’d been advocating it since long before 1932 and was served with a writ by moorland owner James Watts in 1923 which forbade him from walking on his land on the western side of Kinder Scout.

He refused an OBE in 1941 but was later happy to accept two local honours. In 1945, after some what would be called today ‘crowd-funding’ in appreciation of his contribution to the outdoors, the 1,563-foot summit of Lose Hill Pike (now known as ‘Ward’s Piece’) was presented to him, and he immediately handed over the deeds to the National Trust.

Losehill Pike "Ward's Piece" sign

Another recognition of his services to the outdoors rather poignantly came on his deathbed at Nether Edge Hospital, Sheffield in 1957, when he was awarded an honorary MA degree from the University of Sheffield.

Terry Howard, a leading modern Sheffield access campaigner, is a long-time admirer. ‘I read my first Sheffield Clarion Handbook more than half a century ago. It was full of information about Lockerbrook Farm, a place where I loved to visit and where I spent a lot of time as a member of the Woodcraft Folk. I was hooked straight away and have been ever since on these little gems of outdoor literature.

‘They also illustrate the life of a remarkable man who almost single-handedly wrote and edited the handbooks for 50 years, and was totally committed to enabling people to explore, understand and appreciate the local countryside,” Howard said. “It is difficult to imagine the total commitment he must have had to research and produce these little treasures of information.’

Ward himself explained this pioneering work in a lecture he gave on moorland bridlepaths to the Hunter Archaeological Society in Sheffield in February, 1921: ‘This lecture is the result of a manhood’s leisure spent in rambling over lonely places and wild moorlands… I have followed no one and nobody’s investigations for, if one could, there are remarkably few who have left any moorland records to copy or improve upon.’ 

Cover of Walking Class Heroes

Walking Class Heroes: Pioneers of the Right to Roam by Roly Smith (Signal Books, £9.99) is out now, read our review.

Magazine of the Ramblers