A Social Paradox: The Unusual Life of Miss Kate Ward

Frances Hider writes creative non-fiction with a special interest in the relationship between humans and animals, particularly dogs, and what this tells us about ourselves. She was a nurse for twenty-two years, leaving to address health and welfare concerns through writing. She gained an Open University Diploma in Creative Writing, followed by an MA in Creative Writing at Edinburgh Napier University. Frances is currently writing a book about how dogs influence and change our lives as pets, therapy and service dogs. Frances lives with her husband outside Edinburgh.

One day in 1943, much the same as any other day, a greyhound limped to safety over the threshold of a cottage in Yorktown on the outskirts of Camberley. The two-up two-down terrace at 218 London Road was the home of Miss Kate Ward, a plainspeaking Yorkshire woman in her mid-forties who had moved to the area just before the war. She had chanced on the lame greyhound, tied to the veterinarian’s door, waiting his turn to be euthanised. She took him home.

So began a campaign to save the stray and abandoned dogs in the locality. Each day at the local police station Miss Ward (as she preferred to be addressed) intercepted the latest canine vagrant before it was handed over to the RSPCA. Once the locals knew she took in dogs, they were abandoned at her gate, thrown over the wall of her backyard, entrusted to her for the holidays but never collected. She conducted what was reported in The Observer as ‘a stray-dog collection scheme.’ 1

However, this was no ordinary rescue operation; Miss Ward was no ordinary woman. Instead of crates and kennels she housed the dogs – ten, twenty or thirty at a time – and two or three cats, like an army of pets in her home.

‘Every chair, couch and book case plus all the cupboards, tables, and the floor was completely covered by dogs and cats sitting, standing or lying down’, writes Norma Jamieson who visited Miss Ward one Christmas in the 1960’s in the hope of adopting a dog. Miss Ward, ‘looking old, dishevelled and dirty was not at all pleased’ and didn’t part with one of her animals, adds Jamieson. 2

It was Miss Ward’s practice to walk all the dogs to the town. A petite figure, sporting spectacles, beret and overcoat she was rarely seen without a canine entourage. Street photographs show her surrounded by a motley confusion of dogs – restrained by rope leads tied to a box cart, the dogs would push and pull, pant and yelp, raring to get going. In the cart, which she steered through the traffic like a gardener’s wheelbarrow, sat the old, poorly and infirm.

Miss Ward controlled the dogs by shouting (her detractors said ‘screeching’) or blasting a whistle. From time to time she’d employ a stick, she said to ‘tap’ the dogs (her detractors said to beat them). The practicalities of managing and controlling up to thirty dogs at home and out in the streets – and she walked them every day – cannot be underestimated. How she did it was ‘nothing short of genius’ writes Geoffrey Cradock. 3

It might seem that Miss Ward was an asset to the town, so what was it that made her a dangerous woman? When the lame greyhound stepped into the shelter of a home, Miss Ward stepped out of the comfortable expectations of the community. Although in some ways as an unmarried, self-supporting woman (she worked as a cook at the Royal Military Academy) and without visible family, she was already on the margins of community life.

I grew up in Camberley and as a child I’d see her in the town centre, but I never met her or questioned her presence. She was as commonplace as the milkman, postman or local Bobby. Researching her life through newspaper reports, first-hand accounts and interviews it’s clear she polarised local opinion. Her lifestyle set her apart from the community. Aligning herself with another species – ‘give me a dog any time’ 4 – alienated her ideologically. The practicalities of caring for her canine charges isolated her further.

Born in 1895 or 1896 her early years have the mystery of uncertainty and echoes of a Victorian novel. She was orphaned or possibly abandoned (the accounts vary) and brought up by an aunt in an ‘atmosphere of disapproval’ and religion before entering domestic service.

Her sense of self came from her religious beliefs. Geoffrey Cradock, the vet who knew her from 1954 to her death in 1979 describes how faith in the Lord, ‘her constant companion and ally’ motivated her life.5 To the historian Arthur Bryant, Miss Ward wrote of the dogs: ‘I always say they are His. I am just looking after them.’ 6

Her decision to take in ‘the unwanted’ may have been grounded in experience. ‘I have been homeless and I have had to sleep in the open in my lifetime…’ she told reporter Paul Pickford in 1976. ‘I have been so hungry that I have eaten my fingernails. So you see I know how these dogs suffer.’ 7

Since her death she has acquired almost legendary status in Camberley as an animal advocate. In the town’s memory she is largely regarded with nostalgia, a representative of a lost way of life when the eccentric bumped elbows with the ordinary. ‘Eccentric’, however, doesn’t fully narrate the impact of her presence in the local community or the complexities of how that bumping along was achieved. In fiction and in life women who live or speak contrary to tradition and custom pose a threat to the accepted order.

For example, through her character Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte questioned both the British class system and its treatment of women. The suffrage movement of the late 1800s and on motivated groups of women to challenge the inequity of their place in society. All lived at odds with their social counterparts. Women who are identified as ‘other’ raise suspicion and fear. Their motivation and the consequences of their actions threaten cultural stability. To minimise the threat society retaliates by locking them up, branding them as mad or trivialising them and the issues they raise.

Miss Ward exposed the injustice done to dogs by humans. She did this by example and by giving a voice to the otherwise voiceless canines she took in. In doing so she toiled against the norm.

It is unclear how she gained permission to collect and keep the dogs. The 1957 Camberley Directory records 218 London Road as a Dogs Home. In addition, according to Miss Ward, the Chief Constable of Surrey gave sanction and the local police helped plan and facilitate her route through the town. Her relationship with the local council, however, was edgy. Conflicts were battled out in a barrage of words recorded in the papers. Miss Ward branded the council ‘a collection of dog haters.’ 8

Tony Byrne, Chairman of the Council’s Health Committee said ‘she does a valuable service in the town.’ 9 Tasked with legislating for all dogs in the locality, councillors generally attempted to remain neutral and focused on road safety and public health. Although, retired councillor Mrs. Eleanor Haynes broke ranks to say of Miss Ward ‘she’s a menace.’ 10

During her lifetime Miss Ward felt surrounded by a hostile community. Although she benefited from donations and individual acts of kindness she also faced intolerance and regular complaints about noise and smell, as well as issues of road safety or inconvenience. An undercurrent of nastiness towards her manifested through small acts of cruelty – such as the young man who untied the dog leads and photographed the resulting chaos. 11

The local paper ran with the headline, ‘I will destroy my dogs if any more complaints are made against me’. 12 Whether this was intended as a counter threat to gain sympathy or evidence of her vulnerability is not clear.

She came to the attention of the RSPCA in 1953 following a complaint about her use of the stick to keep one of the dogs in order. It’s impossible to know the veracity of the complaint or other reports of her beating the dogs. In the wake of the 1953 allegation the RSPCA wrote to Miss Ward warning that ‘her movements in Camberley will be watched.’ 13

The RSPCA, with sanction to euthanise strays – in 1968 for example, they killed up to a 1000 dogs a week 14 – had no right of entry and no right to remove dogs unless cruelty or neglect could be proven. In the case of Miss Ward, all her dogs were well cared for: ‘all remained in excellent health and mostly lived to a ripe old age of sixteen or more,’ writes Geoffrey Cradock. 15

Arthur Bryant and Geoffrey Cradock might seem unlikely allies for a woman who lived outside the usual mores of society. Yet both expressed admiration of her motivation and activities and have written of their friendship with her. So, although she appeared to be on the outside of the community, the personal support of individuals from the professional classes, alongside her membership of the church, implicitly normalised her occupation. This gave credibility to what she was doing and the way she was doing it.

She was, in effect, a social paradox. The lifestyle she adopted marginalised her, yet approval and support by respected professionals at the heart of mainstream society included her. In 1951 she wrote to the King. The occasion was the killing of little Mickey, a pet dog who had been ripped apart by the local hounds. Thereafter, over the years she wrote to the Queen and the Prime Minister about dogs in general or her dogs in particular. Through correspondence with royalty and ministers – the letters and replies were published in the papers – she further aligned herself to the establishment. This seeming contradiction challenged the construction of her social identity and might account for the Jekyll and Hyde attitude of the local community.

Miss Ward had featured in the local press since the late 1940’s, attracting appellations such as ‘Pied Piper’ and ‘Queen of the Strays’. The undertone of sinister intent implied by ‘Pied Piper’ was replaced by the more neutral ‘Camberley Kate’ in the 1960’s. When she came to widespread public attention in the 1960’s and 70’s she was an elderly woman and language such as ‘eccentric’, ‘old’, ‘dishevelled’ and even ‘character’ and ‘dog lover’, effectively dismissed her as harmless and erased any sense of dangerousness.

She colluded in promoting herself as a harmless old woman, stripping herself of suspicion or threat so she could continue what she called her ‘tiny bit’. 16 Her public persona gave her a platform to voice the plight of the dogs and raise donations. In this respect she was a shrewd publicist; she became her own brand.

Kate Ward died at eighty-four. She inhabits a grave two rows back from my grandparents in St Michael’s Churchyard, Yorktown, not far from where she lived. Miss Ward’s ‘outsider’ status was a dangerous and precarious position. However, she was a canny woman who forged her own identity by controlling her image and using her persona as ‘Camberley Kate’ to its fullest in the newspapers, film and on television. National and international approval gave authority and strength when addressing her detractors.

This canniness made her a powerful woman who left a strong legacy: recognition of animals – in particular, dogs – as sentient beings with a right to life. It was an uncomfortable fact unwanted and stray dogs were destroyed in large numbers and Miss Ward spent over thirty-five years battling this custom. She saved 600 lives from a premature death.

Her epitaph defines her as ‘A Devoted Friend of Animals’ but in her own words she’s ‘a Yorkshire lass that has the guts left to love the unwanted…’


1 The Observer 19 June 1966
2 Camberley Kate and other stories Norma Jamieson, Access Press 1996 p.2
3 To School with the Milk: Geoffrey Cradock, self-published 2009 p.101
4 NBC Evening News, 12 November 1973 (source: Vanderbilt TV News Archive)
5 To School with the Milk: Geoffrey Cradock, self-published 2009 p.101
6 The Lion and the Unicorn: Arthur Bryant, Collins 1969 p.180
7 Camberley News and Mail, 10 August 1976
8 Evening News, 21 August 1969
9 Local newspaper, 28 July 1972 (source: Surrey Heath Museum)
10 Local newspaper from between 1961-78 (source: Surrey Heath Museum)
11 Personal email
12 Local newspaper from between 1961-78 (source: Surrey Heath Museum)
13 Local newspaper, 7 August 1953 (source: Surrey Heath Museum)
14 The Observer, 19 June 1966
15 To School with the Milk: Geoffrey Cradock: self-published 2009 p.101
16 The Lion and the Unicorn: Arthur Bryant: Collins 1969 p.180