Born in Birmingham to a working class family on February 15, 1883, Ward initially pursues a career as a civil servant before concentrating on writing full-time. He works as a poet, songwriter and comedy sketch writer for music hall performers before creating the Sax Rohmer persona and pursuing a career writing fiction.
Like his contemporaries Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, Ward claims membership to one of the factions of the qabbalistic Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He also claims ties to the Rosicrucians, but the validity of his claims has been questioned. His doctor and family friend Dr R. Watson Councell may have been his only legitimate connection to such organisations.
Ward’s first published work comes in 1903, when the short story “The Mysterious Mummy” is sold to Pearson’s Weekly. His main literary influences are Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle and M. P. Shiel.
Ward gradually transitions from writing for music hall performers to concentrating on short stories and serials for magazine publication. In 1909 he marries Rose Elizabeth Knox. He publishes his first book Pause! anonymously in 1910.
After penning Little Tich in 1911 as ghostwriter for the famous music hall entertainer of the same name, Ward issues the first Fu Manchu novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, serialised from October 1912 to June 1913. It is an immediate success. The Fu Manchu stories, together with his more conventional detective series characters — Paul Harley, Gaston Max, Red Kerry, Morris Klaw and the Crime Magnet — make him one of the most successful and well-paid authors of the 1920s and 1930s. In the 28 years from 1931 to 1959, he adds no fewer than 10 new books to the Fu Manchu series.
Other works by Ward include The Orchard of Tears (1918), The Quest of the Sacred Slipper (1919), Tales of Chinatown (1922) and Brood of the Witch-Queen as well as numerous short stories.
Ward’s work is banned in Nazi Germany, causing him to complain that he could not understand such censorship, stating “my stories are not inimical to Nazi ideals.”
After World War II, Ward and his wife move to New York, only returning to London shortly before his death. He dies on June 1, 1959 at the age of 76, due to an outbreak of Influenza A virus subtype H2N2.