James Ward was born on 27 January 1843 in Hull. His parents were Hannah Aston and James Ward, a repeatedly unsuccessful entrepreneur. Due to his family’s financial difficulties, Ward’s schooling ended at the age of thirteen. At fifteen he entered into an apprenticeship to a firm of architects, where he remained for four years, while also serving as a Sunday school teacher. Much to the approval of his Congregationalist family, in 1863 he decided to pursue a career in the ministry.