by Roxanne Thomas – curator Comrades Marathon Museum
Arthur Francis Hamilton Newton was born on the 20th May 1883 in Weston-super-Mare, and was educated at Bedford School, England. In 1901, at the age of 18 he first made the journey to South Africa. He came with his older brother to serve as a teacher at Michael House. He returned to England eight years later. Back home he spent two years preparing for a more permanent return. He had ambitions as a farmer in Natal. In 1909 he arrived in Durban and began the journey to Harding, where he had purchased land.
Arthur settled down, farming a number of things, including cotton and cattle. While still in the establishing stages of building his farm, World War One broke out and he was called into service. He was drafted into the Natal Light Horse Division and acted as a dispatch rider throughout the war.
On his return to Natal, he found the farm in complete disrepair. He received no rehabilitative assistance from the Government at the time. Arthur felt certain laws and policies were directly impeding any chance of growth for farmers in his area, and after many months of trying to be heard by The Natal Council, he decided to take his complaint to a public platform.
During this time a ‘crackpot’ idea of a race had been held between Pietermaitzburg and Durban. While only a small number of entrants had participated, the race received huge media attention. Arthur was captivated, and on the 22nd January 1922 he started his first training session for the second ever Comrades Marathon, set to take place in four months’ time. He believed that if he could just make it to the finish, some reporter at the end will listen to his cause.
Even from the first race, Comrades Marathon fever had set in. There was a change in course direction, this time from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. The second race in 1922 had people talking months ahead of the big event. Vic Clapham received a huge increase of entries, 114 compared to 48 the previous year. On race day only 89 brave souls made it to the start at the Tollgate Bridge in Durban. They were cheered on by a crowd of spectators and journalists at least 2000 people strong.
When Arthur lined up with the other hopefuls, he was not in the least touted as one of the potential winners. Bill Rowyn, the previous year’s winner, had travelled in from the Belgian Congo in order to take part. He was definitely the number one contender on the morning. In fact, one reporter had been overheard making his odds that, the ‘old guy’ won’t make it at all. Arthur was 39 at the time.
As the eager ‘leaders’ sped off from the start, Arthur set a slow and steady pace maintaining a constant speed, soon catching up to the others on his tremendous hill work. Arthur’s Zulu nickname, given to him by his workers on Harding was Montabeni – ‘Master of the Mountains’. Where others walked, Arthur ran and his new approach to distance running was already paying off.
By the time he reached the bottom of Inchanga, with only the lead bunch ahead of him, although by 20 minutes, he started to bridge the gap. By the time they reached Harrison Flats, Newton was in second place with only seven minutes behind the leader A.C. Purcell. When he heard this Arthur realised he could even win the race. He put is head down and slowly increased his pace. He dug deep and took the lead at Camperdown.
After half tot of brandy at the bottom of Pollys, and a half tot at the top to fortify himself, Arthur had this to say of his first Polly Shortts experience:
‘Up I went, and still up, but I began to feel it was impossible to keep going. It got so bad at the steepest part that I stopped dead in a single stride, convinced in that moment that it was worse than idiocrasy to attempt to carry on. Two seconds consideration, however, told me that it was probably as bad for those behind me. Without stopping to debate the point, I shoved one foot in front of another and continued the climb.”
The 1922 Comrades ended at the Royal Show Grounds and by the time he had reached the city hall, the crowds were so thick a police escort was needed to clear the road ahead. Arthur circled the stadium while over 3000 cheering supporters looked on. Arthur Newton took his first victory in 8:40:00.
A the finish he intimated this was to be his first and last performance, but by the time the 1923 entries were in, Arthur had again taken up number 77 and was training hard for the second down run.
The 1923 race day saw 68 official starters line up along with a spirited Francis Hayward – unofficially. That year, strict training and determination saw Arthur shave over two hours off Bill Rowan’s original time of 8:59:00. Arthur set a new record along with a new era for long distance running with an incredible time of 6:56:07.
During June Arthur travelled to England to take on the famous London to Brighton 52 miler. His win in the United Kingdom clocked up a new record and the subsequent media publicity made him the absolute favourite for the 1924 Comrades Marathon. He set another record time of 6:58:22 for the 1924 up run. For any who doubted, it showed that the now 41 year old athlete was only getting better with age.
The following year – 1925 proved tumultuous. Arthur had sustained an injury in training leading up the race, and had everyone questioning whether he would be able to participate. A severely strained muscle a month before the race saw him having to completely stop his training as the pain was so bad that he couldn’t even make it to the two-mile mark.
On the Sunday before the race Arthur decided would run after all, even if it’s to only try to finish. His sense of camaraderie is felt in this media statement:
“I will of course be beaten by several of the competitors, but I am quite capable of enjoying the joke with the best of them.”
Arthur, despite the odds against him, made 1925 his fourth win and broke his own record in a time of 6:24:45.
The following year would be Harry Phillips’ year. In the 1926 race Arthur could only secure a second place in a sluggish 7:02:00. When he was interviewed afterwards, he admitted to a completely botched race but added that. ‘If ever a man deserved a victory I think Philips did.” Harry had finished second place in 1921, 1922 and 1925.
1927 would be Arthur’s final year before retiring from competitive running. His win would make him the first runner to claim a place as a Big Five Athlete. In future years it would become a highly respected and rare achievement, winning the Comrades Marathon five or more times.
After ‘retiring’, and moving back to England, Arthur wrote the first comprehensive book on distance training and his mentorship would go on to shape two generations of runners. His guidance was sought from far and wide and fellow Big Five winners, Hardy Ballington, Jacky Meckler and Wally Hayward would spend time in England under his wing. He went on to write several publications, one recounting his experiences of running on three continents.
Arthur returned to South Africa for a two month visit in 1956, hosted by The Marathon Runners Club of South Africa. To mark the occasion the 1956 Comrades was named The Arthur Newton Comrades Marathon in his honour. Race founder, Vic Clapham joined Arthur for his holiday tour. Race day was an auspicious occasion as it was the first time either of these two Comrades legends had been present in decades.
Arthur passed away on the 7th September 1959 at 76. With a career that only started at age 39, he managed to run over 200 000 kilometres during his career. A distance equivalent to running around the earth more than five times. He won five Comrades Marathons. He was the first to run a sub 7:00:00. He ran two Transcontinental’s from New York to Los Angeles (approximately 4000 kilometres each) in 1928 and 1929 and also broke the record on the London to Brighton in 1924.