Arthur F.H. Newton
Comrades Permanent Number: 77
Arthur Francis Hamilton Newton was born on the 20th of May 1883 in Weston-Super-Mare, and was educated at Bedford School, England. In 1901, at the age of 18, Arthur first made the journey out to South Africa. He came with his older brother to serve as a teacher at Michaelhouse. He returned to England 8 years later and spent two years preparing to return and try his prospects as a farmer in KwaZulu-Natal. In 1909, Arthur arrived in Durban and began the journey out to Harding, the area he had purchased land in.
Arthur settled down to farming a number of things, including cotton and cattle. While still in the establishing stages of building his farm, World War 1 broke out and Arthur was called to service. He served in the Natal Light Horse Division and was a dispatch rider through the war.
When he returned to KwaZulu-Natal, he found his farm in complete disrepair from the time spent away and found no 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 he needed to take his complaint to a public platform.
The previous year, a ‘crackpot’ idea of a race had been held between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. While only a small number of entrants had participated, the race had received huge media attention at the time. So, on the 22nd of January 1922, Arthur started his first training session for the second ever Comrades Marathon, which was set to take place in four months’ time, on the 24th of May 1922. Arthur figured, if he could just make it to the finish, some reporter at the end will listen to his cause.
Comrades fever had set in to stay and the change in course direction from Durban to Pietermaritzburg for its return run of 1922 had people talking months ahead of the big event. Vic Clapham received a huge increase of 114 entries compared to the race’s first year of 48. On race day, 89 of those made it to the start at the Tollgate Bridge in Durban and were cheered on by a crowd of spectators and journalists at least 2000 people strong.
When Arthur lined up with the other 88 Comrades hopefuls, he was not in the least touted as one of the potential winners. Bill Rowan, the previous year’s winner, had travelled in from the Belgian Congo in order to take place and was definitely the number one contender of 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. 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 – Arthur was starting to bridge the gap. By the time they had reached Harrison Flats, he was in second place and only 7 minutes behind the leader, A.C. Purcell. It was with this news that Arthur realised he may be able to win it and he dug deep, taking the lead at Camperdown.
With a half tot of brandy at the bottom of Polly’s, 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 ideocracy 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 that a police escort was needed to clear the road ahead. Arthur circled the stadium of over 3000 cheering supporters and took his first victory in 8h40m.
While at the 1922 finish, Arthur had intimated that this was to be his first and last performance. By the time the 1923 entries were in, Arthur had again taken up the number 77 and was training hard for the second Down Run in Comrades History.
The 1923 Comrades Race day saw 68 official starters and one spirited Francis Hayward – unofficially line up. This year, strict training and determination would see Arthur shave over 2 hours off Bill Rowan’s original time of 8h59m. Arthur set a new best time, and a new era for long distance running with his time of 6h56m07s.
The June following the 1923 Comrades would see Arthur travel to England to take on the famous London to Brighton 52 miler. His win clocked up a new record and all the media publicity made him the absolute favourite for the 1924 race. Setting another record time of 6h58m22sec for the 1924 Up Run showed all that the now 41 year old athlete was only getting better with age.
1925 would prove to be a tumultuous year for Arthur as an injury sustained in practice leading up to the race would have everyone questioning whether he would be able to participate. A severely strained muscle a month before the race saw Arthur having to completely stop his training as the pain was so bad that he couldn’t even make the 2 mile mark.
On the Sunday before the race, Arthur decided that he will take part, even if it’s only to 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 6h24m45s.
1926 would be Harry Phillips’ year with Arthur securing a second place in a sluggish 7h02m. When interviewed 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, and his win would make him the first runner to claim a place as a Comrades ‘Big 5’ Athlete or a ‘Comrades Legends’ (a runner who has won the Comrades 5 or more times).
After ‘retiring’, and moving back to England, Arthur wrote the first comprehensive books on distance training and his mentorship would go on to shape 2 generations of runners. His guidance was sought from far and wide and fellow Big 5 runners, Hardy Ballington, Jackie Mekler and Wally Hayward would spend time in England under his wing.
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 and 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 of September 1959 at 76 years of age. With a career that only started at age 39, he managed to run over 200,000 km during his career. A distance equivalent to running around the earth more than 5 times. He won 5 Comrades Marathons becoming the first man to run a sub 7 hours. He ran 2 transcontinentals from New York to Los Angeles (approximately 4000 km each) in 1928 and 1929.