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Harry Alpe walks the walk

Harry Alpe walks the walk
1) Mr. H. Alpe (centre) about to start his record-breaking walk from Ashburton to Christchurch, 05/04/1917. AM&HS Collection (Photo reference 02.1981.0534.)

On 5 April 1917, New Zealand athlete and distance walker Harry Alpe departed from Ashburton at a steady walking pace, bound for Christchurch. His previous record for walking the same distance, 87 kilometres, was 11 hours and 11 minutes, which was set when he walked from Hawarden to Christchurch in 1915. Harry was not an Ashburton local, but his departure from Ashburton for his 1917 walk was heavily attended, and people waited with bated breath to see if he would beat his previous record.

A charitable military man

Harry Alpe was born about 1869. Early in life he toured New Zealand as one of the “Silbon Brothers,” acrobats and contortionists. In the 1890s he was a force to be reckoned with among athletic circles, mainly in the North Island. He made a name for himself in walking races in Taranaki and elsewhere, including a 10-mile sweepstake walk at Whanganui in which he came third. According to an admirer of Harry’s, though he did not win that race, he won the hearts of spectators by “his exhibition of gameness and fair walking.” After a successful season on the Taranaki tracks, he volunteered for active service in the 1899 – 1902 South African War.

After the war, Harry became well-known for doing charity distance walks. In 1915, his Hawarden to Christchurch walk garnered plenty of attention from newspapers, the purpose of which being to raise money for the Veterans’ Home Fund. That walk was also an attempt to beat his previous record of 12 hours.

The big walk

His next attempt to beat his own record, walking from Ashburton to Christchurch in 1917, was anticipated greatly as one of several local events for “Soldiers’ Day”. According to the Guardian, a “large number” of Ashburton residents assembled by the Somerset Hotel on the morning of 5 April 1917 to see Harry off on his journey. The Guardian continues to describe the scene:

“His Worship the Mayor (Mr R Galbraith) congratulated Mr Alpe, who undertook the walk in order to assist in raising funds for the erection of a Returned Soldiers’ Home at Christchurch. The Mayor said he hoped Mr Alpe would be successful in lowering his previous record. At the invitation of the Mayor, cheers were then given for the athlete.”

At 10:27 a.m., Harry Alpe departed “at a brisk walk”, and was escorted out of town by a large number of cyclists. Several women and returned soldiers collected money for the charity while following him in a motor car. As the country was at war, it would not have been a successful or noteworthy gathering without a militaristic speech, the honour of delivering which having gone to a Sergeant C. H. Morris, a returned soldier. After Harry set off, he addressed the remaining crowd, reminding them that Harry had served in the Army, and that military training would have contributed to his athletic prowess. He then “advised all those who could enlist to do so; he assured them that after a few weeks in camp they would feel all the better for it.”

Record broken

Having departed at 10:27 a.m., Harry arrived at Rakaia at 2:50 p.m., Dunsandel at 4:46 p.m., Burnham at 6:13 p.m., and finally he reached Christchurch at 10:30 p.m. His walking time, presumably minus some breaks, was 10 hours and 51 minutes, beating his previous record by 20 minutes. When he arrived at Cathedral Square, he was given “a rousing reception.” About £70 or £80 (equivalent to about $7,000 – $12,000 today) was collected on the way from Ashburton by the motorised money collectors that followed him the whole way.

Harry continued to participate in charity distance walks, notably having also raised money for Barnardo’s Homes in 1925. He passed away in 1934 at his Wellington residence at the age of 65.

Historic newspaper information from the Guardian, issue 4024 – 4026, Pahiatua Herald, issue 12638, Hawera Star, Vol. LIV.


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By Connor Lysaght