Making history in “the best relay race ever
decided”. A forgotten NZ miler, Dan Mason
The New Zealand Railways Magazine
By W. F. Ingram
He never won a national title. He had only a year or so of international competition. He was
denied a place at the Olympic Games. He shared in what arguably should have been an official
World record. Almost a decade before Randolph Rose and then the peerless Jack Lovelock
established New Zealand as a nation of milers as well as rugby footballers, Daniel Mason was
vying with one of Britain’s finest ever middle-distance runners, Albert Hill, who would be a
double gold-medalist within a year.
Dan Mason has remained much of a mystery for his lifetime and for more than 40 years since.
Neither his birthdate nor his date of death were known to athletics historians. His fastest mile
time was achieved in England, but the exact date and venue are unestablished. He allegedly
broke the World mile record in training, but this remains only a passing reference which did
not appear in print until more than 20 years later. He had previously raced as a professional and
so was banned from the Olympics. Yet the late Peter Heidenstrom – the foremost New Zealand
athletics historian – rated Mason 2nd only of all-time to Peter Snell among his country’s half-milers.
All the more remarkable is the fact that Mason came to prominence in the closing year
of World War I and was still serving in the Army and approaching the age of 30 when he
achieved his greatest feats in 1919.
His New Zealand Army war records list him joining up in May 1916 – which was three months
before conscription became law in the country – and embarking on a troop-ship for Europe
from Wellington in November of that year. His next of kin was his mother, who lived in
Whangarei, in North Auckland, and by occupation he was a self-employed taxi proprietor.
Thanks to very recent research by a local historian, Lisa Truttman, in Point Chevalier,
Auckland, we now know that Mason was born in 1890, was discharged from the Army in
January 1920 and became a garage proprietor in that peninsular suburb of the city, living a long
life and dying in 1976.
Peter Heidenstrom wrote: “Mason was close to World record times (or closer) beat Olympic
gold and silver medalists and dominated 800 metres running in Britain and on the Continent.
Such results were amazing in a soldier who for years had existed on a diet of bully-beef and
trained by haring up and down bomb-craters or wading through the mud and slush of the
trenches”. Heidenstrom had a colourful style of writing allied to his meticulous statistics, and
whether or not he was fully informed of Mason’s precise war experiences does not really matter.
The phraseology catches the right mood – Mason’s athletic background was not an easy one as
he certainly spent a year in France, serving in the trenches before being sent back to England
for a sinus operation. The New Zealand Expeditionary Force suffered 16,697 killed and 41,317
wounded during World War I – a 56 per cent casualty rate – and so Mason was one of the lucky
ones to survive unscathed.
In England in 1918 he won a handicap half-mile at the Stamford Bridge stadium in May and
continued to compete regularly throughout the summer and into the autumn. On 3 September
he ran a most impressive mile at a Kinematograph Trade charity meeting at the same venue
promoted by the numerous film-making companies in and around London. His redoubtable
opponents were Alfred Nichols and Percy Hodge, both of Surrey AC, sponsored and employed
by their club president at his London shirt-making business (though Nichols was temporarily
seconded as a munitions worker), and the reporter for the authoritative “The Sportsman”
newspaper enthused, “Mason, quite being the best miler in the country, beat Nichols by three
yards, easing up, Hodge only finishing a moderate next best. Dan, of course, is over with the
New Zealanders and could have done 4min 18sec had occasion necessitated”. Both Nichols and
Hodge would win medals at the 1920 Olympics – Nichols silver in the cross-country team event,
Hodge gold in the steeplechase.
Four days later at Stamford Bridge, there was what was described as “the nearest approach to
an Olympic gathering since the outbreak of war”, and with the armistice about to be signed no
doubt the government organisers from the Ministry of Information saw the promotion as a
public morale-booster and an early celebration of the ending of the war two months later.
Mason proved himself against another of Britain’s future Olympic gold-medalists – and in a
very different context. He won the mile against modest opposition in 4:31 1/5, with lap times
of 60 3/5, 2:20 3/5 and 3:23 1/5 which were typical of the way such races were run in those
days, and according to the following day’s top-selling Sunday newspaper, “The People”, “he
took the lead a furlong from home to win as he liked”. Only an hour or so later Mason won a
heat of the 440 yards and then in the final lost by inches to 18-year-old Rifleman Cecil Griffiths,
who would be a member of Britain’s gold-medal 4 x 400 metres relay team at the 1920
Ironically, Griffiths would also eventually be banned from the Olympics after zealous
officialdom discovered he had raced for money prizes in his youth. The time of 51 1/5 may
seem ordinary by the standards of a century later, but in relation to the existing World record
(47 2/5 by Ted Meredith, of the USA, in 1916) it was as if 60 years later Ovett and Coe had
finished almost together in under 47sec. Indeed, Ovett (best of 47.5 for 400 metres) and Coe
(46.87) were perfectly capable of such times. It was rightly noted in “The Illustrated Sporting
and Dramatic News”, which covered athletics in great detail and published some of the most
dramatic action photographs of the day, that Mason “was running a bit out of his distance”.
Mason completed his afternoon with a half-mile win, for which he was described by “The
People” as “coming through to win much as he pleased”. and another keen-eyed reporter for
the “Athletic News”, which had a daily circulation of 170,000, described him as “the most
versatile athlete we have seen for a long time … the performer of the day”. It might even have
been that the “long time” referred to was the 1880s when Lon Myers had come to England on
more than one occasion from the USA. Myers set 21 World records at distances from 100 to
1000 yards during his brief life-time (he died of pneumonia on his 41st birthday).
Mason probably beat Griffiths on another occasion at the quarter-mile around this time because
in a most informative biography of Griffiths, written by John Hanna in 2014, there is a reliable
note that Mason won a race between the two of them the same month in 51.0. Whatever the
precise facts, Mason was good enough at the distance to match strides with his precocious rival
who in 1921 would set a Welsh record of 49.8. Only 20 others in the World that year ran as fast
as or faster than Griffiths – 14 of them being Americans. There’s also an un-detailed reference
to a 1:53.8 half-mile by Mason, comparing favourably to the 1916 World record of 1:52.2 by
the USA’s Ted Meredith.
Another unexplained performance by Mason is a 4:18.0 mile at an undisclosed venue some
time in June 1919, and it would obviously be helpful to have this verified. In any case, judging
by his other performances in 1919, there is no reason to doubt either this or the fast half-mile.
There is no evidence of times achieved in pre-war years, and even the studious Heidenstrom is
at a loss for an explanation. Mason certainly raced professionally, and he may well have come
up against the other leading NZ miler of the pre-1914 era, Arthur Dormer, but Heidenstrom has
noted that “the records are too sketchy to say”. Dormer was likewise reinstated as an amateur
and won NZ national titles at the half-mile in 1912 and 1913 and the mile in 1913 and 1914,
and would win both again in 1920, without ever breaking two minutes or four minutes 30.
Mason ran as many as 40 races in England and France during 1918-19 and lost only to two
Olympic champions, Cecil Griffiths and Albert Hill, and he would surely have been a medal
contender at the 1920 Games. His mile time ranked 4th in the World in 1919 to the USA’s Joie
Ray (4:14 2/5) and Eddie Fall (4:15.0) and to Albert Hill’s British record 4:16 4/5. Only one
amateur of the 15 who by then had ever run faster than 4:18.0 was not American or British –
John Zander, the Swedish holder of the World 1500 metres record, and the World mile record
stood at 4:12 3/5 to Norman Taber, of the USA, set in 1915.
Like the leading professional sprinters, Australia’s Jack Donaldson and Great Britain’s Willie
Applegarth, Mason had been given special dispensation during the war and immediately
afterwards to compete against amateurs in open competition, but here was never any prospect
of him being declared eligible for the Olympics. When Mason was 74 years old, the New
Zealand award-winning sports journalist, Max Smith, went to see him and found the old
champion still burning with resentment at his banning. Mason said that he ran only a couple of
“exhibition” races after returning home with his wife, Florence, whom he had married in 1919,
and then retired from athletics, taking up wrestling with some considerable success instead.
Max Smith featured “Doughty Dan” Mason in a 1964 book heartily entitled “Champion Blokes:
44 Great NZ Sportsmen Then and Now”.
That claim of a World-record mile time-trial by Mason is an intriguing one, and it was made on
some good authority. W.F. Ingram was another leading NZ sports journalist who wrote
numerous interesting and informative articles from at least 1930 onwards, and in 1940 he
featured “Our Soldier Athletes – Their Fame in Battle and Sport”. There he claimed that Mason
achieved his performance in a time-trial at the Codford military camp in Wiltshire, some seven
miles from Warminster and south of the Salisbury Plain. This was the base in England for the
Australian and New Zealand forces during World War I, and so it is perfectly feasible that
Mason and some of his comrades-in-arms trained and competed there. Frustratingly, no mention
of the time was made by the writer. 4:12? 4:11? 4:10? We shall presumably never know. Maybe
Ingram didn’t either.
Ingram also says of Mason, a shade over-enthusiastically, that “by his unbroken run of
successes as a member of the New Zealand Army athletics team he proved himself the greatest
middle-distance runner in the British Empire”, and that is a statement for which there is plenty
of data available to decide whether or not it is justified. Albert Hill’s skills were also wideranging,
as in 1910 he had been the English Amateur Athletic Association champion at four
miles (then a standard distance) and in 1914 was 2nd in the 880 yards. He had served in France
as a wireless operator with the Royal Flying Corps during the war and had apparently kept
basically fit with long slow runs and the occasional cross-country race safely away from the
battle zone. Transferred to the Royal Air Force Reserve in February 1919, he had rejoined his
club, Polytechnic Harriers, and had started back into competition with a very easy win in the
club 880 yards championship on Thursday .22 May at Paddington Recreation Ground, in North
Two days later he and Dan Mason lined up against each other at Stamford Bridge, which was
the West London cinder track used for the AAA Championships, at the start of a medley relay
(880 x 440 x 220 x 220 yards) contested by teams from England, New Zealand and Canada.
This would be one of the main events of an “Empire Day” celebration meeting. The New
Zealanders were all Army Sergeants, but no stronger national team could have been chosen.
Jimmy Wilton ran the 440 and Harry Wilson and Jack Lindsay the 220s, and they would all
figure prominently in the AAA Championships a few weeks later. The England team was Albert
Hill, Percy Sweet, Fred Mawby and Billy Hill (no relation), and Mason ran magnificently to
hold off Albert Hill by a yard or so in 1:55 2/5. The marginal lead was kept throughout, and
“The Sportsman” daily newspaper reported excitedly, “This contest will probably become
historical as the best relay race ever decided. New Zealand just won from England, and the way
of doing so proved about as perfect as possible”. The same victorious quartet reportedly won
more than 200 trophies, and as Mason was also an accomplished violinist and led an orchestra
which entertained the troops it must be wondered if he ever had time for any purely military
The winning time of 3:30 3/5 was said to be the fastest ever recorded for an event which would
remain of international importance throughout the inter-war years and shortly afterwards. In
fact, a Polytechnic Harriers team, including Albert Hill on the lead-off 880 yards, had run 3:29
4/5 in Glasgow on 1 August 1914 – and this was probably forgotten by the press and officialdom
at Stamford Bridge as it had occurred on the eve of the war. The event was regarded of such
importance that it was included in 23 international matches which either England (until 1931)
or Great Britain contested against France or Germany between 1921 and 1949, and no team ran
faster than the New Zealand soldiers until 1937, when Great Britain’s Godfrey Brown held off
Rudolf Harbig in an enthralling 880 yards anchor stage for a time of 3:26.2.
The fastest time recorded for the metric equivalent, in the order 400 x 200 x 200 x 800, was by
the Germans in the last of those years at 3:22.0 with Harbig, by now the World record-holder
for 400 and 800 metres, running the lead-off 400. The medley relay also figured in the
programme for the post-Olympic British Empire-v-USA matches, and a quartet of Phil Edwards
(Canada), Walter Rangeley (England), Johnny Fitzpatrick (Canada) and Douglas Lowe
(England) ran 3:22 3/5 for 880 x 220 x 220 x 440 in the 1928 fixture. There really seems no
reason why the IAAF should not have given the event official status.
Mason gained the finest win of 1919 in the Inter-Allied Games at Stade Pershing, in Paris,
beginning on 22 June, where he beat Earl Eby, of the USA, in the 800 metres in 1:55 2/5. Eevn
the “New York Herald” reported candidly of Eby’s defeat that “the sturdy Colonial out-guessed
and out-run him”. Eby would take the silver medal in the following year’s Olympics, 1:53.7 to
Albert Hill’s 1:53.4. A photograph of Mason and Eby together after the race shows Mason
almost a head taller than Eby, who is listed in Olympic archives as being 1.79 metres in height.
If so, Mason must have been 6ft 3in (1.91m) or even more !
These Inter-Allied Games were of Olympic standard in some events, with the US winners
including future World record-breakers Charley Paddock in both sprints, Clinton Larsen in the
high jump and Robert LeGendre in the pentathlon. Paddock would win 100 metres Olympic
gold in 1920 and LeGendre would set a World record for the long jump during the pentathlon
in 1924. Dan Mason’s Inter-Allied team-mates, Jack Lindsay, Jimmy Wilton and Harry Wilson,
were bronze-medalists in the 200 metres, 400 metres and 110 metres hurdles respectively.
The 800 metres final took place on Thursday 3 July, which was an unfortunate clash of dates
with the AAA Championships held in a single session at Stamford Bridge two days later. In
theory, Mason could have got back to London in time, but he and a fellow-New Zealander,
Darcy Hadfield, who had won the single sculls rowing event, were personally presented with
gold watches as the outstanding competitors of the Inter-Allied Games by Marshal Pétain, who
had been commander-in-chief of the French forces in World War I and would be a contentious
President of France during the next war. Mason and Hadfield would presumably have been
required to stay in Paris for the closing ceremony on the Sunday.
As it happens, Hill was in the sort of superlative form for the AAA Championships which would
win him the Olympic 800 and 1500 metres the next year. In the course of the afternoon, from
3.05 p.m. to 6.05 p.m., he ran a heat and final of the 800 metres, winning the title by at least 20
yards in 1:55 1/5 from the World record-holder for 1000 metres, Anatole Bolin, of Sweden, and
won the mile in 4:21 1/5 by a similar margin from another Swede, Sven Lundgren, before
finishing off his labours by running the lead-off 880 yards for Polytechnic Harriers in the
medley relay, which they won just as easily by 25 yards. Mason’s fellow-New Zealanders were
excused duties earlier in Paris and took a 1st place (Wilson in the high hurdles), a 2nd and two
3rd places at these AAA Championships. The NZ Army rugby football team on tour in England
between January and May had also been in All-Blacks form, winning 33 of their 38 matches
and losing only two.
Mason and Hill met instead in the 880 yards handicap event at the Rangers FC Sports at Ibrox,
Glasgow, on 2 August, with the usual massive crowd of 40,000. The result was decisive. Hill
gave Mason eight yards start and won by two yards in 1:57 2/5. What a pity that Mason didn’t
take on Hill again in the handicap mile at the same meeting because Hill made up all but five
of the 145 yards he had conceded to a local runner and finished in a British record-equalling
time of 4:16 4/5. At the rival Celtic FC Sports in Glasgow a week later Mason performed a
similar feat in the handicap 880, running the first lap in 54 2/5 and finishing in 1:55 2/5. The
existing World record was 1:52.2, again by Ted Meredith, of the USA, in 1916.
Called up again by his military superiors, Mason won the British Army 880 yards at Aldershot
on 29 August, and Sergeants Lindsay (100 and 220 yards) and Wilson (120 hurdles) also put
the officers in their place. Then on 4 September at Stamford Bridge Mason won the InterServices’
880 by eight yards in 1:59 1/5. All in all, a remarkably successful season for the New
Zealander, but was he really “the greatest middle-distance runner in the British Empire”, as
W.F. Ingram would later boldly claim? I rather think not – but ranking No.2 to one of the very
finest ever of all exponents of those events is not a bad commendation, I think you’d agree.
Sergeant Dan Mason sailed for home on Christmas Day 1919 and never raced competitively
again, though he apparently applied for reinstatement as an amateur. The only one of that
trailblazing Kiwi quartet of 1919 to return to Europe for the 1920 Olympics was Harry Wilson, and
he was 4th in the 110 metres hurdles. Meeting up with Mason at his garage business in Point
Chevalier, Auckland, in 1940, W.F. Ingram remarked that the old mile champion looked “fit
enough to run the race of his life”. Had he been able to do just that 20 years before, who knows
what he might have achieved? Maybe, though, 4:10 is fanciful. After all, no one did faster than
that officially until 1931.
Daniel Mason’s competitive career was a meteoric one, but how curious that he has been almost
entirely overlooked by the sport’s historians. Even his own country’s prime expert, Peter
Heidenstrom, knew very little about him. Neither of two of the foremost international experts,
Cordner Nelson and Roberto Quercetani, in their immensely detailed book, “The Milers”,
published by “Track & Field News” in 1985; make any mention. I have to admit that I, too,
have been at fault because in my 2004 book, “3:59.4: The Quest for the Four-Minute Mile”, I
went out of my way to draw attention to the milers over the years who I thought merited greater
consideration than they had received, but I missed Mason entirely.
Perhaps the words above make amends.