Walter Newburn: The Ballinrobe Native who set a World Record

Walter Newburn
Gerry Delaney M.A.

On 16 July 1898, a native of Ballinrobe set a new world record when he cleared 24ft, 0½ins in the long-jump. The previous record had stood for forty-seven years and was set by an Englishman, John Howard, who jumped exactly 24ft in 1851.  The record breaker  was Walter Newburn. He was born in Abbey Street on 8 December 1873 and died in Lambeth, London on 14 February 1919. Walter was the oldest child of Johnston Thomas Newburn, an auctioneer, and Maria May, a policeman’s daughter.  After the birth of their second child the Newborns moved to Tyrellspass, Co. Westmeath where they had ten more children including twins who died in infancy.

World Record

Walter Newborn was a regular church-goer, and a member of the Church of Ireland Total Abstinence Society. He grew up in the golden age of Irish athletics and excelled at the long-jump. Walter set the world record at a sports competition in Ballsbridge, Dublin.

Great Rival

Walter’s great rival was Peter O’Connor (1872 – 1957). O’Connor surpassed Newburn’s mark on a few occasions but the new distances were disallowed by the Irish Amateur Athletics Association on technical grounds. Newburn was unionist in his political outlook whereas O’Connor was a nationalist and many members of the IAAA were unionists. O’Connor developed the mid-air kick which was later adapted by Jesse Owens in the 1930s. Eventually, in 1901, O’Connor surpassed Newborn’s record by leaping a spectacular 24ft, 11¾ins. This record was adopted as the inaugural official world record by the International Amateur Athletic Federation in 1913. O’Connor went on to become a two-time Olympic medal winner at the 1906 Athens Olympics.  Internationally, O’Connor’s world record was surpassed in 1921 but in Ireland it stood for over eighty years.

Teacher by Profession

By occupation Walter Newburn was a teacher and settled in Dublin where the family lived at 20 Marlborough Road, Donnybrook. Walter was the principal teacher in Castlewood College for the Deaf and Dumb in Rathmines. There he encouraged lip-reading, speech and writing. He discouraged sign-language and the use of the finger alphabet which he told the Irish Times in 1905 were ‘fatal to the acquirement of perfect speech and lip reading’. He married Elizabeth Meredith in 1896. She was also a teacher. They had seven sons and two daughters. Following Walter’s death his wife went to America.


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