Frances Hayward — a Comrades Marathon barrier breaker more than 50 years before women allowed to enter

Frances Hayward — a Comrades Marathon barrier breaker more than 50 years before women allowed to enter
Frances Hayward. Photo: Supplied by the Comrades Marathon Association).

More than half a century before women were officially allowed to participate in the Comrades Marathon, Frances Hayward, a pioneering Englishwoman, defied the odds and the norms of the day, to complete the 1923 race.

It may be only 48 years since women were allowed to officially run the Comrades Marathon but female trailblazers have been part and parcel of the world’s greatest footrace since its origins.

Today, 24 May 2023, marks a centenary of women’s participation in The Ultimate Human Race. Frances Hayward (no relation to five-time Comrades winner Wally Hayward) was the first woman to have unofficially completed the Comrades Marathon in 1923, during a time when the race was only open to white men.

Frances Elizabeth Hayward was born on the 14 August 1891 in Wiltshire, England. Her father was part of a fairly affluent woollen mill-owning family and she grew up in a large English home and received a good education.

From a young age, Frances showed a desire for independence, strong character and fortitude. At the age of 20, she worked as a church embroideress at the County Home in Stafford.

While being an embroideress during the early 1900s was a respectable job for a woman, working at the country home would have been considered scandalous for her station as it was a home designed to reform women who had served time in prison and had no family support or work experience.

Frances Hayward, Comrades Marathon

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Frances Hayward (above), becoming the first female to run and complete, the Comrades Marathon. (Photo: Supplied by the Comrades Marathon Association).

Bold move

In a very bold move, on 3 January, 1914, she departed from Southampton for Cape Town on the SS Galician — a vessel of the Union Castle Mail Steamship Company.

During this period it was highly unusual for a woman to travel alone, yet she was undeterred and the excitement of the colonies drew her to South Africa.

She found herself restless in Cape Town and wanted to travel and see more of South Africa. In September 1921 and now qualified as a clerk, she boarded a steamer headed for Natal and travelled alone to Durban. 

She got a position as a typist and, living free of the usual restrictions her class would have held her to in England, enjoyed living a single, independent life.

At the age of 30, the intrigue of the Comrades Marathon had caught her attention and she sent a letter to Vic Clapham and applied to run in the 1923 race.

Her entry left Clapham and the Athletics Association in a state of confusion as they had never had a woman applying to enter any male athletics events before. After considerable debate they refused to accept her entry. She sent an immediate response to the association and Vic that she was undaunted by their decision and would therefore run unofficially.

On only the third running of the race in 1923, she lined up outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall with the 68 men who were competing that year.


Dressed in a dark green gym suit and leather-soled plimsolls, she started her journey along the road to Durban. Despite the general consensus that the distance would be too great for a woman, she was well supported by her fellow competitors and spectators alike.

Frances crossed the line in 11:35:00, in what would have been 28th position in a field of 30 finishers that year. 

The Natal Witness reported “Miss Hayward made a steady pace, dropping to a walk on the hills, and, at Thornybush, was last but one, a good mile behind the others. She looked cheerful and fit, having previously announced her intention of making Drummond by 11am.

“Miss Frances Hayward, got to Drummond in 11:14, not far astern of her intended schedule.” The article ended with “another signal of women’s emancipation from the thraldom of good-natured disdain in which mere man has held her.”

Gerda Steyn, Comrades Marathon

From Frances Hayward to Gerda Steyn (pictured winning in 2019) women have carved a wonderful history in the Comrades Marathon. (Photo: Anesh Debiky/Gallo Images)

She had achieved what she set out to do — to be the first woman to attempt the race; and “to shock everybody.”

She stated: “I should have been content if I had beaten just one man!” She beat two who finished and 38 who dropped out.

Her run was not officially recognised due to the rejection of her entry, and she received no silver medal (as all finishers were awarded silver during the 1920s), but the citizens of Durban were so impressed by her performance that they pooled together and presented her with a silver tea set and silver rose bowl as congratulations. DM


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