Voices from the Past

The Legend of Arthur Porritt – WWII Veteran and Olympic Medallist

Following up on the Olympic fever that has been sweeping through the country, we’ve rediscovered the story of former New Zealand track star Arthur Porritt, an Olympic bronze medallist who served during World War II.

Arthur Porritt took part in the legendary 100m final at the 1924 Olympics in Paris representing New Zealand. He raced against Britain’s Harold Abrahams and American Jackson Scholz, who won the gold and silver respectively during the final. Porritt came in a close third and earned the bronze medal in a time of 10.8 seconds, securing our first ever track medal at the Olympics. The race was made famous once again in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, however Porritt’s character was given the pseudonym ‘Tom Watson’ due to his modest reluctance in having his own name used.

Porritt was born in Wanganui on August 10th, 1900 and attended Wanganui Boys Collegiate. After three years at Otago University, Porritt was offered a Rhodes scholarship to study medicine at Oxford, graduating in 1926. When World War II broke out he served in the British Army as a brigadier, joining the Royal Army Medical Corps. Porritt spent the war in both Europe and Africa, being present at Dunkirk while the evacuation took place and later during the landings at Normandy. He was decorated as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1943, raised to Commander (CBE) in 1945 and two years later was made an officer in the US Legion of Merit.

After an outstanding list of accomplishments in his athletic, medical and military careers, Porritt went on to become the 11th Governor-General of New Zealand from 1967-1972. On returning to Britain at the end of his term, he was created Baronet of Hampstead and Wanganui and took the title of Baron Porritt. He passed away in London on 1st January 1994, aged 93 years.

Arthur Porritt’s New Zealand Army uniform is held within the National Army Museum collection.