Ned Hanlan

As summer approaches, the thoughts of many people in Toronto begin to turn from spring cleaning to the rapidly approaching end of school and traditional summer pursuits. For many Torontonians, this means only one thing, idling the day away on the Toronto Islands, where Hanlan’s Point is a particularly popular rest spot. But one hundred years after Ned Hanlan’s death in 1908, very few people know the story of the man for whom Hanlan’s Point is named.


Known as Ned to his family and friends, Edward Hanlan was born on the Toronto Islands on July 12, 1855 to John Hanlan and Mary Gibbs. Hanlan’s interest in rowing began at an early age when he would row across Toronto Bay to run errands for his father’s hotel or to go to school.


He made the newspapers when he was only five after threading among boats in the harbour so he could see the Prince of Wales, who was touring the British Empire at the time.


Given the amount of time Hanlan spent on the water, it was perhaps inevitable that he should become interested in becoming a competitive oarsman. Hanlan entered his first race when he was just 16 years old as part of a three man “fisherman’s crew.”


According to Richard MacFarlane, the official historian for the Hanlan Boat Club, such crews were looked on with suspicion by the gentlemen amateurs against whom they competed. The reason for this was because they were seen as having a professional advantage due to the fact that people such as Ned Hanlan spent significant amounts of time on the water as part of the day-to-day routine of their lives.


MacFarlane said what really set the so-called professionals apart from the amateurs was that the amateurs did not work. MacFarlane went on to add that in some regattas, the rules of competition specifically forbid professional oarsmen from entering. Such individuals could also be subject to disqualification and other penalties if they were discovered.


At the time that Hanlan began to compete, however, a shift in emphasis from amateur athletes competing for the love of sport to professionals in pursuit of cash prizes was taking place.


Bruce Kidd, the Dean of Faculty for Physical Education and Health at the University of Toronto said that this process is one that had already begun when Hanlan began his career as a professional oarsman and would continue long after his death. According to Kidd, it was driven by the successful capture of the sports media by sports entrepreneurs and would culminate in the creation of Hockey Night in Canada in the 1930s.


This was due in a large part to the behind-the-scenes skulduggery rampant in professional rowing. Huge amounts of money were changing hands, both in the form of bets and bribes. MacFarlane said that races were often fixed, boats were sabotaged and that there were even instances of one oarsman having another quietly murdered.


MacFarlane compared this atmosphere to the world of professional boxing. “The handlers got the money,” said MacFarlane. According to MacFarlane oarsmen such as Hanlan would be given “a few large crumbs” while the bulk of the money, which would be made through betting on the outcome of the race would go into the pockets of his backers.


In the 1860s, a syndicate of more that 20 prominent Toronto businessmen was formed. Among them were such prominent figures as David Ward, Albert Shaw, John Davis and James Douglas. They called themselves the Hanlan Club and they provided Ned Hanlan with the financial backing necessary to compete.


In 1874, Hanlan wore, for the first time, what was to become his trademark , a red head band and a blue shirt, which gave him the nickname, “the boy in blue.” That same year, he defeated the reigning champion, Thomas Loudon, three times in a row to become the Toronto rowing champion and was eventually awarded the coveted Dufferin Medal.


The following year Hanlan won the Ontario provincial championship.


Hanlan’s growing list of victories and the stakes that came with them led the members of the Hanlan Club to make a number of decisions on Ned’s behalf. The first was to switch his area of competition from doubles to singles events. They also hired a trainer, James Heasley, who was to oversee the details of Hanlan’s training schedule, leaving him free to “row, eat, exercise and sleep.”


In 1876, Ned rewarded the confidence the Hanlan Club had shown in him when he won the Centennial Regatta in Philadelphia.


MacFarlane said that this was an important moment in Hanlan’s career, as he was racing against the very best oarsmen in the United States.


“Hanlan whipped them all,” said MacFarlane.


Kidd agreed, stating that Hanlan’s success in Philadelphia “legitimized him in the eyes of most of the Toronto establishment.”


Hanlan’s victory in Philadelphia was important because it catapulted him to the top of the competitive rowing world. Before Philadelphia, Hanlan was unknown. Afterward, he was an opponent to be beaten.


The years that followed only served to cement Hanlan’s reputation as an exceptional oarsman. Following his capture of the American championship in Philadelphia, Hanlan set his sights on other national championships. The first was the Canadian championship, which Hanlan won on a five mile course against an oarsman from New Brunswick named Wallace Ross. The following year, Hanlan defeated the newest American champ, Ephraim Evans Morris in Pittsburg on the treacherous Allegheny River. The year after that Hanlan took the English championship when he beat William Elliot by a spectacular 11 lengths on the River Tyne.


“Toronto had bragging rights,” said MacFarlane.


With this triple crown, the Hanlan Club disbanded. Ned, however, wanted one final coup de grace race. He wanted to be a recognized world champion. On Nov. 15, 1880, Hanlan challenged the reigning world champion Edward Trickett to a race on the River Thames’ historic Putney to Mortlake course.


An estimated 100,000 people lined both banks of the river to watch the Canadian who had come from nowhere to challenge the world champion. Hanlan won the race easily. When news of his victory reached Canada, spontaneous celebrations broke out all over the country. Hanlan had become the first Canadian to win a world championship in a singles sporting event.


Hanlan proved to be a very active champion. He accepted numerous challenges, in addition to racing in non-title regattas. Defending his titles and his American title in particular proved to be highly lucrative.


In 1878, Hanlan won an unprecedented $10,000 racing against the American oarsman, Charles Edward Courtney at Lachine, Quebec. He defeated Courtney again a few months later, this time in Washington DC. This was only the beginning of a string of further successes in the early 1880s.


The key to Hanlan’s winning streak, which would last almost to the end of his career, was his highly effective stroke.


MacFarlane said that Hanlan only rowed at 32 strokes per minute, unlike many of his competitors who often rowed at a rate of 36 to 40 strokes per minute. The key to Hanlan’s success, said MacFarlane, lay in Hanlan’s early adpotion of the sliding seat.


The real origins of the sliding seat, may never be known, but what is known is that it first appeared in the early 1870s when it was adopted by the members of the London Rowing Club, who took it to the Royal Henley Regatta in 1872 and won every race they entered.


The sliding seat “revolutionized the biomechanics of the sport,” said Kidd. “It enabled rowers to enlist all of the muscles of the body, not just the arms and shoulders.” Kidd went on to point out the fact that Hanlan was physically much smaller than many of the men he raced against, yet because of the sliding seat, he was able to increase the effectiveness of his stroke because he was able to better harness the power of his abdomen and legs.


When Hanlan was not competing, he was engaged in putting on exhibitions, in which he would race locals, or the clock. He would also put on displays of trick rowing, such as rowing in a straight line with only one oar, rowing in zigzags and even walking on water with a special pair of tin shoes.


During races, Hanlan became equally as well known for putting on a show for the spectators watching on the river banks. He would stop and chat with them, fake collapse and even taunt his opponent. One of Hanlan’s favourite stunts was to turn around after crossing the finish line and meet his opponent at the half way point on the course so he could beat them again.


“He did a lot of antics,” said MacFarlane.


Despite this, Hanlan was known for being a model sportsman. He respected his opponents and would often give them a set of oars as a gift after the race. This, combined with the way he fooled around while racing, and his “average folk” origins made him incredibly popular, right to the end of his career and beyond.


What was most important, however, was the way Hanlan constantly emphasized his Canadian origins. Hanlan was the first native-born Canadian to receive world-wide recognition for his athletic accomplishments. He also provided a huge boost to immigration and was said to have been “as good as the railroad.”


Hanlan sent the message that Canada was a country built on the ideals of opportunity and equality. He also sent the message that even though Canada was only 15 years old, a tradition of excellence was already established.


“We have our own champions.”


Kidd agreed, saying that Hanlan’s success created a loyalty to Canada that crossed class, gender and ethnic boundaries.




Ned Hanlan’s retirement in 1897 marked the close of what has been called the most brilliant achievement in the history of sports. Over the course of a 26 year career, Ned Hanlan competed in more than 300 races and was beaten less than a dozen times.


Even after his retirement from competitive rowing, Hanlan still remained active in the sport, coaching the University of Toronto rowing team and later the Columbia University team. He was also an active member of Toronto’s Argonaut Rowing Club, where he was popular for telling tales of his many exploits.


In 1898, Hanlan became an Alderman for the city of Toronto, representing the Toronto Islands. He was responsible for many improvements to the Islands’ infrastructure such as the introduction of electricity and better roads and paths. However, his outspokenness did little to win him friends and he was voted out of office in 1900.


Hanlan continued to live on the Islands running his family’s hotel. He died of pneumonia on January 4, 1908. Even today, Hanlan’s funeral is remembered as one of the largest and most elaborate in Toronto’s history. It is believed that approximately 10,000 people filed past his coffin in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, while his funeral cortege was a mile long.


Kidd also believed that Hanlan left a lasting legacy to Canadian athletes. “He made Canada a respectable sporting nation in the eyes of many first world people in the 19th Century and inspired several generations of athletes.”


A mark of the impact that Hanlan had on the evolution of Canadian sports and on Canadian history in general can be found in the dedication speech given during the unveiling of the monument erected in his memory in 1926. “Vimy Ridge was won on the rowing courses and stadia of Canada.” Hanlan’s memorial originally stood near Lake Ontario on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. However, it was moved in 2004 to its current home near the ferry dock at Hanlan’s Point


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