Remembering Edward “Ned” Hanlan: July 12: Snapshots in History

July 13, 2018 | John P.

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Take a moment to remember one-time World Champion sculler Edward (Ned) Hanlan (Born: 12 July 1855 in Toronto; Died: 4 January 1908 in Toronto). Ned Hanlan was the first Canadian athlete to become a world champion in a sporting event for individuals and the first individual Canadian athlete to be recognized internationally.

Hanlan’s competitive bent in sculls dated back to the early 1870s when he won the amateur championship of Toronto bay in 1873. Wearing his now-trademark blue shirt and red headband, he beat Thomas Loudon thrice in 1874, resulting in a side bet win of $100 and a Dufferin medal. In 1875, Hanlan won the Ontario championship.  Several influential Torontonians pooled their resources in 1876 to support Edward Hanlan as a professional sculler. He won the single sculls category at the Centennial Regatta in Philadelphia that same year. In 1877, Hanlan captured the Canadian championship on a five-mile course with a turn in Toronto bay by defeating Wallace Ross from New Brunswick. In 1878, Hanlan won the American championship on the Allegheny River over Ephraim Morris. In 1879, he defeated William Elliott over a 3.5-mile stretch on the River Tyne for the English Championship.

Hanlan captured the World Championship in individual rowing in London, England on the River Thames by defeating the incumbent Champion Edward Trickett of Australia on November 15, 1880. The November 16, 1880 issue of The Globe newspaper offered to readers an article on page 1 titled as follows: “HANLAN VICTORIOUS: The Canadian Champion the Champion of the World: He Gains an Easy Victory over Trickett: The Race Resolved into the Usual Procession: Estimate Made by the “Sportsman” of the Canadian’s Powers”. Here is an excerpt from that article:

“…This lead was increasing before reaching Hammersmith Bridge, at which point, the time was, Hanlan 9:31, Trickett 9:34…it was clear that Hanlan had matters all his own way, and was as fresh as a daisy,..The Canadian on being cheered by thousands of spectators ceased rowing, and leaning back, bowed his acknowledgements. This he repeated at several points…he played just as he pleased with Trickett…Hanlan won easily by two lengths clear, but he could have made the difference much greater if he had chosen. The time over the full course was:- Hanlan…26 m. 12 sec…Trickett…26 m. 19 sec…”

Writing in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (DCB), Professor Bruce Kidd noted that “Hanlan’s genius was a superbly efficient stroke – he was the father of the modern technique. He took full advantage of the sliding seat, not only to obtain greater reach but to drive with the large muscles of the legs in a coordinated, fluid motion so that the power of his whole body was marshalled into every stroke…Hanlan, who was only 5 feet 8 ¾ inches tall, weighed a mere 150 pounds in most of his races, yet his powerful stroke enabled him to beat larger, stronger men…”

In those days, Championships were handled on an invitational basis with money and racing venues taken into account. However, Edward Hanlan was an active champion and defended his title several times – February 14, 1881 against Elias Laycock (Australia) on the River Thames in England; April 3, 1882 against Robert Boyd (Great Britain) on the River Tyne in England; May 30, 1883 against John Kennedy (United States) at Point of Pines, Boston, Massachusetts; July 18, 1883 against Wallace Ross (Canada) at Ogdensberg, New York; and, May 22, 1884 against Elias Laycock (Australia) at Nepean, Sydney, Australia.

Edward Hanlan met his match in Bill Beach (Australia) who used the same rowing technique as Hanlan and was larger in size than Hanlan as well. Hanlan lost to Beach on August 16, 1884 at Parramatta, Sydney, Australia as well as two subsequent re-matches on March 28, 1885 and November 26, 1887. Hanlan also lost the World Championship twice to Peter Kemp (Australia) on May 5, 1888 and September 25, 1888, both at Parramatta, Sydney, Australia.

In post-competitive years, Hanlan moved his family from Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Island to the mainland in addition to selling Hanlan’s Hotel. He also coached the rowing team for the University of Toronto, and embarked upon a political career. In 1898, he won the fourth of four aldermanic seats in Toronto’s Ward 4. As an alderman, he was appointed to the Toronto Harbour Trust and began to speak out on issues concerning recreation and the waterfront. Some of the issues he championed included: electrification and bicycle paths on Toronto Island; special bicycle lanes in the city itself; improved streetcar service; public swimming pools, and a new public library.

Apparently immune to the influence of special interest groups, Hanlan criticized the Toronto Harbour Trust for contributing to lake pollution and not properly maintaining breakwaters. He also called for public ownership of the ferry service managed by his own brother-in-law, Lawrence Solman.

Successful in his 1899 re-election bid, Edward Hanlan lost his position on the Toronto Harbour Trust, earned the enmity of Toronto’s fire brigade for seeking its re-organization, alienated business leaders by supporting workers’ calls for a nine-hour work day. Nonetheless, Hanlan did not align himself with the labour movement nor with the political reformers. In 1900, Hanlan lost his seat on City Council while reformer Ernest Macdonald was elected Mayor of Toronto.

The Globe carried the following article on page 20 of the January 4, 1908 issue of the newspaper: “EDWARD HANLAN IS DEAD: Famous Oarsman Succumbs to Attack of Pneumonia…”. Here is an excerpt from that article:

“Edward Hanlan, former champion oarsman of the world, died at his residence, 189 Beverley street, shortly before 1 o’clock this morning from pneumonia. He had been ill for about ten days…The patient was unconscious for several days…recognized his wife for the last time yesterday morning…Mr. Hanlan was born on Toronto Island fifty-two years ago, and was always a resident of this city. His wife, formerly…Elizabeth Sutherland, survives him, and there are eight children, two sons and six daughters, one of the latter being Mrs. Charles Michie. There are also two sisters, Mrs. Lawrence Solman and Miss Hanlan. Edward Durnan, another champion oarsman, is a nephew…”

The Globe had this to say about Edward Hanlan on its editorial page on page 4 of the January 4, 1908 issue of the newspaper:

“…The late Edward Hanlan is generally believed to have been the best oarsman the world has produced…He had a decided advantage over many of his competitors in having a lighter passenger to carry, but he had a still greater advantage in being the inventor and master of a style which his competitors had to imitate in order to have any chance of success in a match with him…Mr. Hanlan was a man of genial temperament and modest demeanor. From the day of his first international victory at Philadelphia in 1876 he retained his popularity with the people of Toronto…”

On January 8, 1908, the day of Edward Hanlan’s funeral, the Globe newspaper carried an article on pages 1 and 9 entitled: “EDWARD HANLAN LAID TO REST: Thousands Saw Funeral of the Famous Oarsman REMAINS WERE IN STATE Many Friends From Outside Places Pay Last Respects Streets Were Lined With Spectators While Cortege Passed Along-- Private Service Held at Residence-- City Council Holds Special Meeting and Passes Resolution of Condolence”. Here is an excerpt from the article on page 9:

“…The City Council held a special meeting at 2 o’clock, prior to attending the funeral. The following resolution of condolence was unanimously passed by Council on motion of Controllers Hubbard and Harrison: ‘That this Council has learned with profound sorrow of the death of the 4th instant of ex-Alderman Edward Hanlan, an esteemed citizen of Toronto, and one who, by his skill and prowess with the oars, winning, time and again, the championship of the world at single sculls, made his native city prominently and favourably known throughout the British Empire and the world at large…’…”

To view these articles in full, please access the Globe and Mail Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card.


Consider the following items from Toronto Public Library collections:


Fire on the water the red-hot career of superstar rower Ned Hanlan

Book, 2007


Edward Hanlan 1855-1908 c1-97c

Edward Hanlan, 1855-1908


Picture, 1890, English

(Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection; Call Number / Accession Number: C1-97c)


Edward Hanlan  1855-1908  with Frederick James Archer 1857-1886 at left and Tom Cannon at right c1-97a

Edward Hanlan, 1855-1908, with Frederick James Archer (1857-1886) at left and Tom Cannon at right.


Picture, 1883, English

(Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection; Call Number / Accession Number: C1-97a)


Edward Hanlan 1855-1908 978-48

Edward, Hanlan 1855-1908

Hunter and Company (Toronto)

Picture, 1876, English

(Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection; Call Number / Accession Number: 978-48 Cab)


Edward Hanlan 1855-1908 941-1-3

Edward Hanlan, 1855-1908


Picture, 1876, English

(Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection; Call Number / Accession Number: 941-1-3)


Hanlan  Hotel  Hanlan's Point; boat-house 1870 pictures-r-3424

Hanlan, Hotel, Hanlan's Point; boat-house


Picture, 1870, English

(Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection; Call Number / Accession Number: B12-18b)


Or watch the feature film The Boy in Blue (1986) with actor Nicholas Cage portraying Ned Hanlan and actor Christopher Plummer in a supporting role.

The Boy in Blue

DVD, 2012


See also the following blog post published in 2015: Toronto’s First Sporting Hero: Ned Hanlan