Toronto’s First Sporting Hero: Ned Hanlan

July 15, 2015 | Nicole

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Today you can catch the Men’s Single Sculls Final at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games. Did you know that back in the late 19th century, single sculls rowing was one of the most popular sporting events in the city? In fact, Ned Hanlan, a handsome and mustachioed young sculler from Toronto is widely regarded as Canada’s first national sporting hero.

  Ned Hanlan GlassEdward Hanlan (1855-1908), W. Williamson, Albumen portrait on glass, 1876

This stunning portrait of Ned Hanlan is one of the highlights of our new exhibition, Toronto's Sporting Past, on now at the TD Gallery at the Toronto Reference Library. The portrait has been applied and hand-painted on a piece of glass, a 19th century photographic process known as a crystoleum.

Edward (Ned) Hanlan was born in 1855 to parents who operated a hotel on the west part of Toronto Island, later known as Hanlan’s Point. The waterways around the island became his training ground and he began sculling competitively by the age of 18. 

  Hotel Hanlon
Hotel Hanlon, Hanlon's Point, Toronto, Canada, Valentine & Sons' Publishing Co. Ltd., postcard, 1910

At the time, singles sculling was one of the most popular sporting events in the city, attracting thousands of eager spectators to Toronto’s waterfront. These popular races offered generous prizes for the competitors and high-stakes winnings for those who gambled on their success.

Hanlan’s talents attracted the attention of a group of prominent Toronto businessmen Jack Davis, H.P. Good, J. Rogers, Col Albert Shaw, and Dave Ward, who joined together to finance his burgeoning sporting career. His supporters also equipped Hanlan with a new boat featuring cutting-edge innovations: swivel oarlocks and a sliding seat.

  Hanlan-Plaisted International Rowing Competition
Ned Hanlan racing Fred Plaistad, Toronto Bay, Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith, 1846-1923, Albumen print, 1875

Known as the “Boy in Blue” because of his racing colours, Hanlan quickly garnered national and international attention for winning a series of high profile championships in Canada and the United States. He was also known as a flamboyant showman who tried to narrow his margin of victory to keep spectators (and gamblers) on their toes. 

In 1880, Hanlan defeated Australian world champion Edward Trickett on the Thames River in London and became Canada’s first world champion. Hanlan successfully defended the title six times and went on to win over 300 races over the course of his career.

After retiring from his racing career, Hanlan went on to coach rowing and often served as a judge for regattas in the city. In 1898, he was elected city alderman and became a vocal advocate for bike lanes and paths in Toronto, public swimming pools, and a new public library!

You can see these delightful portraits of Hanlan and discover many more stories about the games, clubs, rules, and personalities from Toronto’s Sporting Past by visiting in the TD Gallery on the main floor of Toronto Reference Library. The exhibition looks back at the lively history of sport in Toronto up until the First World War, through historical documents, artwork, ephemera and rare books from the Toronto Public Library's Special Collections. It runs until September 5, 2015.

If you want to learn more about Toronto’s Sporting Past, be sure to visit our Virtual Exhibit. You can also explore many more images of sport and recreation on our Digital Archive.