Birth: Toronto, Ontario, July 12, 1855
Died: January 4, 1908
Career Highlights1875 - Ontario single-sculls rowing champion -- amateur
1876 - Centennial Regatta (Philadelphia, PA) champion -- professional
1878-80 - Match series winner vs. Charles Courtney
1880-84 - World single-sculls rowing champion (defended championship six times)
Ned Hanlan was Canada’s most prominent athlete of the 19th century, at a time when rowing was one of this country’s most popular spectator sports. Born on Toronto Island, Hanlan learned to row in Toronto Bay, using the route to go back and forth to school or to transport bootleg liquor for his father, depending on who was telling the story. His father operated a hotel on Toronto Island, and the press would later use Hanlan’s Irish, working-class roots to style him as a hero of Canada’s working people. He began to row in and win amateur regattas in 1873 and two years later became the Ontario single-sculls champion.
Hanlan turned professional in 1876, winning the Centennial Regatta in Philadelphia. He established his reputation as the world’s greatest oarsman over the next decade by winning numerous professional match races which were often promoted as “national” championships-in Canada, the U.S., and England. Between 1878 and 1880, he rowed a three-race series with U.S. amateur champion Charles Courtney. The series captured the public’s imagination and for the final race in May, 1880, an estimated 100,000 people gathered along the banks of the Potomac River, in Washington, D.C. to watch Hanlan’s victory.
In 1880, while in England, Hanlan won the world’s single-sculls championship by defeating Edward Trickett in a race on the Thames River. He retained the championship until 1884—defending it successfully six times—before losing to William Beach while on a tour of Australia, where he stayed until 1885. Hanlan returned in 1887 in the hopes of regaining the championship.
Hanlan’s remarkable success and popularity have been attributed to a number of factors. He pioneered the use of the sliding seat, defeating larger men who were still using a stationary seat. His showmanship and flair for the dramatic kept all his races close, captivating the sizable crowds and the considerable betting that accompanied most of his races. Finally, the press—members of whom were involved in the Hanlan Club that managed his races and set wagers—did much to publicize Canada’s sporting hero.
Hanlan continued to row competitively until 1897, never again winning the world’s championship. He coached oarsmen at both Columbia University and the University of Toronto. For a time he operated his father’s hotel on Toronto Island and, in the late-1880s, served as an alderman in Toronto. His civic funeral in 1908 was attended by 10,000 mourners, and in 1926—50 years after his first professional race—he was permanently honoured when the city erected a bronze statue in his honour on the grounds of Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition.