Ned Hanlan & The History of HBC

Hanlan Boat Club, named after the world-famous sculler Edward “Ned” Hanlan has a rich and colourful history on Lake Ontario.

Hanlan,  born on July 12, 1855, began rowing while growing up on Toronto Island. He was the second son of fisherman, hotelier, and constable John Hanlan and Mary Gibbs. At first, the family lived on the eastern part of the Islands. Then they moved to Hanlan’s Point which is named after the parents, not Hanlan the sculler.

Some have said that a boat was Hanlan’s baby carriage. While youngsters handled toys, Hanlan grasped oars. Hanlan became fascinated with rowing as he observed the single oarsmen on Toronto Bay. Rowing became as natural to Hanlan as walking. In a scooped out wooden plank, Hanlan used to cross Lake Ontario in all kinds of weather to attend George Street Public School on the mainland.

In 1873, at the age of 18, Hanlan won the amateur sculling championship on Toronto Bay, defeating prominent scullers Sam Williams and William McKen. He went on to win competitions at the local, provincial, and national levels.

By 1876, Hanlan’s early success persuaded local businessmen to form “The Hanlan Club”.  Among them was David Ward, a pawnbroker; Col. Albert D. Shaw, American consul; John Davis, a government inspector; and James Douglas, a hotel keeper. They arranged matches, drew up contracts, and negotiated prize money. Matched single competitions would have up to 100,000 spectators and the equivalent of up to $20 million in bets wagered on the outcome. Prize money was from $1,000 to $5,000, a substantial sum, equivalent to upwards  of $100,000, today. Race lengths varied, usually from 1 to 1.5 miles, or from 2 to 6 miles, with a turn, so spectators could watch most of the rowing and place bets at the half-way mark.

Hanlan’s rise to prominence was secured when he defeated elite scullers from Canada and the United States at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Regatta on the Schuylkill River. Over the five-kilometre course, Hanlan won the final race against Alex Brayley of St. John, New Brunswick, in a record time of 21 minutes, 9.5 seconds. On arriving home, aboard the S.S. City of Toronto, he was welcomed by thousands of delirious celebrants. Martial bands played “See the Conquering Hero Comes”. Great blasts issued from tug boats among the hundreds of boats along a half-mile of the waterfront.  It was said that you could step from one boat to another and never get your feet wet. A torchlight procession marched down Yonge Street. Hanlan received a watch and silver medal from His Worship Angus Morrison, Mayor of Toronto. “Had Hanlan been a victorious general returning with a brilliant military record, ‘the hero of a hundred fights’, he could not have received a greater or more hearty reception,” proclaimed the Toronto Globe newspaper editorial.

In 1877, Hanlan married Margaret Gordon Sutherland of Pictou, Nova Scotia, a loyal wife and enthusiastic supporter who travelled to many of his regattas. The family had six girls (Edith, Audrey, Mae Gladys, Grace, Margaret, and Eileen) and two boys (Edward Gordon and Douglas) born between 1879 and 1899.

In 1878, Hanlan became United States Champion, victorious against Evan Morris on Pittsburgh’s Allegheny River. From Toronto, 54 wealthy citizens, travelling on a chartered railway car to see the event, initially raised $60,000 to bet on Ned. By the time they reached Pittsburgh, the total was $300,000, millions of dollars today.

In 1879, Hanlan was the Champion of England, defeating William Elliott by 11 lengths on the Tyne River. In England, he was described as a young colonial boy with the “knees to nose” style of rowing. The Buffalo Courier proclaimed, “Hanlan has been worth more to Canada than its new railroad.”

Also in 1879, W.H.C. Kerr wrote a poem about Hanlan and published it to raise funds to build a large stone house for the Hanlan family at 189 Beverley Street, coincidently opposite that of George Brown, one of the fathers of Confederation.

On November 15, 1880, Hanlan became the World Champion sculler with a win on the Thames River in England, against Australian E.A. Trickett, known as “a giant at the oar” at 6’5″. The Marquis of Lorne, son-in-law of Queen Victoria and Governor General of Canada, requested that news of the race be telegraphed to him immediately. Hanlan went on to win 300 matched competitions, a remarkable achievement.  He lost a mere 6 events.

Hanlan, known as “The Boy In Blue”, was only 5′ 8” and never weighed more than 155 pounds. He is considered the oarsman who first mastered the sliding seat which was an innovation in rowing during the 1800s. He developed a long, powerful stroke, trained up to 13 kilometres a day, and seldom raced at more than 32 strokes per minute. Local newspapers described Hanlan as “unreserved, gracious, kindly, clean, humorous, honest and sporting, with two sterling qualities — friendliness and cleanliness of mind.”

As an example of his sportsmanship, when Hanlan won the United States championship race in 1878 he presented Evan Morris with a new pair of sculling oars, made by Toronto manufacturer, George Warin.

John Joseph (J.J.) Ryan, who was an exemplary sculler during the 1880s with Bayside Rowing Club and Toronto Rowing Club, rowed a double with Hanlan. In a tribute to the great oarsman in Outdoor Canada journal, 1908, Ryan argued that the foundation of the Canadian Association of Amateur Oarsmen was due to the vast interest Hanlan created in rowing. Ryan wrote, “Hanlan was not only the best oarsman of his time – most men would say of all time – but he put rowing on an entirely different basis from that which it occupied, both in fact and in public appreciation.”

The CAAO, now known as Rowing Canada, held its first regatta on Toronto Bay in 1880, in large measure due to Hanlan’s prominence in the sport. After this annual regatta toured different cities in Ontario (Barrie, Brockville, Hamilton) and Lachine, Quebec, Hanlan was on the selection committee to choose a permanent home. In 1903, this became the Royal Canadian Henley in St. Catharines.

Hanlan won the World Championship six times between 1880 and 1884. In 1884, he lost his world title in a matched race on the Paramatta River in Sydney against William Beach, a 200 pound, steel-nerved Australian blacksmith. At the conclusion of the historic race, Beach said, “I have beaten you, Ned, but you are still the best oarsman in the world.” To honor Hanlan, Australians renamed a city and called it Toronto, New South Wales, Australia.

Hanlan was hailed as a “prince of scullers”, “the sculling phenomenon”, “the Champion of Worth”, “the little Canuck”, “a Canadian David”, “the Aquatic King”, and “the Conquering Hero”. Only a dozen years after Confederation, Ned Hanlan was the very first native-born Canadian to achieve international recognition in any discipline, long before Canadian politicians, adventurers, doctors, scientists, or academics received adulation for their accomplishments. The success of Hanlan drew suggestions by editorial writers that he achieve knighthood.

The rivalry between Canada and the United States in rowing was best illustrated from 1878 to 1880, when Hanlan competed in three races against Charles Courtney of Union Springs, New York. The press wrote headline stories, featuring the plucky Canadian, “Mighty Ned”, against the powerful American eagle. Controversy and scandal intruded into the public perception of professional rowing as a healthy and honest endeavor. This was the beginning of the end of matched single events with their betting and big-money stakes.

In a New York Times feature, May 13, 1917, by James C. Rice, noted coach of Columbia University of New York, declared, “No man has yet equalled the achievements of ‘Edward Hanlan of the Island’ in the game of rowing. I never knew a finer oarsman, I never met a straighter man. He met his opponents without fear or favor. He rowed under all conditions and in many countries. In the days when the sport produced the greatest men in its annals he fought his way to the top and held the crown for four years. In short – he was the best ever.”

In major cities around the world when Hanlan was competing, operas stopped, theatres stopped, people paused, debate in Parliament halted, in mid-stream, with heightened expectation, as people awaited news of the results and then cheered his victories. Hanlan represented the new Dominion of Canada, and its citizens had reason to celebrate. His name became a household word in Paris, London, Rome, Boston, New York, and particularly throughout the British Empire.

Hanlan was proud of his nationality. When an American newspaper reporter called Hanlan ‘a thoroughbred American’, he replied, “I was born in Canada and I am a Canadian.”

Hanlan has been honoured in several ways. In Meadowvale-Mississauga, at Second Line East (Tomken Road) and Brittania Road East, the area was named “Hanlan’s Corners” in the late 1800s, at the height of his fame. In this district, there was also a “Hanlan’s School”.

In July 1884, a Toronto tradition began. The annual Dominion Day Regatta hosted crews from Canada and the United States, most likely at the foot of York Street. The event was also held in Humber Bay, near the CNE grounds. During the 1930s, the Dominion Day Regatta Association held races at the old Hanlan’s Point Lagoon, and the regatta course was named “Hanlan Memorial Course”. When the Island Airport opened, the Regatta moved to Long Pond on Centre Island. The Year 2009 is the 125th anniversary of the oldest and largest combined canoeing and rowing regatta in North America.

In 1897, Hanlan retired from competitive rowing and dedicated himself to coaching. At different times, he was coach of both single scullers and sweep oar crews from Columbia University Rowing Club in New York, Ottawa Rowing Club, Toronto Rowing Club, Argonaut Rowing Club, and the University of Toronto. Hanlan also coached Jacob Gill Gaudaur, World Champion sculler in 1896, who had defeated Hanlan for the American Championship, in Austin, Texas, 1894, with a world record time of 19 minutes, 1.5 seconds, for 3 miles with a turn, that was reputedly never surpassed. Hanlan coached 1904 Henley Royal Diamond Sculls Champion, Lou Scholes, who was stroke of the Toronto Rowing Club junior eight.

Also in 1897, Ten Eyck, of the Wachusett Boat Club of Worcester, Massachusetts, who won the Henley Royal Diamond Sculls in a record time of 8 minutes, 35 seconds, was christened Edward Hanlan Ten Eyck, after the Canadian sculler.

From 1898 to 1899, Hanlan served as Alderman, representing the Toronto Islands, known then as Ward 4, for the City of Toronto. He showed that he cared about the welfare of his fellow residents. He saw the need for more adequate funding of infrastructure for improvements such as electrification. He supported public recreation and he urged that a bicycle path be constructed on the Islands.

Hanlan died of pneumonia on January 4th, 1908, age 52. A civic funeral service was held at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on King Street. Over 10,000 people paid their respects.  The cortege consisting of 155 carriages and the procession stretched 1.5 kilometres. Tributes came from around the world.