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Historicist: The People’s Champion

The impressive, inspiring, and possibly unsportsmanlike athletic exploits of Ned Hanlan.

The Third Hanlan Courtney Race, on the Potomac River at Washington, D C   From the Library of Congress

The third Hanlan-Courtney Race, on the Potomac River at Washington, D.C. From the Library of Congress.

Ned Hanlan, the world’s single-sculls rowing champion from 1880 to 1884, was this country’s “first national sporting hero,” in the estimation of the Montreal Gazette. At a time when singles rowing was perhaps the world’s most popular sport—drawing upwards of 100,000 spectators when top racers squared off—Hanlan was its biggest star.

His athletic gifts, however, were sometimes overshadowed by his manipulation of results—winning by only close margins to keep gamblers interested—and his grandstanding showmanship. The Canadian’s three-race series against American star Charles Courtney in 1878-1880 would perfectly illustrate everything great and underhanded about the world of high-stakes professional rowing.

2013 09 07 c025318 310Edward (Ned) Hanlan’s working-class Irish roots—his father was fisherman-turned-hotelier John Hanlan, who operated a hotel on the family homestead, which would eventually become known as Hanlan’s Point—may not have initially endeared him to the Anglo-Protestants who dominated Toronto’s sporting scene. But his rowing exploits earned the enthusiastic approval of the general public and he was commonly regarded as the most well-known Canadian of his age.

[Left: Edward Hanlan, World Rowing Champion, ca. 1878, by Notman & Sandham. From Library and Archives Canada (C-025318).]

Born in 1855, Hanlan’s childhood residency on Toronto Island made rowing a necessity from a young age: oars and manpower were his means to get to school on the mainland, to visit friends, to run errands, or to go fishing. When he was a bit older, he further honed his sculling prowess by transporting bootlegged liquor to the Island to sell without a license to guests at his father’s hotel—a trade which sometimes required speedily eluding police.

At age 18, in 1873, Hanlan won the Championship of Toronto Bay, his first amateur organized singles-sculling competition. After several more victories, he took the Ontario singles championship in 1875.

Recognizing the profit potential of managing Hanlan’s racing career, five Toronto businessmen—H.P. Good, Dave Ward, J. Rogers, Jack Davis, and Col Albert Shaw—formed the Hanlan Club around 1875 or 1876. This syndicate bankrolled Hanlan, managing all negotiations, arrangements, and publicity for the rower’s races and appearances, leaving Hanlan to “row, eat, exercise and sleep,” as the Toronto Mail once put it. The arrangement made Hanlan a professional, rowing for stakes ranging from $200 to $1,000 a side in the next few years, and earning him thousands more on promotional tours arranged with railway companies. “Sculling was his business and he would not row unless it was a financially viable proposition,” sports historian Andrea Brown argues in an article in the Canadian Journal of History of Sport and Physical Education (December 1980). “His mercenary attitude often caused delays in arranging races.”

Edward Hanlan, 1878, by Notman & Sandham  From Library and Archives Canada (C 025309)

Edward Hanlan, 1878, by Notman & Sandham. From Library and Archives Canada (C-025309).

The Hanlan Club acquired a new boat immediately after its formation, equipped with swivel oarlocks and a sliding seat. These innovations, which Hanlan was among the first to master, gave the Canadian an enormous advantage over his competition. While most scullers relied on brute upper-arm strength, Hanlan’s boat utilized the sliding seat to its full effect, extending his stroke to harness the entire coordinated power of both arms and legs. At only 5′ 9″ and 150 pounds, Hanlan seemed a perennial underdog next to his tall, muscled competition. His fluid, efficient 36 stokes per minute put the average rower—who chopped through the water at 42 strokes per minute—at a disadvantage, however. Hanlan’s mastery of the sliding seat and other advances made him “the father of the modern [rowing] technique.”

In what proved to be an inspired move, Hanlan’s handlers entered the young Canadian into the regatta held in conjunction with the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in the summer of 1876. Sporting his distinctive blue shirt and red headband, Hanlan completed the three-mile course on the Schuylkill River in the record time of 21 minutes, nine-and-a-half seconds, to win the regatta’s professional singles competition, instantly attracting overwhelming public attention.

Canadian Illustrated News image of Hanlan's return to Toronto aboard the Chicora, August 2, 1879  From the Library and Archives Canada

Canadian Illustrated News image of Hanlan’s return to Toronto aboard the Chicora, August 2, 1879. From the Library and Archives Canada.

The budding superstar was given the royal treatment upon his return. Thousands of Torontonians crowded the pier as a steamer carrying Hanlan pulled into the harbour. Bands played patriotic songs and the crowd chanted, “Hurrah for Ned! Hurrah, hurrah! You did it, boy!” The triumphant pandemonium was followed with a procession up Yonge Street. His public statements underlined his pride in Canadian citizenship, fuelling jingoistic coverage of races in newspapers.

Handsome and mustachioed, Hanlan was an affable and humorous sportsman. “The height of the ladies’ ambition is to secure an introduction,” the Toronto Globe (October 15, 1878) gushed, “and all men stare in the mute admiration when he is in their vicinity.”

Next, Hanlan challenged for and won Wallace Ross’s Canadian national championship in 1877, before a hometown crowd of 25,000 spectators on Toronto Bay; he took the American title the following year. On the latter outcome, Hanlan’s supporters wagered nearly $300,000. While single-sculls rowing was probably the most popular spectator sport in Canada during Hanlan’s prime, garnering copious press attention at home and abroad, a large part of that popularity had to do with widespread gambling. Newspapers published odds for each of Hanlan’s races, and gambling opportunities were easily available wherever he rowed. The gambling element was not always above reproach: dirty tricks or match-fixing were not infrequent.

Charles Courtney & Edward Hanlan, Champion Scullers of America  From the Library of Congress

Charles Courtney & Edward Hanlan, Champion Scullers of America. From the Library of Congress.

Beginning in 1878, Hanlan entered into a series of highly publicized races against Charles Courtney, an American who’d won the amateur singles title at the Philadelphia Exhibition in 1876. These races, Cosentino asserts, “probably received more publicity than any other sporting event prior to 1880.”

The first race, a five-mile course at Lachine, Quebec, was staged on October 3, 1878. Public interest in the contest, pitting the diminutive Canadian against the high-profile American for a $10,000 purse, was high. To better enable betting, those on the grandstand were kept apprised of the race’s progress with flags hoisted above the judges’ barge: a red flag if Hanlan was in the lead, a white flag for Courtney, and a blue flag if the race was too close to call. The day’s 20,000 spectators—who’d paid ticket prices ranging from 50 cents for the grandstands to $10 for a spot on a steamer trailing the racers—were not disappointed when Hanlan won by a narrow margin of only one-and-a-quarter boat lengths, after boats near the finish line appeared to interfere with Courtney’s course.

Hanlan’s technical advantage was such that, over the course of his career, he regularly artificially narrowed his margin of victory to keep spectators—and, more importantly, gamblers—in suspense about the outcome. Overwhelming victory would mean an end to the profitability of his handlers’ and supporters’ endeavours at his next race.

Canadian Illustrated News image of Hanlan's Boat House at Lachine, October 12, 1878  From Library and Archives Canada

Canadian Illustrated News image of Hanlan’s Boat-House at Lachine, October 12, 1878. From Library and Archives Canada.

This was not a secret. The New York Times claimed that Courtney had thrown the race for a couple thousand dollars, and had bet on Hanlan. It didn’t help that, since turning professional, Courtney had been involved in at least one race with a questionable outcome. The American Spirit of the Times claimed that Hanlan was being instructed by his backers to win by certain margins and that, during his races, telegrams were sent up the river to handlers signaling him to pace his victory to best enable betting opportunities. “Such tricks might be pardoned of fourth rate professionals but the champion oarsman of America holds an honourable title and is to some extent private property,” the Spirit of the Times argued. “His position makes him a representative man. Respect and proper pride in himself and of his country should team him to keep his moral character up to the standard of his physical prowess.”

In A Concise History of Sport in Canada (Oxford University Press, 1989), sports historian Don Morrow has suggested that “a fixed set of races seems highly probable.” In a statement to the Montreal Herald, Hanlan responded to the rumours. “Mr. Courtney is a very honourable man….There is no reason why we should not row a square and honest race,” he said. “Once and for all, let this be the last of it, if there has been any arrangement to insure my winning, I know nothing of it, and I feel confident that Courtney rowed to win if he could.”

If nothing else, the question of whether Hanlan had won fair-and-square heightened the public’s appetite for a rematch.

A cartoon about Ned Hanlan by J.W. Chayter. From the Archives of Ontario (C 281-0-0-0-4).

As the controversy played out on the newspaper pages, Hanlan travelled to England, where he handily defeated John Hawdon and William Elliott by 10 lengths, adding the English Championship to his list of achievements. When the young Canadian returned to Toronto aboard the Chicora, the steamer was greeted by dozens of other vessels and passengers cheering in adulation, in a procession eventually stretching for three miles. That evening Hanlan appeared in his distinctive racing blues onstage at a local performance of the H.M.S. Pinafore.

Meanwhile, extensive preparations were made for the Hanlan-Courtney rematch, to be held on October 16, 1879, on Chautauqua Lake in New York. Sponsored by Hop Bitters of Rochester (a health tonic manufacturer who put up a $6,000 purse for the winner) a railway company built a special spur line along the race route in order to sell tickets on a special observation train. A 50,000-person grandstand was constructed. Steamers sold race tickets for $5, and hotels increased their usual rates from $5 per week to $12 per day. Gamblers descended upon the town in anticipation of the race.

Harper's Weekly portraits of Charles Courtney and Edward Hanlan, 1878  From the Library of Congress

Harper’s Weekly portraits of Charles Courtney and Edward Hanlan, 1878. From the Library of Congress.

Then, on the eve of the race, Courtney’s boat was sawed in half. He refused to accept a substitute vessel. So the referee instructed Hanlan to row the course on his own, though Hop Bitters refused to pay the prize money. The affair prompted newspaper coverage across the globe. Courtney’s backers alleged that Hanlan’s backers, finding that their racer had imbibed too freely the night before, had committed the dastardly act. Canadian papers suggested that Courtney, knowing himself to be the inferior rower, had sought to sow the seeds of controversy. A war of words from the competitors’ camps followed in the press.

As Washington, D.C. prepared to host the third installment of the Hanlan-Courtney rivalry in 1880, the city was, according to Morrow, swarmed by bettors and speculators shouting, “Five hundred to three hundred on Hanlan!” or, “Two to one or any amount on the Torontonian!” At least 100,000 spectators, including around 1,500 Canadians, lined the shores of the five-mile course on the Potomac River. Both Houses of Congress adjourned to attend, and President Rutherford B. Hayes joined the British ambassador aboard a steamer to watch the contest. After the sabotaging affair, a third rower had also been recruited as a substitute to ensure a race would occur. Hanlan jumped to a quick lead, ahead by 12 lengths by the one-mile mark. Courtney conceded the race to Hanlan, though he later claimed he’d suffered heatstroke.

The shenanigans and questions surrounding the pair’s three-race series killed single-sculls rowing as a spectator sport in the United States; some observers said it was “the only major sport in history to have been killed in a scandal.” Hanlan, however, remained overwhelmingly popular, perhaps because of his competitive dominance.

2013 09 07 72284 v6 390

Hanlan’s crowning achievement came with his defeat of Australian Edward Trickett—who stood half-a-foot taller—in England on November 15, 1880, to capture the world championship. Hanlan won the Thames River course handily, toying with his arrogant opponent by repeatedly rowing to a lead, then pausing to acknowledge cheering spectators or chat with passengers aboard a steamer. He even feigned exhaustion, collapsing in his boat to let Trickett catch up, then jumped to life again to the uproarious approval of the 100,000 watching from the riverbanks. “Unsportsmanlike and technically unethical,” Morrow said of Hanlan’s antics in the race, “such behaviour was nevertheless part and parcel of Hanlan’s cockiness and irresistible fan appeal.”

[Above: Canadian Illustrated News image of Edward Hanlan, Champion Sculler of the World, July 26, 1879. From Library and Archives Canada.]

In his years as world champion Hanlan didn’t shy away from competition, accepting frequent challenges. An accomplished public speaker, he supplemented his racing income by performing rowing demonstrations and autograph sessions wherever a ticket-buying crowd could be assembled, including on two financially lucrative tours to Australia in the mid-1880s.

After defending his title six times, Hanlan lost it on Australia’s Parramatta River to William Beach, an imposing blacksmith from Australia who’d also mastered the sliding seat. Newspapers in Canada and abroad were so shocked by the upset that most coverage asserted that Hanlan had defeated himself rather than that he’d been beaten by the better athlete. There was even open speculation that the Canadian had thrown the race. “Hanlan is known to be a needy man, fond of money, given to gambling,” read one account quoted by Brown, “and his only chance to make a considerable sum was to lay against himself—a device which it is only too apparent he resorted to.” But Beach won a rematch the same year, and another in 1887.

2013 09 07 s0071 it4524 335

Later in life, Hanlan coached rowing at Columbia and the University of Toronto, and operated his father’s hotel at Hanlan’s Point, before becoming a city alderman in the 1890s. He died of pneumonia on January 4, 1908, survived by his wife and eight children. Tributes were printed around the world, and 10,000 mourners passed by his coffin as he lay in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

[Left: The Edward Hanlan statue at the CNE, September 20, 1926. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 4524.]

The city memorialized Hanlan by naming a park in his honour in 1909, and erecting sculptor Emanuel Hahn’s bronze statue on the Canadian Exhibition Grounds in 1926—later moved to Hanlan’s Point. At the statue’s unveiling, the Speaker of the Ontario Legislature, Joseph E. Thompson, placed Hanlan within a tradition of muscular nationalism. “If the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” he said, “then I can safely say that Vimy Ridge was won on the rowing courses and stadia of Canada.”


Additional sources consulted include: Toronto Island: The City Years (Market Gallery, 1981); Andrea Brown, “Edward Hanlan, The World Sculling Champion Visits Australia,” Canadian Journal of History of Sport and Physical Education (December 1980); Frank Cosentino, “Ned Hanlan—Canada’s Premier Oarsman: A Case Study in 19th Century Professionalism,” Canadian Journal of History of Sport and Physical Education (December 1974); Bruce Kidd in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography; William Lanouette, “Olympic rowing,” Smithsonian (July 1996); Richard MacFarlane, “Row for Glory,” The Beaver (December-January 2007/2008); Don Morrow, “Of Leadership and Excellence,” in Don Morrow, Mary Keyes, Wayne Simpson, Frank Cosentino, and Ron Lappage, A Concise History of Sport in Canada (Oxford University Press, 1989); and articles from the Canadian NewsWire (June 12, 2004); and the Toronto Star (November 22, 1986; November 1, 1992; July 8, 2005).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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