Five-Year-Old Rows Across Toronto Bay to see Prince of Wales

September 07, 1860

Toronto Islands

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So the newspapers reported, as Albert Edward, son of Queen Victoria, arrived by steamer cheered by thousands. It was a foretelling of things to come as that young boy, Ned Hanlan, would go on to become Canada’s first international sports superstar, and to win rowing competitions before admiring crowds the world over.

Ned Hanlan was Canada’s most prominent athlete of the 19th century (courtesy Canada's Sports Hall of Fame).

Ned Hanlan grew up on the western arm of Toronto Island. As a young boy, he imitated older scullers of the day by practicing on a toy shell. He began competing when he was 16, and in his first singles race he won the championship of Toronto Bay. The first to master the new invention of the sliding seat and swivel oarlocks, Hanlan won the Canadian, American and English championships in quick succession and then the world championship in November 1880. Improbably, a kid from the colonies beat the best of the Brits on the Thames River, London, in front of 100,000 spectators.

Ned Hanlan was Canada's first world sporting champion and its first great celebrity. During his career he won more than 300 races and suffered fewer than a dozen defeats.

In 1880 he erected a picturesque summer hotel on Toronto Island and attracted customers with a variety of amusements. The City of Toronto named the western end of Toronto Islands “Hanlan’s Point,” and in 1926 dedicated Emanuel Otto Hahn’s bronze statue of him on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. In 1996 it was moved to its present location on the Island and rededicated in 2003.

By James Marsh

Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Ned Hanlan.

Ned Hanlan sculling for the championship of the world, London, England (courtesy Life magazine). View the image gallery