________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 4 . . . . October 12, 2007


Fire on the Water: The Red-hot Career of Superstar Rower Ned Hanlan. (Recordbooks).

Wendy A. Lewis.
Toronto, ON: James Lorimer, 2007.
112 pp., pbk. & hc., $9.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55028-972-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55028-973-2 (hc.).

Subject Headings:
Hanlan, Edward, 1855-1908-Juvenile literature.
Rowers-Canada-Biography-Juvenile literature.

Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

*** /4


Ned spent most of the summer racing in New York State. After his success with the sliding seat, other scullers had put them on their boats. Ned was still the master, though. He usually wore a blue racing shirt, which earned him the nickname “The Boy in Blue.” The Americans loved watching Ned race. It was fun to see a small man out-row bigger scullers. And Ned knew it. He grinned, winked, and waved as he crossed the finish line.


Edward (Ned) Hanlan, a son of an Irish immigrant who worked as a fisherman and later as a hotelkeeper, was born in Toronto in 1855. In an era before radio, television and air conditioning, the Toronto Island and shore of Lake Ontario became a popular gathering place for city residents who also enjoyed watching and gambling on rowing and sailing races. As the subtitle on the cover states, Fire on the Water details The Red-hot Career of Superstar Rower Ned Hanlan.

     At the age of 18, Hanlan built his own racing shell. By this time, he had years of experience with an assortment of rowing methods and types of boats and was helping to support his family following the death of his father. In the 1870s, he established himself as the best professional single-scull racer in Ontario. With the backing of some businessmen who formed the Hanlan Club, Ned was able to focus on training and rowing, try out new equipment including the sliding seat and an indoor rowing machine, and travel to foreign competitions. In 1878, he beat the best American sculler to become the champion of North America. The following year, he defeated the British champion. In 1880, Hanlan defeated the Australian champion and became champion of the world, with his image engraved on the cover the Canadian Illustrated News.

     Lewis skillfully uses quotations from contemporary newspapers to convey a sense of immediacy when describing the races. Hanlan’s tendency to clown around during races against unequal competitors is clearly documented. Lewis includes a wealth of information about professional sculling, the vast sums of money wagered on the outcome of races and the “dirty tricks” employed by some participants. Many of the sculling details are outlined in sidebars or explained in a two-page glossary. Other features are eight relevant black and white photographs and illustrations, and acknowledgments that includes bibliographical information about several related books, a film, and nine useful websites.

     Hanlan has a place in Canadian sporting history as the first Canadian athlete to gain international acclaim. Following his eventual defeat to the Australian challenger, William Beach, in 1884, Hanlan retired from professional competition, served briefly as a Toronto alderman, and died from pneumonia in 1908 at the age of 52. The Ned Hanlan monument sculpted by Emanual Hahn in 1926 stood for many years on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto but was relocated to Hanlan’s Point on the Toronto Island in 2004.

     While sculling has a limited following and rate of participation today, sporting enthusiasts will enjoy this book. It will be useful for students writing a biographical report and will open new areas of local history to residents of the Toronto area or anyone who wondered about the origin of local place names like Hanlan’s Point and Ward’s Island.


Val Ken Lem is a catalogue librarian and liaison for history, English and Caribbean studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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