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O’CONNOR, WILLIAM JOSEPH, oarsman and tavern-keeper; b. 4 May 1862 in Toronto, son of Michael O’Connor and Ellen —; d. unmarried 23 Nov. 1892 in Toronto.
Inspired by Edward Hanlan*, Toronto’s celebrated world champion, William Joseph O’Connor began rowing with the Irish-Catholic Don Rowing Club. In 1882, two years after the formation of the Canadian Association of Amateur Oarsmen, he raced for the first time, with Cornelius T. Enright in the association’s in-rigged double sculls championship at Lachine, Que. The following year they won the double and O’Connor won the junior single. In 1884 he and Enright joined the more established Toronto Rowing Club and won the double shell championships in the CAAO, the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen (U.S.), and the North Western Amateur Rowing Association (U.S.). In 1885 they repeated as CAAO champions and O’Connor won the single with the tactic that would become his trade mark, a rapid, explosive stroke at the start. These successes and reports of heavy wagering on them brought charges of professionalism against O’Connor and Enright. Exonerated by the CAAO, they were declared ineligible by the NAAO and so turned professional, staked by Toronto businessman Joseph Rogers.
In 1887, after a disappointing season in the double, O’Connor began to concentrate on the single. Within a short time he had won so many regattas in such fast times – his 19 minutes and 43 seconds for three miles with one turn in August 1888 was considered a world record – that few would accept his challenges for the one-on-one races which brought the greatest prizes and prestige. In only his second match race he had to row alone when prominent professional Wallace Ross of Saint John, N.B., backed out at the last moment rather than be beaten by one “just out of the amateur ranks.” O’Connor’s response was “to try at the top of the heap.” On 18 March 1888 he defeated (for a stake of $2,000) the Pacific coast champion, Henry Peterson, and then on 24 Nov. 1888 on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., he beat (for $1,000) the American champion, John Teemer, who had twice taken the title from Hanlan. Both races were three miles. Torontonians rewarded him with a gala reception, a $1,000 cheque, and $300 in gold. After that, he continued to win regattas with such ease that, except for one defence against fellow Canadian Jacob Gill Gaudaur* in San Francisco on 2 March 1889, no one challenged him. He remained American champion until his death.
But O’Connor could not bring the world crown, lost by Hanlan in 1884, back to Toronto. On 9 Sept. 1889 on the historic Putney to Mortlake course on the Thames in London, England, he lost his challenge to the world champion, Henry Ernest Searle of Australia. Searle died of typhoid fever shortly thereafter, and O’Connor travelled to Australia in search of the title. Although unable to get a championship match, he lost twice to James Stanbury, who subsequently became champion.
In 1890 O’Connor took over the Sherman House in Toronto, the saloon of his brother, John J., who died unexpectedly in October. This new responsibility reduced his rowing appearances, but not the quality of his performances. In 1891 he and Hanlan won the world championship in the double before 30,000 spectators at Burlington Beach. Also, as an extension of the long walks he took in training, in December 1891 O’Connor set a new record for walking between Hamilton and Toronto, 9 hours and 26 minutes. In 1892, although he and Hanlan lost their double title to Gaudaur and American George Hosmer, he remained untouchable in the single.
O’Connor was only 30 when he died of typhoid fever at the close of the 1892 season, with the likelihood of many successful seasons ahead of him (Gaudaur became world champion at 38). Popular for his stylish form, his honesty, and his friendliness, he was widely mourned.
Arch. of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, St Paul’s Church (Toronto), reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 4 May 1862 (mfm. at AO). Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (Toronto), W. J. O’Connor file. York County Surrogate Court (Toronto), no.9408 (mfm. at AO). Globe, 26 Nov. 1888, 7 Dec. 1891, 24 Nov. 1892. Toronto Daily Mail, 10 March, 4 Dec. 1888; 24 Nov. 1892. Frank Cosentino, Ned Hanlan (Don Mills [Toronto], 1978). R. S. Hunter, Rowing in Canada since 1848 . . . (Hamilton, Ont., 1933).