Speaking

Simon Wenham gives a range of illustrated talks on different aspects of social history (listed below). These are pitched at a popular level and focus mainly on Victorian Britain, the river Thames, the development of leisure and the city of Oxford.

Further information about these topics is shown below (and some of his forthcoming speaking engagements are listed at the bottom of the page):

Illustrated talks

A crystal vision of Victorian Britain: the Great Exhibition of 1851

One of the most ambitious and spectacular events ever staged in Britain was the Great Exhibition of 1851. It showcased, on a grand scale, the sheer economic, technological and global might of the nation. The vast attraction, which captivated visitors from around the country (and beyond), can also be used to shed light on many aspects of Victorian culture. This talk will look at what we know about this great spectacle and what it tells us about the nation as a whole.

Sculls, skiffs and steamers: the history of Salter's Steamers

Salter’s Steamers (founded in Oxford in 1858 and known for much of its existence as Salter Bros Ltd) did more to popularise pleasure boating on the non-tidal river than any other Thames business. This talk traces the development of the firm and how it grew from a leading racing-boat constructor in Wandsworth to become one of the largest inland boat-builders and passenger boat operators in the country. It also describes many of the famous names associated with the business, including Lewis Carroll, William Morris, Edward VII, Jerome K. Jerome, T. E. Lawrence and C. S. Lewis.

The pursuit of pleasure: Victorian and Edwardian leisure

The Victorian period was one of the most important periods in the development of modern forms of leisure. It was the age of the Great Exhibition (1851), seaside holidaying and the ‘scramble for sport’. This talk will explore the many and colourful ways in which the Victorians and Edwardians entertained themselves.

Saints and sinners: Victorian and Edwardian religion in Oxfordshire

The 1851 religious census came as a great shock to the Victorians, as it showed not only that many people were not attending a place of worship, but that nonconformists were much stronger than many had realised. The Victorian period is often seen as a great evangelical age, but it was also one of waning anglican influence and simmering tensions between different groups, as can be seen by the reaction to the Oxford movement and ideas related to agnosticism. This talk examines the varied landscape of belief in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, with a particular emphasis on Oxfordshire.

Power and personalities: politics in Victorian and Edwardian Oxford

The Victorian period was a great age of electoral reform, driven by some remarkable individuals. This talk explores some of the political processes of the nineteenth century and how powerful personalities shaped the social landscape on both the local and national level.

Morris’ motopolis: the motor works and the transformation of Oxford

There was an old adage that things move slowly in Oxford, but this completely changed when William Morris relocated his factory to the eastern suburbs of the city in 1912. His business became the biggest producer of cars in the country in the interwar period, which had a massive impact on the local area. This talk will explore the ways in which Oxford was transformed, in the aftermath of becoming the fastest growing city in the country.

Crime and punishment in Victorian Britain

The Victorian period is often associated with lofty principles and pious individuals, but despite the nation’s success, there were considerable fears about law and order. Not only were some urban areas viewed as positively dangerous, but there were also a number of high-profile crimes that both transfixed and terrified the Victorians. This talk will explore the activities of the so-called ‘underbelly’ of society and the State’s attempt to control and punish criminality.

Poverty, pestilence and public health in Victorian Britain

Britain may have been the ‘workshop of the world’ in the Victorian period, but the sceptre of poverty and pestilence loomed large over the lives of many of its citizens. A large proportion of people were not only close to the bread line, but repeated epidemics decimated whole swathes of the population. This talk explores the wealth and health of the British during the Victorian period and the State’s struggle to improve conditions.

More than three men in a boat: the rise and fall of Pleasure Boating on the Thames

The Victorian period is often described as the ‘golden age of the Thames’, as it was during this time that the river was transformed into a vast conduit of leisure. It was the era of steam launch trips, Venetian fairs, regattas, picnics, carnivals and ‘three men in a boat’. This talk covers more than 150 years of pleasure boating and shows why some common perceptions about the river’s history are misleading.

Venturing through Victorian Britain

The Victorian era is one of the most popular periods of British history. It was an age of industralisation, urbanisation, economic might, empire-building, major reforms, religious convictions and leisure pursuits. Yet it was also a time of great contrast, as squalor, poverty and crime all still persisted. This talk will explore this era of immense social change and will show some of the reasons why the topic is so fascinating to people today.

The Empire and the Emerald Isle: Victorian Imperialism

By the end of the nineteenth century, a small country in north-west Europe owned and controlled so much of the world that it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. This talk examines the many facets of Imperialism, from events that led to the expansion of the nation’s influence and the intellectual justification that accompanied it, to the lasting legacy of its foreign policy and how certain controversies shaped Victorian attitudes not only to its overseas territories, but also closer to home in relation to Ireland.

The aquatic arms race: the history of British rowing

Over the course of the nineteenth century, rowing grew to become one of the showcase sports of Great Britain. This talk explores its evolution from its vocational roots and professional heyday, to the rise of the amateur ethos and the development of modern day contests.

The gender agenda: the British suffrage movement

It is often assumed that the enfranchisement of women was the inevitable outworking of a successful campaign mounted by suffragists, but the reality was far more complicated. A wide range of groups with different agendas were represented in the debate, including not only the notorious and polarising Women’s Social and Political Union, whose radical civil disobedience caused so much social unrest, but also a number of pioneering women who were part of the ‘anti’ movement. This talk will chart the development of the campaign and how the vote was eventually won.

Details of other history talks (given by other speakers) can be found at the Oxford Local History Association‘s website.

2017 Speaking Engagements

  • 7 December: Oxford Museum: Salter’s Steamers
  • 19 December: Iffley History Society, Great Exhibition

2018 Speaking Engagements

  • 23 January: Sutton Courtenay History Society: Morris’ Motopolis
  • 6 February: North Leigh History Society: Crime and Punishment
  • 22 February: Otters Court Social Club, Witney: Great Exhibition
  • 21 March: Bloxham History Society: Great Exhibition
  • 18 April: Caversham Heights: Salter’s Steamers
  • 15 May: Witney Museum, Morris’ Motopolis
  • 21 May: Oxford Family History Society: Poverty and Pestilence
  • 11 June: Vale of Berkshire Family History Society, Abingdon: Rise and fall of pleasure boating
  • 11 September: Thame History Society: Poverty and Pestilence
  • 25 October: Aston History Society: Poverty and Pestilence
  • 13 November: Princes Risborough: Great Exhibition
  • 14 November: Deddington History Society: Great Exhibition
  • 20 November: Witney Museum: Poverty and Pestilence