Simon Wenham gives a range of illustrated talks on different aspects of social history (listed below) and his speaking engagements are shown at the bottom of this page. 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 the topics is shown below.

Illustrated talks

Click on talk titles for details

NEW. Watermen, wharfs and wheelhouses: the history of Hobbs of Henley

One of the best known boating businesses on the Thames is Hobbs of Henley (established in 1870). This talk describes how a seventeenth century family from Hambleden became notable pillars of the establishment in nearby Henley and not only became woven into the very fabric of the regatta town, but established a market-leading hospitality company.

NEW. Living the lexicon: James Murray and the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the most famous books of all time, but compiling it was a Herculean task led by the tireless lexicographer James Murray. This talk describes the trials and tribulations behind one of the greatest works of literature in the English language.

NEW. Thousands of miles in the Rob Roy canoe: the life and times of John MacGregor

John MacGregor (1825-1892) was one of the most celebrated figures in the Victorian period and yet, today, he has been largely forgotten. He made a name for himself as a famous explorer whose accounts of his solo trips on board the ‘Rob Roy’ canoe became best-sellers. Yet he was much more than just a travel writer who provided invaluable information about the world at the time, as he was also a barrister, evangelist, boat-designer, public lecturer, canoe populariser and philanthropist.

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

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was one of the most ambitious and spectacular events ever staged in Britain. 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), provides a fascinating window in so many sides of Victorian life. This talk will explore 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.

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.

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.

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 late 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.

The gender agenda: the British suffrage movement

It is often assumed that the enfranchisement of women was the inevitable result of a successful campaign mounted by suffragettes, but the reality was far more complicated. A wide range of people 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 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.

Speaking Engagements (2024)*

  • 22 Feb: Kirtlington History Society: Morris’ Motopolis [TBC]

  • 26 Feb: Hanney History Society: Three Men in a Boat 

  • 26 Mar: Kidlington History Society: Poverty and pesilence

  • 17 Apr:  Abingdon Evening WI: History of Salters [TBC]

  • 24 Apr: Chilterns Inland Waterway group: Pleasure Boating on the Thames

  • 13 May: Radley History Society: Morris’ Motopolis [TBC]

  • 22 May: Grove History Society: Hobbs of Henley 

  • 3 Jul: Brackley History Society: Pursuit of Pleasure

  • 8 Oct: Thames History Society: Pursuit of Pleasure

  • 10 Oct: WADS History Society: Living the Lexicon [TBC]

  • 15 Oct: Cropedy WI: Suffragette movement

  • 20 Oct: History Forum: Living the Lexicon

*: Some of these engagements may be subject to change.