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History of the Toastmaster

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William Knightsmith the first of the modern Toastmasters in the 1890's. This portriat is owned by the National Society of Toastmasters

The professional 'Toastmaster' must not be confused with 'Toastmasters International'. Whilst we are engaged as announcers and event managers at formal occasions, those who join the global Toastmasters club seek to improve their public speaking skills and we have no formal connection with them.

Although the Society of London Toastmasters was formed 70 years ago, the role of the Toastmaster has evolved over many centuries.

Toasting the Gods
The taking of wine, Toasts and drinking a person's health can be traced back to the early Greek and Roman civilisations where many surviving mosaics indicate the raising of goblets and drinking either a friend's or a God's health by holding the goblets aloft.

William Knightsmith the first of the modern Toastmasters in the 1890's. This portriat is owned by the National Society of Toastmasters. At ancient Greek banquets the host would toast to the health of the guests to assure them that the wine they were about to drink was safe. In those days, spiking wine with poison was a common way to dispose of an enemy. It therefore became a symbol of friendship for the host to pour wine from a decanter or common pitcher, drink it before his guests, and satisfied that it was good, raise his glass to his friends to do likewise.

Improving the wine
We go from poisoning the wine to improving it. For centuries, the beverages served to guests were mead, porter, sack or very poor wine. In the middle ages at great and noble houses, someone was appointed to look after the cellars in the big houses and he would experiment with various flavourings in the wines to improve their flavour. At banquets, he would have before him a large bowl of the brew and in smaller bowls would have herbs and spices. He would take a small piece of bread, hold it before a fire or in a flame until it was toasted; he would then dip that into the herbs and spices and stir it into the bowl of wine. This man was known as the 'Master of the Toast'. It was a highly skilled occupation much prized for its talents.

The formal banquet
The wine-blender of old was the modern toastmaster's predecessor. In the houses of Spanish and Italian nobles he was called the 'Manager'. The English version of this majordomo in the 17th and 18th centuries was the 'House Steward' nowadays called the 'Butler'. In addition to the duties of wine management, the butler would also announce guests arriving for dinner who would then be greeted and received by the host.

The red coat
The origin of the distinctive redcoat worn by the Toastmaster is generally accepted as being introduced by a Toastmaster William Knightsmith in 1894. Expressing concern at being dressed like a head waiter or butler, his wife suggested that he wear a red coat to stand out. On the occasion at which he changed his coat to a red one the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) admired it and commented favourably on it. Subsequently, the 'hunting pink' tailcoat became the adopted form of dress for Toastmasters (the name is derived from Mr Pink, the tailor who designed them). It is also accepted that William Knightsmith was the first to be recognised as a bona-fide Toastmaster setting the standards for others to emulate.

Note: In the City of London the 'hunting pink' tailcoat is generally not worn because the law stated that the hunt was not allowed to pass through the City. Toastmasters in the City sometimes wear a sash of red and white under their black tailcoat.

Toastmastering today
In its modern form it is an exclusively British occupation, carried out by some 500 professional Toastmasters throughout the country, many of whom belong to an affiliation like our own. Rather like regiments of an army, at the last count there were 14 such organisations, all formed since our own inception and each proud of its heritage and high standards. In the interests of harmony, we have collated this story of the Toastmaster's genesis from their various websites and declare our gratitude.

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