Anthony Poulton-Smith


My talks last for approximately an hour, although as the subject is almost inexhaustible this could be extended to for as long as you're willing to pay! Following an initial 20 minutes or so when I cover how I got interested in the subject and what it takes to research, and thus produce the book, I open it up to a question and answer session. I work much better 'off the cuff' and it also means the audience get the answers to the questions which intrigue them and not just those which interest me. It also means the speaker has no more knowledge as to what is coming than the audience does, leaving plenty of opportunity for me to reveal my rather quirky sense of humour.
Here the hour or so sees how I was introduced to the subject and began to write about same, how I research the stories, and my own experiences. A snippet or two from each of my paranormal books ends with the tale of the oddest of telephone calls (which I still don't understand) and then questions from the audience.
Pop to the loo, go, flush, wash. Nothing could be simpler in the modern world but it wasn't always like this. Our parents, grandparents, and earlier generations had to toddle off down the path to the privy at the bottom of garden. During warm summer days the hole in a board with no flush or sewage system sounds bad enough - but after dark and in the depths of winter armed with only a candle? A number of narratives from the Toilet Tales of Yesteryear and told as only the British can.
My talks last for approximately an hour, although with so many examples the list is almost endless. A brief introduction to the history and a look at the names developed, I examine a selection of local names before opening it up to a question and answer session.
Animal Myths is an examination of some of (what seem to us today) the quite ludicrous ideas our ancestors once attributed to our animals. For example the giraffe is the result of a cross between a leopard and a camel; barnacle geese are so-called because nobody had ever seen them lay an egg and they were thought to hatch from the barnacles found on rocks and the bottom of boats; and the hare, a particularly odd creature according to our ancestors, where the female carried eggs on its back (hence eggs being associated with Easter) while the genitalia of the male hare were worn on the belt to ward off infertility.
Humorous Etymologies features a look at some of the more ludicrous ways words which, coined to mean one thing, were later used in a completely different context. For example the gasket found in all engines began as meaning 'a little girl' and later used to mean 'small rope'; easel, that used by artists, began as a Dutch word meaning 'donkey'; orange, that is the colour not the fruit, was originally called 'yellow-red'; quack originally meant 'the croaking of frogs'; and inch, the measurement, began as 'thumb'.
The Saxon Era: a revealing look at the so-called Dark Ages, revealing why they were anything but 'dark' and gave us a language, a system of government, many of the imperial measurements, and much, much more.
Talking Butts: the many odd ideas, often accepted as a part of history, which have no basis in fact.
The title comes from the many minor place names, found most often for fields or narrow lanes, seen as 'The Butts' or similar and commonly thought to show where medieval villagers honed their skills with the long bow. Yet it is easy to see this could never be true as the name nearly always appears several centuries before the law allowing the male villagers to miss church on Sundays in order to practise.
Many other 'facts' are given an airing and shown they could never stand up to scrutiny.
Salt Routes: the original trade route, why it existed and why these routes are still used today.
While our distant ancestors were largely self-sufficient, for most one vital commodity meant having to trade. Bringing salt to the user produced a network of trails which can still be followed.
Yet this is not just a travel history, salt has found its way into our culture, our language, our folklore and the talk brings all these factors to the fore.
Watling Street: this famous 'Roman road' and why it is more than one road and indeed why it was a road several hundred years before the Roman Empire even existed.
The Fastener Industry: an engineer's non-technical look at nuts, bolts, screws and washers. Not simply an engineering lesson but an examination of just how early these technologies were first created and named, how they developed, and why successive improvements were made and by whom.
Ley Lines: an examination of ancient trackways, how they were laid out and why. Using a number of models and images to demonstrate just what to look for and why, take a virtual walk across our ancient landscape.
In 1963 the infamous Beeching Report saw the closure of more than 2,500 railway stations and the lifting of 5,000 miles of track. This released a large amount of land that has since been put to an amazing array of uses. The gentle gradients that were once perfect for trains are in turn perfect as footpaths and cycleways. Stations have become refreshment stops or cycle hire premises on leisure routes. Yards now serve as recreation sites, grassland, retail parks or housing developments. And there are the unusal and quirky: signal boxes used as greenhouses, hen coops and art studios; railway sheds housing mechanics, youth groups and dance studios; and, of course, much has simply become overgrown.
Food etymologies looks at the unusual and often hilarious origins of the words in everyday use. You will never look at a menu or the contents of your plate in the same way again.
Daz, Marmite, Polo, Vimto, Steradent - such odd words and yet we recognise them instantly as product names. Many of us will have added them to our weekly shopping list without a second thought and yet there must have been a time when someone sat down and considered a selection of names before deciding the best suggestion for the new washing powder was OMO. This talk looks at a number of the classic and modern brand names and explains just why they are known as they are.
Crime on the canals looks at over two centuries of murder, theft, criminal damage, health and safety, and even truancy. Until the coming of the railways these waterways were the main arterial routes in the country and, as such, proved a temptation to every rogue, rotter and ne'er-do-well. Not just the macabre here but also the mysterious the hapless and more than a little humour.
Fire - without it there would be no technology for it arguably forms the basis for every ensuing development beginning with cooking. Here for an hour listen to how fire, which must have been one of the earliest words ever coined, has apparently still to be tamed by mankind as a selection of narratives from yesterday and today show just how daft some people can be.
Time - it is found woven into our language and yet why do we use multiples of twelve for various time periods? Why have we not produced a metric clock? Learn the fascinating answers to these and other questions and discover why punctuality and the humble timepieces of yesterday and today have created more than a few funny stories.
Gunpowder Plot - While the story of November 5th is retold year after year, what happened to his co-conspiratirators? As they flew from London and headed north to the Midlands, what became of them, who did they meet, and where did they eventually meet their end? In the hour there are a number of narratives, hear of betrayal, endurance, desperation, ghosts, and utter foolishness.
Classic Toys - Lego, Ludo, Sindy and Barbie, just how and why were these classic toys and games so named? A look at why the marketing men of our childhood, and our childrens' childhood, chose these often quite puzzling names.
Measurements - Be it imperial inches or metric millimetres, pints or litres, pounds and kilos, each has its own origins. Whilst many of the metric terms are reasonably easy to see, those old imperial measurements have a story to tell. Pecks, bushels, feet, yards, acres, stones, quarts, and many others you have forgotten. Learn how they developed, why they were named, and what they were used for.
Household Items - Pots and pans, cutlery, white goods, and even those most basic items such as the table, the chair and the bed - at some point in time these must have been named and why were these chosen?
A fascinatingly different look at our history through both language and everyday items. Some things will never be seen in the same light again.
For most of us science began and ended with the school laboratory, since then only the odd documentary has subjected us to the many scientific terms. But just what is a scientific term? How many do we use every single day? You would be surprised how many you not only use but understand and even more surprised by how these terms came about and their original meaning.
Street names - defining them is increasingly seen as a tool to understanding more recent history. Earlier names show what these places were used for before the Industrial Revolution. When the population of our towns and cities veritably exploded as entreprenuers built vast estates to accommodate their workforce, they also left many clues as to their friends and families in the names they chose for these newly-built streets. Find out why they chose these names in a revealing hour.
Forgotten Holidays - Once upon a time the Christian calendar dominated the celebrations. Not that everyone had a day off work but you'll be amazed at the many days we no longer celebrate and the reasons they were created in the first place.
Stupid Moments in History - Everyone knows of the error which resulted in the deaths of many troops at the Charge of the Light Brigade, but this is by no means the only error not indeed does it come anywhere near the biggest error in history. Hear how history has recorded some of the dopiest decisions, some of which can hardly have seemed the brightest idea at the time.
A to Z of Words You Will Never Hear Again - With over a million words in the full version of the Oxford English Dictionary and more being added all the time, you would think there are many we never use or ever even hear. You would be right but I wonder if you know how right? Of those million words the average person uses perhaps 20,000 when writing and only about 5,000 in everyday speech. So what happened to the others? Well here are a selection and these are not even among the more obscure.
Beer Names - Hobgoblin, Doombar, Jail, and many, many others. These real ales are today the lifeblood of the modern pub. Many a smile is raised by the wonderful names and yet do we have any idea where these come from? Book the talk and you'll soon be an expert!
Clothing - Trousers or Dress, Blouse or Shirt, just where do these names come from? Nevermind who created the style, who created the original and thus the name? Find out the answers to these and other questions, including why we have a pair of trousers when there is clearly only one garment, and take a tour from ancient attire to what the modern model is wearing.
Old Wives Tales - I can't tell you who the old wife was or why she had so many strange ideas, but I can tell you a whole host of ideas which until quite recently were considered all part of life's lessons. There are also those which, with the best will in the world, will dumbfound as to why anyone would ever find these 'truths' credible.
20 Years Not Being Published - In over two decades more than seventy published works have appeared on the shelves. This talk is not as negative as it may first seem. During this period I have amassed a vast number of rejection letters, but still managed to average three books a year and more than one article each and every week.
Listen to the experiences, the mistakes, the ideas, the tips and advice on how all writers have something to learn and also to contribute to the literary world.
Old English To Modern English - The Saxons, Angles, Jutes and Frisians arrived on our shores from the fifth century AD. They brought with them the basis of our culture and a language which we refer to as Old English. Over the next 1,500 years influences principally from the Scandinavian and French tongues took this to Middle English and eventually to Modern English. English is the most diverse language and this is not simply down to the number of words adopted from quite unrelated tongues, a remnant of colonial days.
There is a reason why English, more than any other, needs a thesaurus - indeed most languages never bother publishing a thesaurus (Japanese is a notable exception). That English has been influenced by so many others has led to such a great number of alternative words. Learn how these came began, where they came from and, most interestingly, how they evolved, how the meanings changed and developed to become the language we know today.
Biology's Etymology - Whether it is when watching, listening or reading that medical drama or a visit to the doctor or hospital, the terminology used can be baffling in the extreme. That they know what they are talking about is all we need to know, for that is not what this talk is about. Here we are looking at the terms used by the majority, those without a medical grounding.
This talk examines the parts of the body through the names with which we are so familiar. Who first thought of the term 'head', 'foot', 'finger', 'muscle', 'bone'? Did the heart become known as such because it was seen as central to life, or did this develop the other way around? And what about ailments and diseases? Were chickens really the inspiration of 'chickenpox'? And who thought 'chillblanes' an apt description of the ailment?
An explanation of where these terms originated, how they developed and why they remain commonplace today. Many of the answers are surprising and more than a few amusing. There is also the opportunity to ask specific examples, especially for those who need to know the origins of those parts not included in the talk.
Colloquialisms - We use these words and expressions every single day of our lives yet never pay them a second thought. Taken out of context the phrase is meaningless. So where do these come from? How did they start and why do they continue to be used today?
In this talk put the speaker in the LIMELIGHT and attempt to CURRY FAVOUR or STEAL MY THUNDER as you hear about that OLD CHESTNUT and why these four colloquialisms and many others have come to be a part of the English language.
Defining Heraldry - In the days when few could read the use of imagery to carry messages meant heraldry was almost universally understood. Today we most often see these images on letterheads or signs outside public houses, but how much of it do we understand? Is there information to be found simply by unravelling the hidden messages comprising a coat of arms? Could we discover a lineage of our family tree through heraldry? And are we entitled to produce our own heraldic images in the 21st century?
Find the answers to all these questions and more in this talk. Furthermore, send through examples of local heraldry at the time of booking the talk and learn how it came into existence and just what it tells us.
Etymology for the Writer or Artist - Every artist knows the names of the techniques and methods used to produce that painting, sculpture, or moulding, while writers are well-acquainted with parts of speech, tenses and grammar. But how many artists really know how a technique, style, or even a colour got its name? Are writers aware of why a noun, verb, or adjective is known as such? And very few will understand just why tenses are known as they are - I mean who ever though the 'pluperfect' sounded remotely useful as a term?
Not simply a lesson in etymology this is a very different way of looking at history and how the English language developed over several centuries.
Etymologies for the Engineer - For many what is found under the bonnet of the car, hidden inside the casing of the white goods in your kitchen, inside the radio, television, DVD player, laptop, tablet, phone or computer is a mystery. Yet we have all heard the terminology, even if we have no notion of what these are for or of what they do, these are names of which we are at the very least vaguely familiar.
Here the talk reverse engineers each and every technology, not to recreate how the inventions were designed but how and, more importantly, why they were named. Learn the surprising beginnings of 'gasket', 'wire', 'oil', 'engine' and many, many others. These insights enable everyone to understand how technologies developed to give a very different look at history.
Medals and Awards - For most the list of awards making the headlines at New Year and the Queen's Birthday List are simply a list of people, many of whom we have never heard of and probably will never hear of again. Those awarded medals in times of conflict are more likely to be remembered, if only because the recipients have become a part of history.
As numismatists - those associated with coins as well as medals - will confirm, medals and awards all have a beginning, were created for a specific reason. While we often hear the narrative of the recipient, we rarely if ever hear of the story behind the award itself.
Here is a talk giving a different historical view. An examination of the award, its beginnings and event the recipients, albeit a rather different look.
Not the normal look at railways past or present. Here we look at the engineering but through the eyes of the etymologist. Discover how an engine became known as such. Hear how the boiler, the gasket, the valve, the station and even the train have origins further back in history than you could ever imagine - and with rather different meanings.
Not so much a history of transport in an engineering sense but a look at the terminology and how the names developed. See how the names of the 'car', 'bus', 'train', 'cycle', 'boat' and others.
And it is not only the transport but learn how the distance between the rails for both the railways and the trams came about. Hear how quite familiar terms have the most surprising origins, and discover some quite extraordinary facts and figures for the modes of transport with which we are so familiar.
The concept of the hereditary surname came to Britain with the Normans. As people were less likely to move about, and there were less of them, given names were followed by a point of origin, a paternal name, a trade or a nickname. The same is true today although, as we now take the names of our parent or parents, the meaning and the reason they were chosen are not altogether so obvious.
So where does your name originate? Does it reveal anything about your ancestors? Who else shares or once shared your name? And why are names such as Cholmondley and Featherstonehaugh pronounced so oddly?
English has more words than any other language. This is, in part, due to the once vast British Empire and the many languages spoken in the outposts. Yet there are at least as many words which have been borrowed from other tongues.
Often these loan words have retained the original meaning, but others have changed completely. While Latin and even French phrases are easily recognised, here we concentrate on the less obvious and the words more ingrained in English. Learn how words such as 'trek', 'yacht', 'beige', 'bandanna', 'bangle' and 'bungalow' were never truly English.
Gobbledegook describes speech which is not clear and a term coined around the 16th century when said to be imitative of the turkey. Gobbledegook from yesteryear is not readily seen for the terminology has become ingrained in the English language. Those featured may not be realised as having been created to describe something in an unusual way.
The focus is on those words we are less likely to understand, the modern terms coined to be 'buzz words' and the so-called 'new speak' featured in offices across the country.
The eighth letter of the English alphabet has the distinction of being the first letter to have its own listing in the dictionary, doing so many years before the second. Look up 'H' and discover the recommended pronunciation is 'aitch' although the dictionary concedes the increased use of 'haitch' is an alternative.
Hear, too, how the letter came to English, of its changing usage throughout history and just how the letter's upper case rugbyposts-like image and corresponding lower case form came about.
Yet this is not just a talk about a single letter but a look at the development, changing usage and beginnings of our all-too familiar alphabet.
Few will not have heard the phrase "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." In the modern world of political correctness many words and phrases are considered hurtful in the extreme.
Curses and more base language are heard described as 'Anglo-Saxon'. In truth these more than likely began in this Old English language but had quite innocent meanings.
Here the origins and original use of the words are examined and analysed to show how these terms began quite innocently.
This talk is intended for an adult audience and some may find it offensive.
English is an odd language. Those on the west of the Atlantic Ocean will look bemused at their counterparts washed by the waters on the eastern side of the ocean and vice versa. In truth both forms are oddly different from other languages. Not just the words but the grammar, syntax and usage which seemingly have no fixed rules.
In the classic story of Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg bets four members of his Reform Club that he will return to that very establishment inside that set number of days. The wager meant winning or losing an immense 20,000.
No such odss or amounts here but a tour of the world through the origins of some of the more famous names around the globe. There is also the chance to compare the meanings and derivations with place names found much closer to homes.
Once when we heard the word 'cool' we immediately thought of popping on an extra layer of clothing. Not so today. In this talk a look at the changes of the use and meanings of words. Where they originally came from and some examples of how earlier generations will have been astonished, bemused and probably shocked by what we would see as a perfectly normal sentence.
William Ewart Gladstone is probably known to most as the man who served four terms as prime minister and was Benjamin Disraeli's great rival. Yet there was much, much more to this man than that. A humanist and benefactor, that the man is not remembered for more than his political offices is quite shameful. Although the modern era would not allow any man or woman to have the influence in as many fields and causes as Gladstone, anyone who did would likely never be voted out of office.
History of the Joke.
Ever wondered why we laugh? Why something one person finds hilarious is just not funny to another? And is laughter really the best medicine? Here the talk covers some of the oldest jokes, jokes of varied genres, the scientific explanation of humour, and the oldest jokes known. Old jokes here are not just those we have heard before, these old jokes are centuries old - will you still find them funny?
If you know how to write you know how to read, but proofreading is a third skill quite different to writing or reading. Hear the absolute howlers made by others, so you will not repeat their mistakes.
Bird Myths and Mysteries
The ability to fly has, for longer than recorded history, been a dream for all mankind. Now a reality, courtesy of technology, it was once seen as a god-like power and something we could only hope to copy. For this reason any number of myths and mysteries were attributed to birds. Migration took them away for months at a time. Where did they go and why?
Any number of strange ideas were associated with birds and some continue to this day. An illustrated talk looking at our feathered friends and the many mysterious and often incredible beliefs our ancestors attributed to them.
For details on any of the following talks, drop me a line:
A Look at Christmas
Ancient Trackways
Bloody History of Lichfield and Tamworth
British English v American English
Dr Beeching and HS2
An Etymologists Look at Castles
Engine Parts
Euphemisms of the Naughty Bits
Forgotten Figures from History
Gut Reaction
Laughter in Language
Odd Words and Sayings
Roman Britain: The Truth
Stupid in Saxon and Norman England
What If
What the Railways Drove
Available as a speaker on any subject covered by my writing, with new subjects being added all the time.
Dianne Mannering's excellent site gives contact details for me and a wealth of other speakers on numerous subjects
Federation of Family History Societies list a number of speakers on a variety of topics
Myself and many other speakers listed at Leicestershire Connect
Derbyshire County Council list myself and other speakers
Myself and other speakers listed by Shropshire Council Community Directory
Kent History Federation
Warwickshire Libraries include my talks among their many listings
Yorkshire Speakers Directory include my talks among their many and varied listings
Rotary Club lists myself and many others offering a variety of topics.
Medway Libraries
Lancashire Local History Association
Solihull Libraries
Library of Birmingham's list of speakers
With Anne Diamond on BBC Radio Berkshire
On Stafford Radio with Carol Lake