Way back in the 17th Century, during the reign of King Charles the second, wine was, to put it mildly, not quite as palatable as it is today. Whilst I cannot substantiate that fact personally, it is well known that to not only enhance the flavour of the wine pieces of spiced toast were added to the vessels containing it, but also that the toast was to attract sediment in the bottom of the vessels, to keep that from being poured into glasses or goblets. – The overseer of this was the “Master of the Toasts”.
What we now call “Toasting” itself, the raising of a glass or goblet goes way back before mildly dodgy wine. In fact it is most likely to have started because of dodgy or rather poisoned wine in the first place. Both the Romans and the Greeks used it (the poisoning, not the toasting) as a favored way of bumping off people they no longer wished to share their dinner tables with! Now, who thought of it first, I have no idea as I was not around to witness, but I suspect the Greeks, being the older civilization, even if it was a rather uncivilized act. Therefore to prove the wine was not poisoned the host would have it poured from the communal jug into his own goblet, drink from it and then hold up it up to the health of his or her guests. Then everybody would know it was not bad and tuck into it. Afterwards they would most likely all get with the ritual of raising their glasses to their gods and honoured members of society, both very popular.
Move forward many centuries to around the aforementioned mid-1600’s and both adding the toast to wine and raising glasses had become quite an important pastime. It was not only very popular throughout England, but also many other countries as well. This continues to this very day. However, it had become so popular as a way of, and an excuse, to consume more wine than was possibly necessary, or even sensible, that it became quite important for someone to take on the role of referee. That role naturally fell to the aforementioned overseer, the Master of the Toasts – the forbearer to the modern day traditional toastmaster. The role as you see subtly changed from one controlling the adding of the toast to the wine, to controlling the number of toasts given at a meal.
Now there are considered two “leading lights” in the world of the toastmaster. The first was a Master of Ceremonies by the name of Richard Nash. Although Richard, also known as Beau, went to Oxford to study law, he turned out to not be that academic and therefore left university early for the military. That also was short lived and he soon found himself in the role of assistant to the Master of Ceremonies in a popular establishment in Bath. After moving up to the appointment of Master of Ceremonies when his employer lost a duel, he went on to stay in the role for over 50 years. During this half century, he went on to establish many strict codes of etiquette and the “done thing”. Bath society was very much on the up at the time and seen as a trendsetter. This was so much so, that much of society throughout the country adhered to many of its trends and ideas. Therefore, such was the power of his position and standing, it left Nash as one of the most influential men in the social history of England.
One of the things that Nash insisted was important for any Master of Ceremonies or Toastmaster was that they should look splendid and be a match for any of the guests. They should also, however, stand out. Now Nash was quite a dandy and flamboyant dresser, however, it would take nearly another 125 years after his death for a uniform to be established.
This then neatly leads us to our next “leading light” in the world of the Toastmaster. His name was William Knightsmith. Whilst always well-dressed he was sick of blending in and one night allegedly returned home feeling low after another event where his boss had complained that he was struggling to identify him from others present. He moaned about this to wife, at which point she suggested that he go out and buy a “Huntsman’s Pink.”For those of you unaware as to what this is, it is the Red equestrian jacket worn by huntsmen made by a Tailor named Mr. Pink of London. Rumour has it that Mr. Pink purchased a large quantity of Scarlet material after the end of the war in the United States, as it was going at a knockdown price. He then created a line of clothing for hunts which became very popular.
So at the next event Knightsmith wore his Huntsman’s coat and the rest as they say, is history, as it was soon adopted by other toastmasters. This was in around 1894. The jacket was then modified over the original huntsman’s, which does not have tails, so that it mirrored evening dress otherwise known as “White Tie” which includes a long black tailcoat. Knightsmith was one of the most revered Toastmasters of his time, and as well as acting a toastmaster to the great and good, his most notable role was as the Master of Ceremonies at the 1908 London Olympics.
So there you have it. The Red Coat is worn so that the Toastmaster is easily identifiable to everyone as the person who is, for want of a better phrase, in charge, and who will allow them to relax because he will instruct them as to their part in any event.
However, in the City of London, the Red Coat is still not worn for City of London Corporation events – including Livery and Ward Club events. There are several possible reasons as to why this is. Firstly, it was thought that due to historical tradition “The Hunt” was forbidden to pass within the City boundaries. As we now know, the coat was formally a huntsman’s coat, and as such this was considered “bad show!” Secondly, The City of London Corporation’s official colours are Red and White. Toastmasters wear a Black Jacket in the City (aka the aforementioned White Tie) with a Red and White Sash – the “Corporation Sash”. – This looks much smarter with a Black Jacket and in fact clashes badly with a Red one – also aesthetically “bad show!” Finally, the City is also keen to establish that it is set apart from the rest of London and the country, and therefore its toastmasters should be too!
Whether any or some of the above are the real reason, all those I have approached about the subject cannot substantiate any of them. However, nowadays there are many events within City walls which are corporate and not “City”, and where the Red Coat is requested. In each case, I ask kind permission of the venue manager to wear the Red Coat out of courtesy. Most of them, lacking any kind of historical knowledge, look at me as if I have a screw loose and ask why? “Because I don’t wish to be arrested by the City Police” is my answer!…… Traditions eh!?
So that is where we came from. Our training (for those of us correctly trained) includes much of what we were taught by Richard “Beau” Nash with respect to etiquette and doing things correctly and traditionally. Some might think those old ways are unnecessary and outdated. Perhaps in this modern world they might be. However, a toastmaster’s role is to do his master’s bidding and in a fashion that is best suited to the event in question. Some like a City Dinner require a very firm hand and old-fashioned delivery. Others, like an Indian Wedding for instance, still require the firm hand, but it is prudent to adapt the delivery as required.
As mentioned some consider the role outdated and even stuffy and without doubt there are some toastmasters out there who are! However, once again it will be the skill of the individual toastmaster that will make every event they lead seem formal, but informal, at the same time, allowing everyone to relax.
One final note is always check any toastmaster you may wish to engage is trained by a recognised Guild or Association. There are many. If they are not trained, then they are just a Master of Ceremonies, not a Master of the Toasts! In more formal occasions this can be essential.
A Toastmaster can be a Master of Ceremonies, but a Master of Ceremonies cannot be a Toastmaster!
James Hasler is a professional toastmaster, master of ceremonies and event facilitator, a Fellow of the Guild of International Professional Toastmasters. He is experienced in running all kinds of events from conferences, awards ceremonies, fundraisers, and weddings of all cultures that take place in the UK. He has worked with and for people from all walks of life, from the most humble to celebrities and even members of the Royal Family.