What Is The Origin Of (282)?…

To write to the Times about it

With social media so firmly entrenched into our daily existence, providing us with an immediate platform from which to vent our feelings and ill-formed and poorly informed opinions, there has been little need to fill up one’s best fountain pen with green ink and fire off a letter to the editor of a national newspaper. It is a shame as carefully curated letters’ pages in our leading dailies can provide entertainment as well as enlightenment. There was a time, though, when send an epistle to the editor was a reader’s only outlet to get their views across.

The Daily Universal Register was founded in London in 1785, changing its name to The Times on January 1, 1788. It soon established a position for itself of being one of the country’s leading papers, earning it the nickname of The Thunderer, and the mouthpiece of the establishment. If there was one place to go to to get something off your chest as a member of the public, it was The Times.

Our phrase seems to have sprung up during the 1850s, at least in print. The earliest example appeared in Punch, the satirical magazine which we will look at in more detail next time, on April 26, 1851. A Mr C H Adams delivered his usual lecture at the Haymarket Theatre on astronomy. As well as a lecture the redoubtable Adams displayed his orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system that predicted the relative positions of the celestial bodies. The Punch correspondent, though, was far from impressed, recording in Our Colonel’s Corner that, “this is precisely the same as was exhibited last year! And he left the Theatre, warning all check-takers, that “he certainly should write to the Times about it””. One wonders quite what he was expecting.

It was the place to record one’s indignation, as this extract from the Morning Post of May 15, 1854 shows; “men of responsible standing, who belonged to other parishes, thought it necessary to leave their proper churches to spy out the doings at St Barnabas, and to write to the Times about them”, What got them hot under the clerical collar was the introduction of more elaborate observations into the religious service.

It was inevitable that the phrase would gain some traction in a figurative sense and appeared in fiction from around the same time. The Monmouthshire Beacon of May 10, 1853 published a short story, The Blessings of a Legacy, about a court case that was taking such a long time to resolve itself that all the parties concerned lost their collective rags. “Peter said it really was too bad, and he’d a great mind to write to the Lord Chancellor himself about it. Mrs Peter asked him why he did not write to the Times”.         

In The Fortunes of the Colville Family, written by Francis Smedley and published in 1853, a train passenger is recorded as remarking, “what a shocking slow train this is to be sure – they hardly do their five and thirty miles an hour: I shall certainly write to the Times about it”. It is good to see that nothing really changes. Household Words, a periodical edited by Charles Dickens, published a short story on September 6, 1856 in which the anonymous contributor regaled his readers with his experiences in Austrian Italy. His experiences were not altogether pleasurable and he wistfully longed to be back in London; “I wish I was there now, for I would write to the Times about this nuisance before I slept”. Alas, he couldn’t and a retrospective moan in the pages of the Household Word had to suffice.

These days, we talk generally about writing to the papers, rather than specifically the Times, when we express our indignation, often tongue-in-cheek, about something that has annoyed us. In the 1850s, though, it was the only thing to do.    

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