meaning and history of ‘to write to The Times about it’

The phrase to write to The Times about it dates from the mid-1850s and is—or jokingly denotes—a very British threat made by a member of the public to write to the daily newspaper The Times (London, England) to express outrage about a particular issue—cf. also origin of ‘Disgusted’ (a person expressing outrage).

(Founded on 1st January 1785 as The Daily Universal Register, this newspaper became The Times on 1st January 1788. It is one of Britain’s oldest and most influential periodicals.)

People did—and still do—write to The Times to express indignation, as reported for example by The Morning Post (London, England) of 15th May 1854:

Nearly four years ago the whole country was thrown into a state of bitter agitation on the subject of rubrical and other ceremonial observances in the Church of England. […]
[…] Nowhere did the storm rage more violently than around the Church of St. Barnabas, Pimlico. […] 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.

The earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from the column Our Colonel’s Corner, in Punch, or the London Charivari (London, England) of 26th April 1851—during Passion Week, one Mr. C. H. Adams delivered his customary annual lecture on astronomy, and exhibited his orrery, at the Haymarket Theatre, London:

During Passion Week, he went to see one of the Orreries. He was very uneasy for a long time; but, at last he could bear it no longer. Crimson with rage, he rose from his seat, and exclaimed—“Why, this is precisely the same as was exhibited last year!” And he left the Theatre, warning all the check-takers, that “he certainly should write to the Times about it.”

The phrase was a recurrent literary motif in the mid-1850s. For example, the following is from The Blessings of a Legacy. A Chancery Legend, an unsigned short story about an inextricable inheritance court case, published in The Monmouthshire Beacon (Monmouth, Monmouthshire, Wales) of 10th May 1851:

Mr. Peter Steadfast was naturally a very mild, quiet person, and Mrs. Peter, though not quite so lamb-like as her husband, was by no means a shrew. Still it happened that this very long “friendly little suit,” by degrees rather soured their tempers. 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? When the omnibus conductor laughed in the face of Mr. Tetchy, their gouty neighbour, didn’t he write to the Times about it? and didn’t the Times print the letter?

The English novelist Francis Edward Smedley (1818-1864) also used the phrase in The Fortunes of the Colville Family; Or, A Cloud and its Silver Lining: A Christmas Story (London: George Hoby, 1853)—one train passenger says to another:

“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, if they don’t mind what they’re at.”

The phrase occurs in My Black Mirror, an unsigned short story published in Household Words. A Weekly Journal. Conducted by Charles Dickens (London: Bradbury and Evans) of 6th September 1856—the narrator recollects his past travelling experience in Austrian Italy; one evening, at a comfortable inn, he was “dozing luxuriously by the red embers with an empty bottle at [his] side” when the following happened:

A suddenly-opening door wakes me up; the landlord of the inn approaches, places a long, official-looking book on the table, and hands me pen and ink. I enquire peevishly what I am wanted to write at that time of night, when I am just digesting my dinner. The landlord answers respectfully that I am required to give the police a full, true, and particular account of myself. I approach the table, thinking this demand rather absurd, for my passport is already in the hands of the authorities. However, as I am in a despotic country, I keep my thoughts to myself, open a blank page in the official-looking book, see that it is divided into columns, with printed headings, and find that I no more understand what they mean than I understand an assessed tax paper at home, to which, by-the-by, the blank page bears a striking general resemblance. The headings are technical official words, which I now meet with as parts of Italian speech for the first time. I am obliged to appeal to the polite landlord, and, by his assistance, I get gradually to understand what it is the Austrian police want of me.
The police require to know, before they will let me go on peaceably to-morrow, first, What my name is in full? (My name in full is Matthew O’Donoghue M‘Phinn Phipson Dee; and let the Austrian authorities read it if they can, now they have got it.) Second, What is my nation? (British, and glad to cast it in the teeth of continental tyrants.) Third, Where was I born? (At Merthyr Tydvil. I should be glad to hear the Austrian authorities pronounce that, when they have given up my name in despair.) Fourth, Where do I live? (In London, and I wish I was there now, for I would write to the Times about this nuisance before I slept.)

The phrase was used in this advertisement for the Central Electricity Generating Board, published in The Tewkesbury Register and Gazette (Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England) of 3rd November 1961:

Will they write to “The Times” about it?

to write to The Times about it’ - Tewkesbury Register and Gazette (Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England) - 3 November 1961

By the time these children are ten years older, Britain’s power demands will have doubled. But the number of transmission towers will not have doubled. On the contrary—because the Central Electricity Generating Board is adopting 400,000 volt transmission, fewer new towers will be needed. The new power system will use some existing towers, suitably reinforced, and a limited number of new, slightly taller ones. By Act of Parliament, the C.E.G.B. must provide an efficient, economical electricity supply, while preserving visual amenity as far as possible.

who make and supply electricity to
12 Area Electricity Boards in England and Wales
(which re-sell to consumers) and British Railways.

Write for a copy of “Preserving Amenities” to
The Central Electricity Generating Board, 62, Winsley Street, London W.1.

Another phrase referring to a British periodical is good enough for Punch.

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