Letters to The Times: More than the "First Cuckoo"

The Times Digital Archive Screencap

A heavily used BC Libraries' database is the Times Digital Archive which provides an online, full-text facsimile of all issues of The Times from its first appearance in 1785 up to 2009.  This newspaper, often called The London Times or The Times of London, for years gloried in being known as the world's "newspaper of record". Certainly, for at least 200 years it was arguably the best known, the most cited and most respected newspaper in the English speaking world. President Abraham Lincoln once observed: "The London Times is one of the greatest powers in the world—in fact, I don't know anything which has much more power—except perhaps the Mississippi."

It is a massive database with every page of The Times captured in its entirety, including every front page, photo, illustration, article, advertisement, editorial, obituary and birth and marriage notice. It contains about 1.5 million pages, over 70,000 issues and more than 11 million articles.

The database is essentially a history of the world since 1785. A vast number of diverse topics may be consulted: David Livingstone's exploration of Africa beginning in 1840; the progress of the Crimean war of 1854; how the British responded to the Irish potato famine in the 1830s; how fashions changed from the bustle to the miniskirt; the hubbub in 1928 over policemen being banned from chewing gum on the beat; the uproar resulting from the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses; the progression of Britain's reaction to the American Civil war; how Colgate used to be known for their shaving cream and not for their toothpaste. While political coverage, both international and domestic, have a particular focus, The Times has always reported on cultural and social affairs and developments, sometimes of a more light hearted nature.

Particularly prominent from the earliest days have been the letters to the editor. It is often said that many readers subscribed to The Times primarily for these letters. Among the famous individuals who have had letters published in The Times are: Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Charles Darwin, Saul Bellow, Roger Casement, Marie Curie, Bertrand Russell, Arthur Conan Doyle, Marie Stopes, Bernhard Berenson, H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy, John Masefield, F.A. Hayek, Arnold Toynbee, Graham Greene, P.G. Wodehouse, Robert Graves, Julian Huxley, T.S. Eliot.

Below are some letters, among the many thousands that have appeared in The Times. They have little in common except, I hope, interest.

On 9 July, 1855 the famous scientist Michael Faraday, member of both the Royal Society and Royal Institution, wrote to The Times commenting on the appalling filth of the Thames:

A photo of Faraday, circa 1861 Faraday, circa 1861

I traversed this day by steamboat the space between London and Hungerford bridges between half-past 1 and 2 o'clock; it was low water, and I think the tide must have been near the turn ...

The smell was very bad, and common to the whole of the water; it was the same as that which now comes up from the gullyholes in the streets; the whole river was for the time a real sewer. Having just returned from out of the country air, I was, perhaps, more affected by it than others; but I do not think I could have gone on to Lambeth or Chelsea, and I was glad to enter the streets for an atmosphere which, except near the sinkholes, I found much sweeter than that on the river.

I have thought it a duty to record these facts, that they may be brought to the attention of those who exercise power or have responsibility in relation to the condition of our river; there is nothing figurative in the words I have employed, or any approach to exaggeration; they are the simple truth. If there be sufficient authority to remove a putrescent pond from the neighbourhood of a few simple dwellings, surely the river which flows for so many miles through London ought not to be allowed to become a fermenting sewer. The condition in which I saw the Thames may perhaps be considered as exceptional, but it ought to be an impossible state, instead of which I fear it is rapidly becoming the general condition. If we neglect this subject, we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we to be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof of the folly of our carelessness.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
Royal Institution, July 7.     M. FARADAY.

Today, however, after not so long ago being termed "biologically dead," the condition of the Thames is far different. Extensive restoration efforts have resulted in a much cleaner river that now has over 120 species of fish including salmon and sea trout. Otters and seals have even been found in the river.

A more recent letter to The Times and one that engendered a massive response was written by a 16 year-old Scottish schoolgirl Jenni Herd. On 4 March, 2014 Ms. Herd strongly criticized the attitudes of the older to the younger generation, lambasting the legacy that the former had bequeathed to the latter.

Sir, I am getting increasingly annoyed at the barrage of articles about teenagers, and the adults who keep trying to explain our behaviour.

I am 16 and a straight-A student, like most of my friends. We are not as irrational and immature as adults seem to think. We've grown up with financial crises and accept that most of us will be unemployed. We no longer flinch at bloody images of war because we've grown up seeing the chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere. Most of us are cynical and pessimistic because of the environment we've grown up in – which should be explanation enough for our apparent insolence and disrespect, without "experts" having to write articles about it.

Has no one ever seen that we are angry at the world we live in? Angry that we will have to clean up your mess, while you hold us in contempt, analysing our responses as though we were another species?

I would like adults to treat us not as strange creatures from another world but as human beings with intelligent thought – a little different from yours, perhaps, but intelligent thought nonetheless.

Stop teaching adults how to behave around us, and instead teach them to respect us.

Jenni Herd
Kilmarnock, E. Ayrshire.

The Irish Famine years saw numerous letters to The Times. A particularly poignant one was written by a parish priest, John Coghlan, on 16 January, 1847.

Sir, Your numerous appeals in favour of the Irish destitution embolden me to address you and crave your sympathy in favour of my starving parishioners. Two months ago they exceeded 6,000 souls; they are now considerably reduced below that number -- death, by starvation, has made its fearful ravages. This week two persons have died of hunger, one a girl named Mary Dodd, of Barcoll, aged 16 years, the other a man named James O'Donnell, of Sownaclane, aged 53 years. I attended another last night, named William Fallen, dying of starvation. Of the entire number of about 5,950 now living, I solemnly declare, to the best of my opinion, that not more than 200 of them have more to support nature than half a meal in the 24 hours. The corn is all gone; not even the seed for the ensuing year remains. The turnips are all used. We have no Indian meal. The very small quantity of oatmeal to be found is selling at 28s per 112 lb. Indian meal is not to be had in Sligo for less than 19l. per ton. The people on the public works are not permitted to earn more than 3s. per week. They could earn more if permitted to bring their families. Such a rational course the Board of Works will not permit. Oh, Sir, if ever suffering humanity commanded your sympathy, the dying destitution of my parishioners loudly does so. Day and night I am importuned for food.

I have the honour to remain,

Your very obedient humble servant,


Kilkelly, county of Mayo.

Illustration, an 1849 depiction of Bridget O'Donnell and her two children during the famine. An 1849 depiction of Bridget O'Donnell and her two children during the famine.

There are many instances of caustic academic disputes overflowing to The Times letter pages. A prominent one concerned the proposal by Cambridge University to grant Jacques Derrida an honorary degree. An international group of distinguished philosophers bitterly protested this proposal in a 9 May, 1992 letter. Though the letter is mordant in tone, it probably also occasioned chuckles in some readers.

Sir, The University of Cambridge is to ballot on May 16 on whether M. Jacques Derrida should be allowed to go forward to receive an honorary degree. As philosophers and others who have taken a scholarly and professional interest in M. Derrida's remarkable career over the years, we believe the following might throw some needed light on the public debate that has arisen over this issue.

M. Derrida describes himself as a philosopher, and his writings do indeed bear some of the marks of writings in that discipline. Their influence, however, has been to a striking degree almost entirely in fields outside philosophy – in departments of film studies, for example, or of French and English literature.

In the eyes of philosophers, and certainly among those working in leading departments of philosophy throughout the world, M. Derrida's work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour.

We submit that, if the works of a physicist (say) were similarly taken to be of merit primarily by those working in other disciplines, this would in itself be sufficient grounds for casting doubt upon the idea that the physicist in question was a suitable candidate for an honorary degree.

M. Derrida's career had its roots in the heady days of the 1960s and his writings continue to reveal their origins in that period. Many of them seem to consist in no small part of elaborate jokes and puns ('logical phallusies' and the like), and M. Derrida seems to us to have come close to making a career out of what we regard as translating into the academic sphere tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists or of the concrete poets.

Certainly he has shown considerable originality in this respect. But again, we submit, such originality does not lend credence to the idea that he is a suitable candidate for an honorary degree.

Many French philosophers see in M. Derrida only cause for silent embarrassment, his antics having contributed significantly to the widespread impression that contemporary French philosophy is little more than an object of ridicule.

M. Derrida's voluminous writings in our view stretch the normal forms of academic scholarship beyond recognition. Above all – as every reader can very easily establish for himself (and for this purpose any page will do) – his works employ a written style that defies comprehension.

Many have been willing to give M. Derrida the benefit of the doubt, insisting that language of such depth and difficulty of interpretation must hide deep and subtle thoughts indeed.

When the effort is made to penetrate it, however, it becomes clear, to us at least, that, where coherent assertions are being made at all, these are either false or trivial.

Academic status based on what seems to us to be little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship is not, we submit, sufficient grounds for the awarding of an honorary degree in a distinguished university.

Yours sincerely,

Barry Smith
(and 18 other signatories)

Another letter that probably resulted in laughter, at least among some readers, was published a century and a quarter earlier on 28 December, 1877:

Sir, -- We have to face a new great "social evil." At a quarter past 4 on this Christmas Day the postman is just delivering his morning letters at the house I am temporarily staying at. In other words, the legitimate correspondence of the country has been delayed seven hours in order that cartloads of children's cards may be delivered. We are a curious people. The habit of sending wedding cards, based upon a sensible object, is being rapidly thrust aside; and yet the whole population – men, women, and children – seems suddenly to have given itself up to the stationers and fancy shops and their endless variety of Christmas and New Year's cards. People sit down with pen in hand, and envelopes and postage-stamps before them, and bring up from the depths of their inner consciousness the names of people of whom they know little, and for whom they care less, to address, in order to swell out the total number they may dispatch as forming a ground of boasting. . . . . I dare say that some will say that this complaint is very cynical and very morose. Not doubting that in many cases the sending of cards may serve a very useful purpose and present genuine regard, I maintain that it has now become a huge national plaything, which has definite evils and inconveniences in its train. . . . When Mary Ann the maid can boast of as many Christmas cards as her mistress or the young ladies, it will soon go out of favour. Meanwhile, if the present fever continues, I commend it to the Chancellor of the Exchequer as affording a clue to a very productive tax. It would beat the Match tax, at all events.

Yours obediently,
Clifton, Bristol, Dec. 25.  M.P.

Illustration of TS Eliot

Another letter, much later, may also have been the source of amusement as well as distinct agreement. On 20 December, 1950 T.S. Eliot revealed a strong antipathy to television:

Sir, in your issue of December 17 you announce that the B.B.C. proposes to spend over £4m. during the next three years on the development of television. I have just returned from a visit to the United States, where television (though not, I believe, more highly developed technically) has become an habitual form of entertainment in many more households than here. Among persons of my own acquaintance I found only anxiety and apprehension about the social effects of this pastime, and especially about its effect (mentally, morally, and physically) upon small children. 

Before we endeavour to popularize it still further in this country, might it not be as well if we investigated its consequences for American society and took counsel with informed American opinion about possible safeguards and limitations? The fears expressed by my American friends were not such as could be allayed by the provision of only superior and harmless programmes. They were concerned with the television habit, whatever the programme might be. Your obedient servant, 
T. S. Eliot, 
24, Russell Square, W.C.1, Dec.17

Twenty years later Eliot's wife, Valerie Eliot, wrote a brief letter about Bertrand Russell who had died a week earlier aged 97:

My husband, T. S. Eliot, loved to recount how late one evening he stopped a taxi. As he got in, the driver said: "You're T. S. Eliot". When asked how he knew, he replied: "Ah, I've got an eye for a celebrity. Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him: 'Well, Lord Russell, what's it all about', and, do you know, he couldn't tell me." 
Yours faithfully,
3 Kensington Court Gardens, W.8.
Feb. 8

A few days earlier, the Dean of Canterbury wrote another classic on a completely different topic:

A few days ago I received a communication addressed to T. A. Becket, Esq., care of The Dean of Canterbury. This surely must be a record in postal delays.

Yours truly,
Ian H. White-Thomson
The Deanery, Canterbury, Feb. 3.

I believe it true to say that cricket has made relatively few converts among Americans. I think that it's also valid to assert that interest in baseball by the English has never been high. Still, it's noteworthy that the Scottish author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was an enthusiastic fan of baseball and urged its promotion in Britain. In an October 28, 1924 letter to The Times Doyle wrote

Photo of Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir, — As one who has sampled most British sports, may I say a word upon baseball? It seems to me that in those Press comments which I have been able to see too much stress is laid upon what may appear to us to be a weakness or a comic aspect in the game and not nearly enough upon its real claim on our attention. I fully agree that the continual ragging is from a British view-point a defect, but baseball is a game which is continually in process of development and improvement, as anyone who reads Arthur Mathewson's interesting book on the subject is aware.

The foul tricks which were once common are now hardly known, and what was once applauded, or at any rate tolerated, would now be execrated. Therefore, this rough badinage may pass away and it is not an essential of the game. What is essential is that here is a splendid game which calls for a fine eye, activity, bodily fitness, and judgment in the highest degree. This game needs no expensive levelling of a field, its outfit is within the reach of any village club, it takes only two or three hours in the playing, it is independent of wet wickets, and the player is on his toes all the time, and not sitting on a pavilion bench while another man makes his century. If it were taken up by our different Association teams as a summer pastime I believe it would sweep this country as it has done America. At the same time it would no more interfere with cricket than lawn tennis has done. It would find its own place. What we need now is a central association which would advise and help the little clubs in the first year of their existence.

Yours faithfully,
Windlesham, Crowborough, Oct. 25.

All of the above letters and thousands of others -- weighty, influential, curious, bizarre, poignant, infuriating, some even verging on lunacy – may be found in the database Times Digital Archive. Happy browsing.

Brendan Rapple
Collection Development Librarian