Sunday, 29 June 2014


Of all the many books I have read over the years, one of the most enjoyable consisted of the day-to-day ramblings of an ale-swilling, philandering but very capable civil servant.  The diary of Samuel Pepys, who rose through the ranks to occupy an important role in the Administration of the Navy, and later became an MP, although only covering a decade of his life, provides not only a fascinating insight into the life of 17th century London, but also a running commentary on some of the most significant events in the city's history, including the Black Death and the Great Fire of London.

Pepys was born on 23 February 1633 in Salisbury Court, a street leading from Fleet Street towards the River Thames.  The street was once the main carriage entrance to the medieval palace of the Bishops of Salisbury.  The area was destroyed during the Great Fire, but Salisbury Court still exists as a street, and there is a blue plaque declaring that "In a house on this site Samuel Pepys, diarist, was born".  Pepys' education included a stint at St Paul's School, still in existence and located in the riverside suburb of Barnes in south-west London.  He went on to study at Cambridge University.

Pepys started keeping his diary at the beginning of 1660, and during this first year he was appointed to the Navy Board.  During this time he lived and worked in Seething Lane, which is just to the west of Tower Hill Underground Station, where there is a bust commemorating him.  This location actually survived the Great Fire, only to succumb to a later fire in 1673.  Again, a blue plaque marks the spot.  His leisure time included visits to the 'coffee houses' which were gaining popularity at that time, and he was an avid theatre-goer.  An entry in his diary in September 1661 talks of a visit to his local theatre, Salisbury Court Theatre, to view a performance of 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore' during which, true to form, he was distracted from the proceedings on the stage by the attractive females in the audience.  

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Bust of Pepys in Seething Lane. Photo by John Salmon, via Wikimedia Commons

His job with the Navy took Pepys to a number of locations outside London, and even abroad in his early career, when he was sent to the Netherlands to bring Charles II back from exile.  His diary entry for 30 April 1660 describes a visit to Deal on the Kent coast, which he dismisses as 'a very pitiful town'.  His negative image seems to have derived mostly from the fact that the town came up short on the ale front: “We went to Fuller’s (the famous place for ale), but they have none but what was in the vat.”  Nevertheless, the day ended with much drinking and bonhomie aboard the ships in port.   However, Pepys was much more taken with 'Maydstone' (now Maidstone), a Kent town on the River Medway, which he found "very pretty as most towns I ever saw, though not very big, and people of good fashion in it". As the running of the naval dockyards fell within Pepys' remit, he spent a lot of time in the environs of Medway and the Thames, where most of the dockyard activity was centred.  At Upnor on the Medway Pepys describes the “great disorder by multitude of servants and old decrepid men, which must be remedied”.  Another regular haunt was Deptford on the Thames, where the first of the Royal Dockyards was built.  His visit to Deptford overnight from 11-12 January 1660 was enlivened by "a rising of Fanatiques" in response to which "seamen of all the ships present repair to us, and there we armed every one with a handspike, with which they were as fierce as could be".  Pepys made many visits to Greenwich, another Thames location with a strong naval pedigree.  The Navy Office was moved to Greenwich in August 1665, and Pepys stayed in lodgings nearby for a while.

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Greenwich. Photo by C. G. P. Grey, via Wikimedia Commons

After the period covered by the diary, Pepys went on to have an eventful life, including being imprisoned for Jacobitism in 1690.  In 1701 he moved to a house in Clapham, and he died there two years later.  However, he was buried back in London, alongside his wife and one of his brothers, at St Olave's Church in Hart Street in the City of London, which he refers to in the diary as "our own church".  As for the diary itself, the original manuscript survives to this day, and is kept in the Pepys Library at his Cambridge college, Magdalene College.

The Pepys Library, Cambridge. Photo by Cruccone, via Wikimedia Commons

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