Samuel Pepys and His Fascination with London

Samuel Pepys is known for leaving behind a comprehensive record of his time, particularly during a significant period of upheaval in London’s history. Born in 1633, Pepys lived through the Civil War, Cromwell’s republic, and the Great Fire of London, which he documented extensively in his diaries.

Despite the filth and disease that characterized life in 1600s London, Pepys’ diaries offer a glimpse into the city’s past, including popular forms of entertainment such as animal fights. Today, London history lovers can follow Pepys’ trail and discover what remains of his London.

Who was Samuel Pepys?

Pepys’ Diaries

Samuel Pepys was a prominent figure in 17th century England, known for his various accomplishments such as being an Administrator of the Navy, an MP, and a President of the Royal Society. However, it is his diaries that have solidified his place in history as one of the greatest diarists of all time.

Pepys began writing his diaries on January 1st, 1660, and continued for a decade, filling six volumes with approximately 1,250,000 words. Written in shorthand, his diaries provide a detailed account of life in London during the reign of Charles II.

Pepys’ candidness about his personal life, including his encounters with actresses and high society women, has made his diaries a reliable source of information. However, it is not only his personal life that is chronicled in his diaries. Pepys also wrote about major events of his time, including England’s last plague, the restoration of the Monarchy, and the Great Fire of London.

Despite his many accomplishments, it is clear that Pepys’ diaries are his greatest legacy. His keen eye for detail and ability to capture the essence of life in 17th century London make his diaries an invaluable resource for historians and anyone interested in the period.

The Great Fire of London

Pepys’ Writings

Samuel Pepys, a Londoner, first learned of the Great Fire on September 2, 1666, when his maid woke him up at 3am to inform him of the “great fire they saw in the City.” Pepys, not seeming too worried about the blaze, goes back to bed and sleeps until seven o’clock when he gets up, dresses, and goes down to Tower to get a closer look.

It’s at this time that Pepys’ humanistic eye and penchant for detail brings the scene to life. He chronicles the panic and confusion as the fire burns “with infinite fury.” Pepys notes that people were “endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another.”

He even spends time dwelling on the fate of London’s ubiquitous bird. “And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.”

The Aftermath

The accounts woven between his narrative of escape paint further horrifying scenes and illustrate how utterly the fire would have wrecked the functioning of normal society. At one point, Pepys writes a letter to his father, assuming to let him know the family is okay, but finds that the post office has been burnt down when he tries to send the letter.

By Friday the 7th, the fire had been put out, and most of London was wrecked. Pepys talks of the “miserable sight of Paul’s church; with all the roofs fallen, and the body of the quire fallen into St. Fayth’s” and “Fleet-street, my father’s house, and the church, and a good part of the Temple the like.”

The destruction was total, and he says in one early passage, “it made him weep to see it.” Pepys’ concerns turned to his own home and family that were now at risk of being consumed in the fire, and he ordered his belongings to be packed, taking in a now-homeless friend on the way.

Pepys sent his valuables and, most importantly for us, his diaries to Bethnal Green and escorted his wife to Woolwich with the rest of the family’s salvageables. One of the items he chose to save was a wheel of parmesan cheese that he buried in the garden to keep safe.

What Remains of Pepys’ London

Despite the fact that most of Pepys’ London has vanished, there are still some locations that can be visited today, providing a glimpse into the life of Samuel Pepys.

All Hallows By The Tower

All Hallows By The Tower is a church that has been standing since the 7th century and has undergone several transformations since then. Samuel Pepys lived around the corner on Seething Lane, which is why the church holds significance to him. Pepys probably knew the place as the local church played an important role in the community. He even recorded in his diaries the view from the steeple as London burned.

Seething Lane

Pepys resided on Seething Lane from 1660-1674, and his house no longer exists. However, a bust of him is displayed in the gardens along the road. Many of his diaries would have been written on this site.

St Olave’s Church

St Olave’s Church, located just around the corner, played an even more important role in Pepys’ life as it is the place where he was buried. Pepys worshipped at the church with his family and even funded the building of an extra gallery. He also knocked through a special doorway to the building next door – his offices – so that he could come and go with ease. A bust of Pepys’ wife, who died before her husband, can still be seen in a top corner of the church, looking down at the pews where her husband liked to sit.

St. Brides Church

St. Brides Church is the place where Samuel Pepys was baptized on March 3, 1633. He was one of eleven siblings, several of whom did not survive to adulthood. One of his brothers is buried here. A plaque is located at the back of the church in Salisbury Court, which denotes the house where Pepys was born, now long gone. The plaque states the date of his birth as 1632, when in fact it was 1633 due to changes in the calendar much later on that shifted the start of the year back from March to January.

12 Buckingham Street

This address in Covent Garden is the only surviving house that Samuel Pepys lived in, and it is commemorated with a bronze plaque between two first-floor windows. Pepys lived here from 1679 after being imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of selling naval secrets to the French. The charges were dropped, and he was released. It was here that Pepys would be at the height of success in his career and build his famous 3000-strong library, now housed in Magdalene College, Cambridge. He would end up moving a few doors down to number 14 after a fire scare.

Pepys’ House

Although Pepys never lived at this house on the Southbank, he wrote about the bear-baiting pit that it was built over. Bear baiting was a popular sport at the time, and his diary’s accounts are nothing short of grisly. The house is now completely renovated and was on the market for £3.5 million back in 2018.

Monument to the Great Fire of London

The Monument to the Great Fire of London was built by Sir Christopher Wren, and it is located near one of the exits of Monument Station. The monument was erected in 1677 to commemorate the blaze, on the site of the first church to be burnt down by the fire. Standing at 62 meters high, it sits 202 meters west of where the fire started on Pudding Lane.

In conclusion, while much of Pepys’ London has vanished, visitors can still explore some of the remaining sites, which provide a glimpse into the life of Samuel Pepys and the era in which he lived.

Exploring Pepys’ London: Practical Tips

To explore Pepys’ London, visitors can use the map provided to plan a straightforward route to visit the many places mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diaries. As the city was much smaller in Pepys’ time, many of these places are within walking distance of each other. For those interested in London history, Pepys’ diaries are a must-read. Published by Penguin under the title The Diaries of Samuel Pepys – A Selection, they provide essential insights into life in London during the 17th century.