Tuesday 9 May 2023

Reading Samuel Pepys’ Diary

Genealogists researching their London ancestors will find the diary of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) of great interest and value. I am currently working my way through the entire book and getting an appreciation of the people and events of the period about which he wrote.

The book is a unique collection of observations of someone who lived in London and relates Pepys’ daily experiences with people (family, friends, work cohorts, politicians and regular citizens), the Great Plague of London, the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Great Fire, local weather and other normal and not-so-normal events that transpired between 1660 and 1669. Pepys was just 26 when he started recording his thoughts. His observations span the last year of the Interregnum and the early years of the Restoration and reign of King Charles II.

The original diary along with other artifacts and manuscripts collected by the man are preserved in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge.

Various versions of the diary in book and digital format can be purchased from many retailers or read and downloaded directly from Internet Archive or through Project Gutenberg. For background, it is worth looking at both webpage sets.

The diary was originally written in Pepys’ own shorthand which has challenged people to transcribe it. The 1893 published version by Rev. Mynors Bright was a tremendous accomplishment in making the complete record available for everyone to be able to read.

I started reading the diary while researching information about the plague of 1665-66 and about the local weather during this period of the Little Ice Age. It is an invaluable resource for information about the epidemic and surrounding events and the people in London during the late 17th century. His experiences in moving around London during the height of the infection brings home the fear residents felt, the precautions they took to avoid catching it, how efforts were made to handle the sick and dying and some of the horrible, daily scenes witnessed. He also quotes weekly statistics of deaths which makes the publication a good reference source.

Samuel Pepys served as a clerk and administrator in the Royal Navy, rising to become Chief Secretary to the Admiralty. He was elected to Parliament in 1673. The diary provides first-hand glimpses into the lives of Londoners during the Restoration almost from the time Pepys began his working life until what he believed was failing eyesight forced him to halt his writing. The affliction turned out to not be true. No doubt our knowledge of British history would be much greater had he continued to document his experiences until his death in 1703.

In addition to Pepys’ own recollections and records, the book also has considerable background history about his family as well as the (notable) people with whom he came in contact as friends and work colleagues. Incorporated into the digital text provided by Project Gutenberg are many editor’s notes explaining who various people were and what events were occurring that were referenced by Pepys.

Pepys’ writing contains many personal comments about his own life. One of the early notes from 3 January 1660, gives us a peek into that day’s activity that would be a preview of what comments about future days would be like:

I went out in the morning, it being a great frost, and walked to Mrs. Turner' s to stop her from coming to see me to‐day, because of Mrs. Jem' s corning, thence I went to the Temple to speak with Mr. Calthrop, and walked in his chamber an hour, but could not see him, so went to Westminster, where I found soldiers in my office to receive money, and paid it them. At noon went home, where Mrs. Jem, her maid, Mr. Sheply, Hawly, and Moore dined with me on a piece of beef and cabbage, and a collar of brawn. We then fell to cards till dark, and then I went home… and there found Mr. Hunt and his wife, and Mr. Hawly, who sat with me till ten at night at cards, and so broke up and to bed.

From July 1660, Pepys’ home was in the Navy Office buildings on Seething Lane, near The Tower of London. Pepys, of course lived in the city during the last major plague of 1665-66. None of his family were infected but he does comment on many of his friends who succumbed such as this comment on 25 August 1665:

This day I am told that Dr. Burnett, my physician, is this morning dead of the plague; which is strange, his man dying so long ago, and his house this month open again. Now himself dead. Poor unfortunate man!

Samuel often mentioned the weather conditions, probably as his travels around the city were mostly on foot. And without the modern conveniences of air conditioning or central heating, people were much more attuned to the temperature and precipitation (or lack thereof) around them. Still though, many comments are not unlike one might today or at any time over the past centuries. These contrasting entries are typical of his observations:

6 February 1665 – this being one of the coldest days, all say, they ever felt in England

7 June 1665 – it being the hottest day that ever I felt in my life, and it is confessed so by all other people the hottest they ever knew in England in the beginning of June

18 March 1666 – very fine fair weather, but all cry out for the lack of rain

1 January 1667 – being a bitter, cold, frosty day, the frost being now grown old, and the Thames covered with ice

7 March 1667 – this day was reckoned by all people the coldest day that ever was remembered in England

27 July 1667 – it having not rained, I think, this month before, so as the ground was everywhere so burned and dry as could be; and no travelling in the road or streets in London, for dust

The location of Pepys’ home was very fortunately just outside the area that was consumed during the Great Fire in 1666. Pepys makes many comments about the fire, the people who fought it and those who were impacted by it in losing their homes and businesses such as this on the day it started – 2 September 1666:

So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it begun this morning in the King' s baker' s' house in Pudding‐lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus' s Church and most part of Fish‐street already. So I down to the water‐side, and there got a boat and through bridge, and there saw a lamentable fire. Poor Michell' s house, as far as the Old Swan, already burned that way, and the fire running further, that in a very little time it got as far as the Steeleyard, while I was there. Everybody 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.

Whether or not you have ancestors in the London area, the diary is a must read to gain insight into how locals viewed what we now regard as important history of late 17th century England.