Above: A City Plaque in a small public garden near the site where the official residence used to stand.
Samuel Pepys was born in the City of London in 1633. He was born in a house just off Fleet Street – in Salisbury Court – where his father and mother lived. His father was a tailor. Pepys was the fifth of eleven children but because child mortality was high in those days, he became the oldest surviving child. His father was not a particularly wealthy man but he saw to it that the young Pepys was well educated. In about 1644, Pepys attended Huntingdon Grammar School before being educated at St Paul’s School in London from 1646–1650. On leaving school, Pepys went to Cambridge University, having received a grant from the Mercers’ Company.
In 1654 or early in 1655 Pepys entered service in the household of one of his father’s cousins, Sir Edward Montagu (later created the First Earl of Sandwich). In 1655 Pepys married Elisabeth de St Michel. Elizabeth was the fifteen-year-old daughter of French Huguenot immigrants. The wedding was held at the church of St Margaret, Westminster. The church still stands outside Westminster Abbey today. Once married they lived in a single room at Lord Montagu’s lodgings, looking after the household and helping with his London business.
The following year (1656) Pepys became clerk to George Downing, teller of the receipt in
the Exchequer. If you are wondering, the famous Downing Street is named after him because he owned the land on which a row of houses – including ‘No 10’ – was built. From a young age, Pepys had suffered from bladder stones in his urinary tract—a condition from which his mother and brother John also later suffered. He was almost never without pain, as well as other symptoms. By the time of his marriage, the condition was very severe. On 26 March 1658 Pepys had a successful operation, at the private house of Mrs Jane Turner in Salisbury Court, for the removal of a bladder stone, by Thomas Hollier of St Thomas’s Hospital, an event which Pepys celebrated annually ever after.
In August 1658 Pepys and his wife moved to Axe Yard, opposite Whitehall Palace, now on the site of the Treasury. He was still living there when he began his diary in 1660. Quite why he started his diary on 1st January that year is not clear but he was to continue writing it every day until 1669.
Above: A map of Seething Lane in 1720 showing the Navy Office, the approximate site of the official residence where Pepys lived and the church of St Olave, Hart Street, which stood opposite the residence.
Pepys was a diligent worker and was starting to be noticed. He lived at Axe Yard until 17 July 1660, when he moved to Seething Lane, on the east side of the City of London. It was because Pepys had a new job as Clerk of the Navy Office. He moved into official lodgings beside the office. Seething Lane still exists but the Navy Office is long-since gone. The office and the house in which he and his wife lived was opposite the church of St Olave, Hart Street. He and his wife used to attend the church service on Sundays, where they used to sit in the official Navy Office pew – Pepys referred to in his diary as ‘our pew’.
Pepys was now in a good job. He progressed to an even better one in November 1666 when he was appointed Surveyor-General of victualling for naval ships, which often required him to go to Deptford. All that should be seen against a background of grim times for London. In 1663 there was an outbreak of plague which only became more widespread in 1664 and in 1665 was of such epic proportions that we know it today as the ‘Great Plague’. Pepys was so concerned about the situation that he moved his wife to stay with friends at Woolwich and later left London himself to stay with them as well. The diary provides an interesting but grim impression of how people were feeling about the plague and how they were coping with its consequences.
By 1666 London was slowly getting back on its feet when, in September, a fire broke out in Pudding Lane in the City and led to the greatest fire that London has ever witnessed – the Great Fire of London. Pepys was asleep in bed on 2 September when a fire broke out about 2.00 am. It was just a few streets from where he was living. His wife and her maids were still up, preparing food for lunch later in the day. It was a Sunday morning and Elizabeth told one of her maids to wake Pepys and tell him what was happening. Pepys looked out of his window, saw only a small blaze and returned to bed. The house in Seething Lane was east of Pudding Lane and there was a strong east wind which meant that the fire was being blown away from the Navy Office. Pepys got up about 6.00 am and realised that the fire had really taken hold. People in the streets were rushing around in a panic and nobody seemed to be in control of the situation. With great presence of mind, Pepys walked to the nearby church of All Hallows Barking and climbed the tower to get a better view of how the fire was spreading. He then rushed down to the riverside and managed to find a waterman to row him up-river to Westminster. Knowing people at Court, it was a relatively easy matter for him to gain access to the King and he was ushered into his presence to explain what was taking place in the City. On the King’s orders, Pepys returned to the City to speak to the Lord Mayor and tell him that the King had suggested that houses were to be torn down to act as a fire break. Nobody listened and the Lord Mayor proved to be useless at giving orders.
Cutting a long story short, the fire raged, unchecked through Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and most of Wednesday – even reaching the east end of the Strand. It only abated on Wednesday evening, not because teams of people were fighting the fire but because the wind dropped. The strong east wind had been the driving force for the spread of fire. The burned buildings smouldered for about two weeks and the ground was too hot to walk on for all that time. How do we know all these details? Well, one of the best sources is Mr Pepys and his pages of detailed descriptions in his diary.
Three years later, Pepys discontinued his diary on 31 May 1669, believing that he was about to go blind, which in fact never happened. By that time he had written well over one million words, on over 3,000 pages. That same year Elizabeth, his wife, died on 10 November. Her body was buried in the church of St Olave, Hart Street.
Pepys continued to work at the Navy Office. It had occupied various sites since the 16th century. The offices in which Pepys worked had been acquired by the Government in 1654. The office, which stood on the east side of Seething Lane, was destroyed by fire on 29 January 1673, destroying 30 homes nearby. Some of the official records were destroyed as were some engravings that belonged to Pepys. Fortunately, nobody was injured in the fire and Pepys stayed with his friends, the Houblons, in Winchester Street for a few months. Eventually, a new building was erected in 1683 but, by that time, Pepys had moved away. The Navy Office was in use on the same site until 1786 when it was moved into the newly built Somerset House, in the Strand. There is now a Blue Plaque, in a small garden beside Seething Lane, marking the site of the office at the time of Pepys.
A few months later, Pepys was appointed Secretary to the Admiralty on 18 June 1673. He took up the official Admiralty residence at Derby House, Cannon Row. The short street called Cannon Row still exists, running north-south, parallel to Parliament Street, just north of Big Ben. Pepys spent the rest of his life living in and around the Strand until he finally retired to live in Clapham. He died there in 1703 but his body was brought back to the City to be buried in St Olave, Hart Street, the church opposite where he had lived in Seething Lane in which his wife had been buried.
Why Pepys started writing his diary in 1660 we shall probably never know but the next few years turned out to be some of the most momentous in the City’s history. There must have been hundreds – if not thousands – of Navy clerks over the centuries but, today, the only name that everybody knows is that of Samuel Pepys.