Memoirs of a Londoner: Samuel Pepys

London has some fantastic people and many fascinating characters, both past and present, and I want to use my blog to tell some of their stories. We’re going to start about 350 years ago…

Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703) was a born and bred Londoner in the 17th century. He was the son of a tailor and rose to prominence in court life through notable government appointments in the Navy and Admiralty and as a Member of Parliament. He is more commonly remembered nowadays as an important diarist in the 17th century. He kept a detailed diary between 1660 and 1669 which gives us a unique look into historic London life.

Pepys was living in a tumultuous time in our political history: he had survived a Civil War (1642 – 1651), England’s brief period as a republic after the beheading of Charles I, and his diary kicks off in the year of the Restoration in 1660. Charles II was invited back by Parliament to restore the monarchy and his subsequent reign is known as a period of extravagance, big spending and even bigger wigs.
Pepys also gives us a firsthand account of the Great Fire of London in 1666, which is thought to have destroyed about a third of London at the time. He describes watching the fire from the church tower of All Hallows by the Tower.

All of Pepys diary is available online and it’s “translated”. Pepys wrote in shorthand and occasionally in different languages. I love his diary because it makes him so human. We’re often very distanced from historical figures, but there are moments of Pepys’ life which we can all relate to. For example, there was this one time, at the coronation of Charles II…
He describes the excitement of the ceremony, the feasts, the celebratory bonfires all over the City (obviously all accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol, especially when you’re hanging out with Gilbert Thornborough, the Yeoman of the Wine Cellar to the King). Pepys enjoys himself so much that, after managing to stumble to bed, he throws up, passes out and wakes up the following morning “wet with my spewing”. I mean, it’s happened to all of us. We see him in moments of anger and moments of panic – my favourite will always be his desperate decision, during the Great Fire of London, to bury his parmesan cheese in his back garden.

He also briefly had a pet lion in 1674, which had been given to him as a diplomatic gift by the English consul in Algiers. He even tells us of his birthday in 1669, when he visited the open tomb of 268-year old Catherine of Valois (wife of Henry V, d.1437) at Westminster Abbey and “did kiss her mouth”. He was an odd gent.
By no means, however, was he a saint. He loved his wife, Elisabeth St Michel, but that didn’t stop him from engaging in countless affairs, with barmaids and servants as well as the wives of his colleagues. The details of which he recounted scrupulously in his diary. He was also not averse to approaching women who definitely did not want his attention, including a poor woman during a sermon at St. Dunstan’s Church, who had to threaten to stab Pepys with the pins from her pocket before he would stop. So there’s certainly a darker side to the cheese-burying, lion-keeping, dead Queen-kissing rogue we often hear about.

I wanted to use this blog post to provide a window into Pepys’ world. So I chose today’s date, 1st January, but instead of 2020, we’re in 1669…

1st January 1669:
“Up, and presented from Captain Beckford [colleague in the Navy] with a noble silver warming-pan, which I am doubtful whether to take or no. Up, and with W. Hewer [colleague and lifelong friend] to the New Exchange, and then he and I to the cabinet-shops, to look out, and did agree, for a cabinet to give my wife for a New-year’s gift; and I did buy one cost me 11l. [pounds], which is very pretty, of walnutt-tree, and will come home to-morrow.”

The New Exchange is no longer exists, but it would have been on Strand. Now, the roads that Pepys might have used to get there are very similarly laid out to today, although I am not an expert – this is all guestimation and a constant flicking back and forth between Google Maps and a 1676 map by Ogilby and Morgan. The only major difference I would say, between then and now, is probably the existence of Aldwych, which was only laid out after 1900. Pepys may have come along Eastcheap, Cannon Street, past St. Paul’s Cathedral (which would still have been the post-Great Fire rubble of Old St. Paul’s). He might have gone via Ludgate Hill and Fleet Street which would have taken him over a still visible River Fleet (amazingly, it’s still there but it was covered up in the 18th century), and then finally onto Strand.
The New Exchange was on the south side of Strand, near today’s Charing Cross station and opposite Bedford Street. It was built 1608 – 89 by the Earl of Salisbury and was full of luxury shops, which is why Pepys was shopping there for a beautiful walnut cabinet. The building was later demolished in 1737.

The New Exchange which occupied the site of nos. 52 – 64 Strand (a 19th century watercolour of an old drawing, © British Museum)
The site on the Strand today
Royal Exchange today (thank you Look Up London for the photo)

“So back to the old Exchange [Royal Exchange], and there met my uncle [William] Wight; and there walked, and met with the Houblons [merchant family], and talked with them — gentlemen whom I honour mightily: and so to my uncle’s, and met my wife; and there, with W. Hewer, we dined with our family, and had a very good dinner, and pretty merry…”

So basically Pepys goes to meet his uncle at the Old Exchange, which is today known as the Royal Exchange at Bank Junction. It was founded by Sir Thomas Gresham in 1565, as London’s first purpose-built centre for trading stocks.
If you’re actually at Bank and looking at it, the building would have looked very different in 1669. In fact, there wouldn’t really have been much of any building there when Pepys met his uncle. The Great Fire of London had devoured the original building and the second building was only completed later in 1669. The building we see today has only been there since 1844 (after another fire), and it’s recently been remodelled as a luxury shopping venue rather than a financial exchange.

Royal Exchange c.1647 as Pepys would have known it before the Great Fire (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

So Pepys’ journey from Strand to Bank – let’s say he started along Fleet Street and back across the River Fleet, but this time went left up Old Bailey. Then let’s send him along Newgate Street into Cheapside (all streets which still exist!). Then he’d have wandered along Cheapside until he reached Bank tube station where, after meeting his uncle, they could have caught the Central Line to Liverpool Street near where his uncle lived… Okay, okay, maybe not by tube. The no.25 bus would be much faster.

St. Andrew Undershaft

No, in all seriousness, Pepys would probably have walked with his uncle from the Royal Exchange. It would have been a very short walk along Cornhill and Leadenhall Street to St. Andrew Undershaft. I’ve generally stuck to main roads, but if Pepys was walking, he may quite possibly have taken a more circuitous route. Unfortunately I only know that Pepys’ uncle and aunt lived in the parish of St. Andrew Undershaft, not exactly where so that’s as far as I can guide you. He had a meal there with William’s wife, the Houblons, Elisabeth, and Will Hewer.

The church of St. Andrew Undershaft is the first building I’ve mentioned so far which Pepys would have recognised – probably a reassuring presence for a hypothetical time-travelling Pepys. The building we see is a remarkable relic from 1532, which has survived the Great Fire, the Blitz in the 20th century, and also an IRA bomb in 1992. It’s now used as an event space administered by the next door St. Helen’s Bishopsgate

“…and after dinner, my wife and I with our coach to the King’s playhouse, and there in a box saw “The Mayden Queene”. [Elizabeth] Knepp [actress] looked upon us, but I durst not shew her any countenance; and, as well as I could carry myself, I found my wife uneasy there, poor wretch! therefore, I shall avoid that house as much as I can.”

And what New Year’s Day isn’t complete without a trip to the theatre?? After dinner, Pepys and Elizabeth made their way to the King’s Playhouse by carriage.
Let’s mix it up a little bit – maybe the undulating Lime Street into Philpot and later Botolph Lanes. Nowadays, along Philpot Lane, you’re dwarfed by the towering Walkie Talkie building, but in 1669, London was a lot lower to the ground. Not even the Monument would have been there yet – it was only in 1669 in the Rebuilding Act that the idea was proposed for a “Column or Pillar of Brass or Stone… on or as near unto the place where the said Fire so unhappily began”. Incredibly, so much Portland stone was required post-1666 for the rebuilding of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the construction of the Monument, that King Charles II had to issue a royal proclamation forbidding the transportation of stone from the Isle of Portland “without the leave and warrant first obtained from Dr. Christopher Wren, Surveyor of our Works”.

Turning right along Thames Street (now a major road divided into Upper and Lower). This street has changed considerably since Pepys’ lifetime, especially since Second World War bombing. We can see a few remnants of the past, though in different forms, in the church of Magnus the Martyr (1), Fishmonger’s Hall (site of the Old Billingsgate Fish Market) (2), and All-Hallows-the-Great church (both churches had to be rebuilt after the Great Fire, but Pepys would have known them before then) (3). The church of Magnus the Martyr repeatedly echoes through time, mentioned both by Charles Dickens in the 19th century and T.S. Eliot in the 20th.
Further down, a peek into the 9th century Anglo-Saxon Queenhithe Dock on the left (4), and then St. Mary Somerset church on the right (5). Eventually Pepys would have hit the River Fleet again. We can head up behind St. Mary Somerset and then right, along New Bridge Street, but we’ll send Pepys along Black Fryers (now Black Friars Lane) instead. I won’t send his carriage floating up the River Fleet. Then, I’ve made my life hard enough with this scenic route, so we’ll just head back onto Fleet Street and Strand. Now this is where I literally drop off the edge of the 1676 map so I’m not sure exactly how Pepys and Elizabeth would have reached the King’s Playhouse, but they can work out that last little bit for themselves.

1676 Map with a section of the above route
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

The King’s Playhouse is now the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (under renovation at the moment and where Frozen will open in October 2020 – I wonder if Pepys would have been a fan). There have been four theatres on the site since 1663 and it is where the King’s Players would have performed. The King’s Players, or the King’s Men, was the acting company William Shakespeare was a part of in the 16th century, although they were known then as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The play, The Maiden Queen was by John Dryden, first performed in 1667 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and Pepys was there for opening night. He actually went to see it eight times all together, so you could certainly say he was a fan…! Either that or he was keen on the acting talent – he waxed lyrical about actress Nell Gwynn’s performance in 1667, and there’s certainly an odd interaction here extract between Pepys, the actress Knepp, and Elisabeth. And we can’t blame Elisabeth for being a bit “uneasy” – Knepp and Pepys certainly had their fair share of romantic entanglements. In his diary alone, Pepys references Knepp 108 times, and the two would exchange notes, Knepp signing hers “Barbary Allen” and Pepys “Dapper Dickey”. There are other instances I won’t get into now – I’ll leave you to your own research and conclusions.

“So back to my aunt’s [Mary Sutton, married to William Wight], and there supped and talked, and staid pretty late, it being dry and moonshine, and so walked home, and to bed in very good humour.”

Back to the City and the parish of St. Andrew Undershaft, and finally a lovely moonlit walk to Seething Lane. Maybe from Leadenhall Street, down Billiter Street and Mark Lane, where they’d have walked past their own parish church, St. Olave’s, Hart Street, before reaching home. Pepys had moved into accommodation in the Navy Office buildings in 1660. The church is still there, although the house isn’t, but there is now a lovely garden round the back of where it would have been which commemorates the diarist in various ways.

On the whole, a nice New Year. No doubt slightly more successful than than 1st January in 1662, when Pepys started the day by “Waking this morning out of my sleep on a sudden, I did with my elbow hit my wife a great blow over her face and nose, which waked her with pain, at which I was sorry, and to sleep again.” Poor Elisabeth, the unsung hero of Pepys’ diary.

Just a final note (well done if you’ve made it to the end!), New Year is a bit of a strange one in 17th century England. The new year officially began on 25th March, but in practice many people still regarded 1st January as the first day of the year. So even though I’ve been talking about 1st January 1669, it was technically still 1668 – just to confuse you!

Happy New Year!


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