A navy administrator and an MP who lived in London for much for the 17th century, it is for his remarkable diary – filled with reflections on great events and the intimate goings on of daily life – that Samuel Pepys is renowned around the world.
Born the son of a tailor in Salisbury Court, Fleet Street (the site is now marked with a plaque), on 23rd February, 1633, Pepys (pronounced ‘peeps’) attended St Paul’s School before moving on to Cambridge University. After graduation, he entered the household of one of his father’s cousins, Sir Edward Montagu, as a secretary around 1655 – the same year he married Elisabeth de St Michel.
Under the patronage of Sir Edward – after he became the Earl of Sandwich – Pepys was appointed Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board – a task which saw him playing a key role in shaping the English fleet which fought (unsuccessfully) in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667).
In 1673, he became Secretary to the Admiralty and the same year was elected an MP for Castle Rising in Norfolk (he later became an MP for Harwich). Pepys also served as president of the Royal Society from 1684-1686, and even visited Tangier where he was involved in the evacuation of the short-lived English colony there. He was imprisoned twice in later years – at least once on suspicion of supporting the Jacobites – but the charges were dropped and he retired at the age of 57 in 1690.
In 1701 he moved out to a house in Clapham and lived there until his death on 26th May, 1703 (his wife Elisabeth had died many years earlier in 1669 and they’d had no children). His extensive library – including his six volume diary – were bequeathed to Magdalene College at Cambridge.
Despite an illustrious public career, it is his diary for which Pepys is most celebrated. Covering the years from 1660 to 1669 (he only stopped writing for fear he would go blind), it records his reactions to such monumental events as Charles II’s coronation (he was present as a youth at the beheading of Charles I), the Great Plague of London in 1665 and the Great Fire of London the following year as well as intimate details from his personal life including how he spent his leisure time, his various illnesses and his sexual liaisons. Written originally in a form of shorthand, it was first published in 1825 – and only fully published in 1976 – and has since gone on to enthral and entertain millions around the world.
Among places in London which still hold a Pepys connection are St Bride’s Church (he was baptised there), All Hallows by the Tower (it was in the tower from which Pepys watched the Great Fire), St Olave’s on Seething Lane (pictured above) where Pepys and his wife are buried (he was living in Seething Lane when he started the diary and St Olave’s served as his parish church between 1660 and 1674). Further down Seething Lane, there is a bust of Pepys in the gardens which now cover the Navy Office where Pepys once lived and worked.
There is also an exhibition on Pepy’s in Prince Henry’s Room at 17 Fleet Street (the building dates from around 1610 and was a pub when Pepys was alive), although it is currently closed. An online version of Pepys’ diary can be found at the website Pepys’ Diary. For more on Pepys’ life, we do recommend Claire Tomalin’s best-selling biography Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self.