Samuel Pepys

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Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys (23 February 1633 - 26 May 1703) was a leading 17th century English civil servant, latterly famous for his diary. The diary is a fascinating combination of personal revelation and eyewitness accounts of great events, such as the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London.

(His surname is pronounced "Peeps", although some modern relatives with the same name pronounce it "Pep-iss".)



Pepys was born in London in 1633, the son of a tailor. He was educated at St Paul's School, London, between about 1646 and 1650. In 1649 he attended the execution of Charles I. He went up to Magdalene College, Cambridge in 1651 and took his B.A. in 1654. Some time later that year, or early in 1655 he entered the household of his distant cousin Edward Montagu. On December 1, 1655 he married Elisabeth St Michel in St Margaret's, Westminster.

On 1 January 1660 he started his diary as a New Year resolution. In April and May in the same year he accompanied Montagu's fleet to Holland to bring over Charles II, and at the end of June he was appointed Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board. He spent the next few years learning the business of naval administration, and gradually became an important and influential member of the establishment.

He lived and worked — and wrote his diary — through a number of significant historical events including the Second Dutch War of 1665-1667, the Great Plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of London of 1666. On several occasions in 1667 and 1668 he appeared before a select committee of the British Parliament to defend the record of the Navy Board and to argue for sufficient funds to maintain the fleet.

Throughout the diary period his health, and particularly his eyesight, suffered from the long hours he worked. At the end of May 1669 he reluctantly concluded that for the sake of his eyes he should stop writing completely, and henceforth only dictate memos and letters to his clerks. This also meant that he could no longer keep his diary. He and his wife took a holiday to France and the Low Countries from June to October 1669, but on their return Elisabeth fell ill, and died on 10 November 1669. Pepys erected a monument to her in the church of St Olave's, Hart Street in London.

In 1673 he was promoted to Secretary to the Admiralty Commission, and elected M.P. for Castle Rising, Norfolk. In 1676 he was elected as Master of Trinity House, and at the beginning of 1679 was elected as M.P. for Harwich. However by May 1679 he was under attack from his political enemies; he resigned as Secretary to the Admiralty and was imprisoned in the Tower of London on suspicion of treasonable correspondence with France. He was released in July, but proceedings against him were not dropped until the following summer, June 1680.

In 1683 he was sent out to Tangier to assist Lord Dartmouth evacuate the British colony there, and after six months service he travelled back through Spain, returning to English on 30 March 1684. In June 1684, back in favour once more, he was appointed King's Secretary for the affairs of the Admiralty, a post he retained after the death of Charles II in February 1685 and the accession of James II. From 1685 to 1688 he was active not only as Secretary for the Admiralty, but also as M.P. for Harwich. He was a loyal supporter of James II, and when James fled the country at the end of 1688, Pepys' career also came to an end; in January 1689 he was defeated in the parliamentary election at Harwich and in February, one week after the accession of William and Mary, he resigned his Secretaryship.

From May to July 1689, and again in June 1690, he was imprisoned on suspicion of Jacobitism but no charges were ever successfully brought against him. After his release, aged 57, he retired from public life. Ten years later in 1701, he moved out of London to a house in the country at Clapham where he lived until his death on 26 May 1703. He had no children, but bequeathed his estate to his nephew, John Jackson.

As well as being one of the most important civil servants of his age, he was a widely cultivated man, taking a learned interest in books, music, the theatre, and science. He served on a great many committees and public bodies.

  • He was variously M.P. for Castle Rising, Norfolk; for Sandwich; and for Harwich. Most of these constituencies had connections with his patron Edward Montagu.
  • Also through Montagu, he was involved in the administration of the short-lived British colony at Tangier. He was appointed to the Tangier Committee in 1662 when the colony was first founded, and became Treasurer in 1665. He resigned in 1679, but in 1683 went out as secretary to Lord Dartmouth's expedition to evacuate and abandon the colony.
  • From 1676, he was a Governor of Christ's Hospital school, and was involved in setting up the mathematical school there. He served as Governor for many years and was rewarded for his service in 1699 by being made a freeman of the City of London.

His contemporary John Evelyn remembered him as "universally beloved, hospitable, generous, learned in many things". Pepys' character seems encapsulated in his Latin motto mens cujusque is est quisque, which can be translated as "Each man's mind is who he is" or, more poetically, "One is what one thinks".

The Pepys Library

Pepys was a lifelong bibliophile and carefully nurtured his large collection of books, manuscripts, and prints. At his death there were more than 3,000 volumes, including the diary, all carefully catalogued and indexed; they form one of the most important surviving 17th-century private libraries. There are remarkable holdings of incunabula, manuscripts and printed ballads. Pepys made detailed provisions in his will for the preservation of his book collection, and when his nephew and heir John Jackson died in 1723, it was transferred intact to the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where it can still be seen. The bequest included all the original book cases and his elaborate instructions that "the placing as to heighth be strictly reviewed and, where found requiring it, more nicely adjusted".

The Diary

Amongst the most important items in the Library are the original bound manuscripts of Pepys' diary. Although it is clear from the content that they were written as a purely personal record of his life and not for publication, there are indications that Pepys actively took steps to preserve them. Apart from the fact that he wrote his diary out in fair copy from rough notes, he also had the loose pages bound into six volumes, and catalogued them in his library with all his other books, and must have known that eventually someone would find them interesting.

The diary was written in one of the many standard forms of shorthand used in Pepys' time, but by the time that the college took an interest in the diary, it was thought to be ciphered. The Reverend John Smith was engaged to transcribe the diaries into plain English, and he laboured at this task for three years from 1819 to 1822, apparently unaware that a key to the shorthand system was stored in Pepys' library a few shelves above the diary volumes. Smith's transcription (which is also kept in the Pepys Library) was the basis for the first edition of the diary, published in two volumes in 1825.

A second transcription, done with the benefit of the key, but often less accurately, was completed in 1875 by Mynors Bright, and published in 18751879. Henry Wheatly, drawing on both his predecessors, produced a new edition in 18931899, revised 1926, with extensive notes and an index. The complete and definitive edition, edited and transcribed by Robert Latham and William Matthews was published in nine volumes, plus separate Companion and Index volumes, between 1970 and 1983. Various single volume abridgements of this text are also available.

Pepys recorded his daily life for almost ten years in breathtaking honesty; the women he pursued, his friends, his dealings are all laid out. His diary reveals his jealousies, insecurities, trivial concerns, and his fractious relationship with his wife. It is an important account of London in the 1660s. Included are his personal account of the restoration of the monarchy, the Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of London of 1666, and the arrival of the Dutch fleet, 1665-1667.

His job required that he meet with many people to dispense monies and make contracts. He often laments over how he "lost his labour" having gone to some appointment at a coffee house or tavern, there to discover that the person he was seeking was not within. This was a constant frustration to Pepys.

The diary similarly gives a detailed account of Pepys' personal life. He liked wine and plays, and the company of other people. He also spent a great deal of time evaluating his fortune and his place in the world. He was always curious and often acted on that curiosity, as he acted upon almost all his impulses.

He was passionately interested in music and he both composed, and sang & played for pleasure. He taught his wife to sing, and paid for dancing lessons for her (although these stopped when he became jealous of the dancing master).

He had a rather Puritan outlook on life, and periodically he would resolve to devote more time to hard work instead of leisure. For example, this entry on New Year's Eve, 1661, "I have newly taken a solemn oath about abstaining from plays and wine..." The following months reveal his lapses to the reader as by 17 February "And here I drank wine upon necessity, being ill for the want of it."

The diary gives a detailed account of the pattern of Pepys' life. Reading it, one cannot help thinking how very much we must all be alike. His characteristic closing sentence was: "And so to bed."

Other items of interest

Pepys Island, now known as South Georgia, was named after him, being discovered during his tenure at the Admiralty.

Among his colleagues at the Navy Office was Admiral Sir William Penn, father of the William Penn who founded Pennsylvania, in the United States of America.

The refectory building at the British Civil Service College has been named in his honour.

Further reading

Latham & Matthews edition of the diary

The complete and definitive edition of Pepys' diary, published between 1970 and 1983, by Bell & Hyman, London.

Biographical studies of Pepys

Arthur Bryant's three-volume study was first published between 1933 and 1938 long before the definitive edition of the diary, but nevertheless is of interest thanks to Bryant's lively style. Richard Ollard's book was first published in 1974 at approximately the same time as the Latham and Matthew's text and benefits from the author's deep knowledge of Restoration politics. Claire Tomalin's book won the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year; the awarders called it a "rich, thoughtful and deeply satisfying" account that "unearth[s] a wealth of material about the uncharted life of Samuel Pepys".


In December 2003, Pepys's diary, which was at the time being serialised as a weblog run by Phil Gyford, won an award in The Guardian's Best of British Blogs, in the specialist-blog category.

External links

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