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Samuel Pepys


One thing I find interesting about Samuel Pepys (pronounced Peeps) is that he is famous for something he would never have expected to be famous for: his private diary.

He began it in January 1660, and wrote almost every day until the end of May 1669 when he had to give it up because his eyesight was getting too bad. This makes it seem as though he must have been quite old, but in fact, he was only just 36 when he gave it up. He was probably right that keeping the diary was damaging his eyesight - he mostly wrote in the evening, so he would have been hunched over the page with just a candle for light.

The diary was written in shorthand, a system of squiggles which was quite often used by scholars at the time, but which has sometimes been misunderstood as a code. In the 1800s, the diary was written out in plain English, and you can now read the whole thing on the internet.

Samuel Pepys, painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

In his lifetime, Pepys was obviously quite an important man - in the diary, he mentions being summoned by King Charles to take a message to the Lord Mayor during the Great Fire, so Charles must have trusted him. In fact, in 1680, Charles made a substantial gift to Pepys of the part of the Anthony Roll that shows the Mary Rose, which is on another page of this website, here.

But it wasn't Pepys' association with the King that has made him famous over 300 years after his death. It's the amazing view of his daily life that fascinates people. We know what he wore and what he ate, what his routines were and how much money things cost. We know that he thought he'd caught cold because he'd had his legs bare, and that he believed that carrying a hare's foot around with him had cured his stomach ache.

The entries for the beginning of September 1666 give us a really personal view of the Great Fire. He writes about pigeons who wouldn't leave their roosts, falling from the sky because their wings were burning; people throwing their possessions into the river, hoping the water would save them from the fire; Pepys himself digging a pit in his garden to bury his wine and Parmesan cheese for safety; and a cat he saw rescued from a chimney after the building around it had burned to the ground. The cat was still alive, but all its fur had been burned off.

Pepys gives us a window into ordinary life and extraordinary events. Without him, we would know much less about the time he lived in. I wonder if people will say the same in centuries to come about the endless celebrity memoirs published today!

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