“In London, the past is a form of occluded but fruitful memory, in which the presence of earlier generations is felt rather than seen. It is an echoic city, filled with shadows.”1
Peter Ackroyd wrote this in his great biography of London and whilst the echoes are there on the city streets and often felt, if you take a little time there is occasionally something a little more permanent to be found of our earlier generations. Whilst I am starting to get to know bits of London a little better, there is always an unknown road to go down, a different solitary church to catch a solemn moment of silence and a scrap of the broken thread of history to uncover.
I have been invited on a walking tour of London with a couple of very knowledgeable curators, Kris Martin and Robert Blyth from the National Maritime Museum, and whilst I normally prefer to discover London on my own terms, this is a chance I can’t pass up. We are going to trace the footsteps of Samuel Pepys, the great diarist, in preparation for the museum’s new exhibition – Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution.
Pepys, I quickly discover, is actually a little bit like London himself, you think you know a bit, think you have an understanding of the man but actually you are just seeing the top of the iceberg. I read a little of Pepys in preparation for the Cheapside Horde exhibition at the Museum of London, I was looking for a description of 17th century jewels, an understanding of Cheapside and what I got was a delicious description of how he had buried his gold in the garden. An inkling perhaps as to why the Cheapside Horde was discovered hidden in the ground untouched for so many years. But more than that was a sense of the humour in the diary, the vainness of a man keeping up with his mistresses and occasionally placating his wife with trinkets to assuage his guilt.
But the diary is not the man, it is just a small part of his life. As we sit in the shadows of the church, All Hallows by the Tower, the Maritime curators map out the exhibition and sketch out a man’s life, not just the diary, but his work as chief secretary to the Admiralty, his membership of the Royal Society and his imprisonment in the Tower of London for allegedly selling naval secrets to the French.
We talk about the items that are missing from the exhibition, whilst some 200 objects are included, it is sometimes easier and more illuminating to talk about those that are missing. The execution waistcoat of Charles I is not coming from Museum of London, it is too delicate to travel, perhaps a desirable but peripheral object. But strangely the original diaries themselves will not be in the exhibition. Held in Pepys’ Library at Magdalen College along with Pepys’ complete collection of books, they are still subject to the Pepys’ will and the discretion of the Master of the college.
In reality they are written in Shelton’s shorthand so undecipherable to the visitor anyway, what this has meant is the Maritime Museum has got inventive with audio descriptions and digitisation to really bring the code and words behind it to life. I have already learnt a lot, I didn’t know and we have only been chatting over coffee, but now the real work begins as we take to the London streets. We don’t have far to go as we walk round All Hallows and stop at the base of the tower that Pepys climbed to watch London burn in 1666, when you realise that he lived just across the road in Seething Lane it all suddenly makes sense.
I remember waking up in the middle of the night when a neighbour’s garage over the road was on fire, the fire engine had been called and we also stood there transfixed and mesmerised by the flames. To watch London burn would have been frightening and addictive in equal measure and it is quite strange to stand in this spot and imagine Pepys’ hurried footsteps up the tower to get a better view. I wonder how long he stood, could he smell the smoke and hear the fire crackle and burn?
“By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish-street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, Sir J. Robinson’s little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge; which, among other people, did trouble me for poor little Michell and our Sarah on the bridge. So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it begun this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding-lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus’s Church and most part of Fish-street already.” 2 September 1666 2
“Up; and put on my coloured silk suit very fine, and my new periwigg, bought a good while since, but durst not wear, because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it; and it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done, as to periwiggs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire, for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off of the heads of people dead of the plague.” 3rd September 1665 2
Next stop is St Olave’s Church in Hart Street, there are so many London churches that I walk past and never enter, it is wonderful to have the time to stop and spend some time here. Not only is Pepys and his wife buried beneath the altar but it is often referred to in his diaries as ‘our church’. We are led round by church manager and historian Phil Manning, we stop at the gateway and talk of plague deaths and the bodies buried in the raised churchyard. The memento mori skulls loom over us, the date above the gates is 1660, Pepys moved to the parish in 1658 and I am beginning to feel those echoes ever stronger as we make our way inside.
“In the morn to our own church, where Mr. Mills did begin to nibble at the Common Prayer, by saying “Glory be to the Father, &c.” after he had read the two psalms; but the people had been so little used to it, that they could not tell what to answer.” 4th November 1660 2
There are memorials to Pepys and his wife inside but the real treat is through the small 13th century doorway into the vestry. We stand below a beautiful plaster work angel and are shown Pepy’s prayer-book which will be going into the exhibition. It is a really weird sensation to see this museum exhibit ‘to be’ in its home, handled and shown. When an object ends up behind glass in an exhibition it loses its connections to its former life and use, we have to use imagination and prior knowledge to place it and understand it. But to see an object in this way it comes alive, we see the book-plate and delicate calligraphy, a favourite of Pepys and I am beginning to get even more of a sense of this man.
On the way out I stop by a beautiful stained glass window, dedicated to the Clothworkers’ Company, Pepys was a master of the guild in 1677. There are these tiny teasels running along the bottom, they completely capture me, I love the detail. It is taking the time to stop and look closer that the pieces of this puzzle are coming together. I feel as close as I can to this man in this place.
The Clothworker’s Company is in fact our next stop, we marvel over glimmering, shimmering treasures given by Pepys to the guild, a brash show of wealth and status. Equally sitting on the table is a plain but beautifully made tobacco box said to be owned by Pepys, we are allowed to peak inside. One again we are seeing exhibition objects in their home, their place and status is clear, I wonder how they will appear in the exhibition? Whether this sense of history and tradition will be as evident.
We have time for a quick coffee and we are off again, this time to Pudding Lane and up the 311 steps to the top of the Monument, built to commemorate the Great Fire of London. I am not sure why I am so keen to climb, I have been up here not so long ago with my middle daughter. A tradition when they study the Great Fire is to take them up to the top and then to perch precariously in front of the Pudding Lane street sign for a photo, an experience that weirdly gives you no sense of the fire of London at all but a magnificent view. My London lays sprawling out as far as the eye can see, Pepy’s London perhaps a little harder to define, but it is there beside building cranes and squeezed between modern shiny office blocks. It is strangely calm at the viewing platform if you ignore the heavy breathing of tourists relieved to get to the top and away from the claustrophobic spiral stairs that seems to go on and on.
We are blessed with a beautiful warm autumnal day, as again we move on and as we reach St Paul’s Cathedral the sun bursts out and bathes the gleaming stones. I will admit I am getting a little hungry now as we plough on to our final destination, St, Brides Church on Fleet Street. Having worked on Chancery Lane and just behind the Royal Courts for many years I know it well. Only recently I descended to the crypt to see the fantastic Roman remains. This time we pass by and wander up and down Salisbury Court to see the plaque commemorating the birth of Pepys. With great irony at the final point of the tour we can’t seem to find it. Then finally, behind a city delivery van, our last port of call is revealed.
We are looking for a recognition of birth but our final conversation of Pepys takes a morbid turn as we stand in an alley way and talk of bladder stones encased in gold and autopsies performed by friends. Quite a way to finish off a memorable tour across London. I feel in a unique position that before this exhibition has even opened I know a great deal more of Pepys than I did before. I have seen some of his possession, traced some of his life and felt the faintest echo of his presence around me. To me he is no longer just the great diarist, he is so much more, but ultimately he is also a London man. I have walked his streets and my streets, I wonder how he managed to keep writing, I feel we have much in common with words, that elusive goal to capture a moment, to mark time and place.
I have also this greater sense of the new exhibition that the Maritime Museum is putting on, I can feel the threads being pulled together, it is fascinating how one man can leave a trail across London and still be talked about and known 400 years after his death. I can’t wait to see theses objects drawn into a grand explanation of a 17th century life lived in a time full of drama and excitement. I love this London that at a turn, in a church, down a quiet street and climbing the stone steps to lofty heights can give up so much of the lives of those who have gone before.
- London: The biography, Peter Ackroyd, 2000, p452
- All pages from Samuel Pepys’ Diary were accessed from – http://www.pepysdiary.com and http://www.pepys.info
With thanks to Kris Martin, Robert Blyth and Eloise Maxwell. Any inaccuracies are purely my own.
Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution opens at the National Maritime Museum, 20 Nov 2015 – 28th March 2016, for tickets and further information please see the website – http://www.rmg.co.uk/whats-on/events/samuel-pepys-plague-fire-revolution
There are a number of events running to coincide with the exhibition including walking tours, please see the website for details http://www.rmg.co.uk/whats-on/events/pepys-and-fire