Plague and Fire: What is the Significance of Samuel Pepys’ Diary? | History Hit

Plague and Fire: What is the Significance of Samuel Pepys’ Diary?

A portrait of Samuel Pepys by John Riley.
Image Credit: Public Domain

Samuel Pepys kept a diary for almost ten years, from January 1660 to May 1669. It is considered one of the most important diaries in the English language, offering a detailed account of critical historic events but also an insight into daily life in 17th century London.

Alongside his analysis of political and national events, Pepys was remarkably frank and open about his personal life, including numerous extramarital affairs, described in some detail!

Young Samuel

Pepys was born in London on 23 February 1633. He went to Cambridge University on a scholarship and married fourteen year-old Elisabeth de St Michel in October 1655. He began administrative work in London and gradually rose through governmental posts with the navy, eventually becoming Chief Secretary of the Admiralty.

The great diarist Samuel Pepys was an avid collector of books, news and gossip, and reading was a major part of his life and the lives of his contemporaries. In this episode of Not Just the Tudors, Professor Suzannah Lipscomb delves into Pepys’s life and wide-ranging interests with Dr. Kate Loveman. Her extensive research offers significant insights into the man, his world and the far-reaching literary and cultural developments of the 17th century.
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The diary opens on 1 January 1660. This first entry sets the tone for the diary as a whole, combining intimate personal detail with discussion of the current political situation less than two years after the death of Oliver Cromwell:

Blessed be God, at the end of the last year I was in very good health, without any sense of my old pain but upon taking of cold. I lived in Axe yard, having my wife and servant Jane, and no more in family than us three.

My wife, after the absence of her terms for seven weeks, gave me hopes of her being with child, but on the last day of the year she hath them again.

The condition of the State was thus. Viz. the Rump [Parliament], after being disturbed by my Lord Lambert, was lately returned to sit again. The officers of the army all forced to yield. Lawson lies still in the River and Monke is with his army in Scotland. Only my Lord Lambert is not yet come in to the Parliament; nor is it expected that he will, without being forced to it.


Pepys’ diary is particularly well known for its vivid descriptions of the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London.

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The Great Plague took hold in London in 1665: despite this, 1665 proved to be a remarkably good year for Pepys. His fortune increased significantly and he continued to enjoy various sexual dalliances with young ladies. His entry on 3 September 1665 reflects his competing concerns. The entry opens with him preoccupied by fashion:

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 plaque 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 hair, for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.

However the day takes a sombre turn when he recounts the story of a saddler who, having buried all but one of his children, attempts to smuggle his last surviving child out of the city to the relative safety of Greenwich.

himself and his wife now being shut up and in despair of escaping, did desire only to save the life of this little child; and so prevailed to have it received stark-naked into the arms of a friend, who brought it (having put it into new fresh clothes) to Greenwich…

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On 2 September 1666 Pepys was woken by his maid “to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City.”

Pepys dressed and went to the Tower of London “and there got up upon one of the high places…. and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge [London Bridge] all on fire…” Later he discovers that the fire began that morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding Lane. He describes the people of London desperately trying to save themselves and their belongings:

Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters [boats] that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another.

And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balcony till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.

“Lord! what can I do?”

Pepys travelled next to Whitehall where he was summoned to the king to explain what he had seen. Pepys persuaded the king to order houses pulled down in an attempt to contain the fire. But when Pepys found the Lord Mayor to tell him of the king’s command, the Mayor

cried, like a fainting woman, “Lord! what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.

Pepys noted the close proximity of the houses in London did little to help quench the fire:

The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tart, in Thames-street; and warehouses of oyle, and wines, and brandy, and other things.

He also made reference to the wind, blowing “drops of flakes and fire” from the houses already ablaze on to several others nearby. With nothing to be done, Pepys retreated to an ale-house and watched as the fire spread further:

…and, as it grew darker, appeared more and more, and in corners and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire.

Over the following days, Pepys documented the progress of the fire and his own efforts to remove his prizes possessions, “all my money, and plate, and best things” to safety. Other items he buried in pits, including papers from his office, wine, and “my Parmesan cheese”.

A map of London during Pepys’ lifetime.

Image Credit: Public Domain

End in sight

The fire continued to burn savagely until 5 September. Pepys recorded its extent on the evening of 4 September:

…all the Old Bayly, and was running down to Fleete-streete; and Paul’s is burned, and all Cheapside.

But on 5 September the efforts to contain the fire, including what Pepys describes as “the blowing up of houses” had begun to have an effect. Pepys walks into town to survey the damage:

…I walked into town, and find Fanchurch-streete, Gracious-street; and Lumbard-street all in dust. The Exchange a sad sight, nothing standing there of all the statues or pillars, but Sir Thomas Gresham’s picture in the corner. Walked into Moorefields (our feet ready to burn, walking through the towne among the hot coles)… Thence homeward, having passed through Cheapside and Newgate Market, all burned…

Pepys’ house and office both survived the fire. In all, more than 13,000 houses were destroyed, as well as 87 churches and St Paul’s Cathedral, which Pepys describes on 7 September as “a miserable sight…with the roofs fallen.”

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Samuel’s later life

By May 1669, Pepys’ eyesight was deteriorating. He ended his diary on 31 May 1669:

And thus ends all that I doubt I shall ever be able to do with my own eyes in the keeping of my journal, I being not able to do it any longer, having done now so long as to undo my eyes almost every time that I take a pen in my hand,

He noted that any journal now would have to be dictated and written down by someone else, “and must therefore be contented to set down no more than is fit for them and all the world to know,” though he concedes his amorous activities are also mostly now a thing of the past.

In 1679, Pepys was elected MP for Harwich but was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London under suspicion of selling naval intelligence to France. He was arrested again in 1690 on charges of Jacobitism but again the charges were dropped. He retired from public life and left London to live in Clapham. Pepys died on 26 May 1703.

Pepys’ diary was first published in 1825. However it wasn’t until the 1970s that a full and uncensored version was published that included Pepys’ numerous amorous encounters, which had been previously considered unfit to print.

Sarah Roller