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10 things you may not know about Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys’s diary of the 1660s provides ample evidence that he enjoyed writing about himself. As a powerful naval administrator, he was also a great believer in the merits of official paperwork. The upshot is that he left behind many documents detailing the dangers and the pleasures of his life in London. Here are some facts about him that you may not know…

Pepys kept a lion in his office.

In 1674, Samuel Martin, a consul in Algiers, sent Pepys “a Tame Lion”. Pepys wrote back to report that the beast was now living with him at the Admiralty Office in Westminster. The lion proved a good houseguest, being “as tame as you sent him, and as good company”.

Pepys was arrested for treason – three times.

Pepys’s first arrest for treason was in 1679, when the main charge was that he’d passed naval secrets to the French. In 1689, he was detained for plotting to restore the exiled King James to the throne. Just over a year later he was arrested again on suspicion of being involved in plans for an insurrection to restore James.

None of Pepys’s arrests led to a trial – these were trumped-up charges.

… and also arrested for piracy.

The charges that got Pepys sent to the Tower of London in 1679 included piracy.

Disappointingly, this wasn’t of the eye-patch-and-parrot kind. Instead Pepys was accused of illegally arranging for a ship to plunder Dutch and English vessels. He wasn’t brought to trial on this charge either.

Portrait of Samuel Pepys, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Pepys portrait by Geoffrey Kneller. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Pepys planned to run an international spy network.

In 1677 Pepys and the merchant James Houblon worked on proposals for the Secretary to the Admiralty (i.e. Pepys) to become chief of a global intelligence network. The Secretary would get a budget to monitor the ‘navall Forces and Trade of all ye Europian Princes’, using well-placed informants around the world. Spies would be paid to find out the ‘Secret Intentions’ of enemy fleets.

Pepys and Houblon gave up on their plans, presumably because the crown was short of funds and in no position to finance a new intelligence service.

Pepys designed his own spectacles.

Pepys had serious eye problems for much of his life and he tried out a range of different solutions.

In 1668 and 1669 he experimented with designs for ‘Tubulous spectacles’, taking his lead from articles in the Royal Society’s journal. Pepys’s final design was a mask into which tubes could be inserted, and lenses be put in and out of the tubes. He took to using tubes to write up his diary–which would itself have been a sight worth seeing.

Pepys was an admirer of double bottoms.

­–specifically, Sir William Petty’s double bottoms. A ‘double bottom’ was what Sir William Petty called a two-hulled boat, or type of catamaran. Petty designed and built several of these double bottoms, and was much ridiculed for it.

Pepys, though, had great respect for Petty and took a long-term interest in the project. He first heard details of the double-bottom in a coffee-house in 1663. Two decades later he was to be found at Petty’s house helping to test scale models.

Pepys took vows against lazing in bed.

… and also vows to restrict wine-drinking, play-going, book-buying, and womanizing. He was worried that these activities might damage his finances, or his reputation, or both.

The system of self-policing that Pepys used in the 1660s was rather like the modern method of paying a fine to a ‘swear box’ every time you turn the air blue. For example, each time Pepys kissed a woman more than once, he made himself pay a shilling to the poor box. His bad behaviour meant a donation to charity.

Pepys’s home kept nearly burning down

Pepys’s diary documents his hasty packing in 1666 as the Great Fire approached the navy buildings where he lived and worked. That time, the Navy Office escaped the flames. However, in 1673 a fire destroyed the building, nearly taking Pepys’s precious library with it. In the 1680s, when Pepys was living in Buckingham Street, Westminster, there were two more near misses.

Fire was common enough to make it worthwhile investing in precautions. Writing about his library in the 1690s, Pepys explained that his bookcases were designed “To bee taken in Peeces, in case of Fire” and for “Easiness of Transportation”. 

Pepys was a whistle-blower.

In the late 1690s, Pepys fought a public campaign to expose financial corruption at Christ’s Hospital, a charitable school in London. Pepys was one of the Hospital’s governors and he didn’t mind making powerful enemies.

In a series of pamphlets, he claimed that his damning report on the Hospital’s finances had been “suppress’d”. Among the culprits for this, he named the Hospital’s President and the Lord Mayor of London. He threatened to make his entire report public if action wasn’t swiftly taken. The scandal became, in his words, “the Entertainment of Coffee-houses”.

Pepys’s strategy for generating public pressure did succeed in prompting change at the Hospital–he was appointed its Vice President.

Pepys wanted to be known as a historian.

Although Pepys’s diary wasn’t written for publication, he did want to be known as a historian of his times.

His historical projects included a biography of his patron Lord Sandwich (unwritten), a grand history of the British navy (lots of materials collected, but it was never written) and an account of Charles II’s escape from Worcester during the Civil War (left in manuscript on Pepys’s death).

Only Pepys’s brief Memoires relating to the State of the Royal Navy (1690) was printed during his lifetime.

Header image credit: A letter by Samuel Pepys, engraved for the first edition of the Rev. John Smith’s 1825 edition of the diary. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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