Samuel Pepys and the Great Fire of London

EARLY on Sunday September 2 1666, the wholesale destr-uction of London began.
A fire started in the house of Thomas Farynor, the king’s baker, in Pudding Lane.
Sparks from the burning bakehouse fell on hay and fodder in the yard of the Star Inn in Fish Street Hill and, just six hours later at 8am, fire was halfway across London Bridge.
The wooden buildings, stretching across the streets so their roofs almost touched, made ideal tinder for the fire.
Five days later an area measuring one-and-a-half miles by half a mile lay in ashes, 87 churches were razed along with 13,200 homes. The city that Shakespeare had known had gone for ever.
But little of this would be known today were it not for the work of a Whitechapel woman’s son, and for the safekeeping of the world’s most famous diary in Bethnal Green at the height of the blaze.
Samuel Pepys had been born in Fleet Street in 1633, the son of tailor John and Margaret, the sister of a Whitechapel butcher.
During the English Civil War, the young Samuel was sent to the Huntingdon countryside, much as East End kids were evacuated centuries later. But he returned to London to study at St Paul’s School.
Returning from Magdalene College, Cambridge, he entered the service of Edward Mountagu as his secretary and agent.
Pepys was also building a career in naval administration, winning government posts and addressing the Commons on maritime matters.
The year he started his diary, 1660, was a turbulent year. Charles II returned to the throne following Oliver Cromwell’s death two years earlier, and our knowledge of Restoration Period England is largely down to Pepys.
But it was his recording of the Great Fire that provides our most vivid image of the history of the time. He was one of the first on the scene and quickly hurried to Whitehall, returning with a royal warrant to allow houses to be demolished to create a fire break – Lord Mayor Bludworth had dithered, frightened that he would be held responsible for rebuilding costs.
As the fire spread, Pepys journeyed to Bethnall House in Bethnal Green, the home of his friend Sir William Ryder, and deposited his diary for safe-keeping.
The diaries ended in 1669, the year his wife Elizabeth died of a fever, and are only a brief snapshot of a long and successful career. Pepys went on to have two turns as Master of Trinity House in Stepney, a job as Secretary to the Admiralty, and he also became President of the Royal Society in 1684 and Member of Parliament for Harwich a year later.
But by 1669, although only 36, the terrible headaches brought on by his writing and re-reading made Pepys fear he was going blind, and he closed the book forever.
They might have been lost for good too, for Pepys wrote in an arcane code, perhaps fearful of political opponents.
But in 1825 the code was finally cracked, although it was not until 1970 that the entire diaries were published.
Pepys died on May 26 1703, aged 70, leaving no children. His only heir was his diaries.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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