‘I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time….’ So Samuel Pepys closed his Diary for 1665, the year plague killed at least 75,000 in London – 16 percent (likely more) of his fellow residents.
I was struck reading the Diary day by day by how little he seemed to say about the plague. Only when I reviewed the year and noted the plague passages I’d highlighted did I appreciate its enveloping horror.
If nothing else, Pepys Diary offers examples across the social strata of how people live in periods of great political and social change and in moments of crisis or catastrophe. Pepys is both participant and observer, an important civil servant and a courtier, and – by nature and of necessity – a man obsessed to know.
The first five years (1660-64) of Pepys’s diaries present a man acting in a period of intense political change, the chaotic dawn of modern Anglo-American government. Slowly threats of rebellion and disorder disappear from his record, replaced by an emerging normality.
The Monarchy’s restoration brought social change, too. Suddenly, Pepys feels the need of a wig, for the next 150 years a necessary marker of the upper-middle and upper classes.
At the same time, global trade and the nascent modern state altered the mechanics of business – from accounting to management to procurement. And, the grand English resolution of 125 years of religious turmoil emerged with each passing Sunday.
In 1665, he records how these transformations continued during a cataclysm.
‘Great fears of the Sicknesse here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up [quarantined for 40 days]. God preserve us all.’ So reads Pepys’s first mention in an entry for April 30.
He says nothing more of the plague until May 24, when he records visiting an important source of intelligence, a
coffee-house … where all the news is of the Dutch [navy]… – and of the plague growing upon us in this town and of the remedies against it; some saying one thing, some another.
It would be almost two and a half centuries before the plague’s causes and remedies became known.
Two weeks later, on June 7, he again mentions the plague in one of the passages for which the Diary is famous:
This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there – which was a sight to me, being the first of that kind … I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of [feel worried about] myself and my smell [what I was breathing], so that I was forced to buy some roll=tobacco to smell … and chaw – which took my apprehension away.
Pepys did not misrepresent his year. From long, convivial afternoons and evenings in pubs consuming barrels of oysters to an increasing number of dalliances to musicales in his home to a noble wedding he’d arranged, he records a very merry year.
Pepys worked extraordinary hours with few days off – including ‘Lords Day’. His struggles to field and finance a navy at war with the Netherlands and to feed its sailors and pensioners were unending. The details of the transactions are nearly as fascinating as the people he dealt with from shipyard managers to William Penn’s father to King Charles II.
And, he’d ‘never got so much’. He’d tripled his net worth mainly by facilitating contracts with the Navy Board of which he was a Principal Officer and the Committee for Tangier of which he was Treasurer.
Yet looming over all was the plague.
For a time Pepys did not join the shopkeepers and Charles II’s court in fleeing London. Business kept him in town until the Navy Office removed to Greenwich. Up to then he walked London as only an indefatigable tourist would today.
The day, July 5, he sent his ‘wife’s bedding and things to Woolwich’ (about seven miles to the southeast) where she’d wait out the plague until January 1666, he set out after lunch from his home just north of the Tower of London for St. James:
From thence walked round to Whitehall, the park being quite locked up. And I observed a house shut up this day in the Pell Mell, where before Cromwells time we young men used to keep our weekly clubs.
After leaving Pall Mall, he returned to Whitehall, took a rowboat across the Thames to Lambeth, where he met a friend’s coach that took them to Deptford.
[Then] I by water to Woolwich, where I found my wife come and her two maids, and very prettily accommodated they will be. And I left them going to supper, grieved in my heart to part with my wife, being worse by much without her, though some trouble there is in having the care of a family at home in this plague time. And so took leave, and I in one boat … home very late, first against the tide – we having walked in the dark to Greenwich.
Late home and to bed – very alonely.
‘The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.’ Hence, we look at Samuel Pepys at a remove, anachronistically – often uncomprehendingly – gauging his behavior.
But then he reaches from the great plague year across four and a half centuries to remind us what we share: ‘Very alonely’.
1. Robert Latham & William Matthews, eds, The Diary of Samuel Pepys 1665 vol. VI  (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), p. 342 (Dec. 31, 1665).
2. Id., p. 93.
3. Id., p. 108.
4. Id., p. 120 (punctuation and spelling as in original). See also Christopher Morris, ‘The Plague’ in Robert Latham & William Matthews, eds, The Diary of Samuel Pepys vol. X Companion  (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1983), pp. 328ff.
5. Id., pp. 147-48.
6. Id., p. 149.
7. L.P. Hartley, The Go Between  (London: Penguin Books, 1958), p. 7.