The Week After the Fire: Pepys’ Diary for September 1666.   Leave a comment

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Many people will be familiar with Samuel Pepys’ account of the Great Plague of 1665-6 and the Great Fire of London of 1666. He became Clerk of Acts to the Navy Board after the Restoration, and a leading member of it during the Anglo-Dutch War of 1665. They will have read extracts, or listened to them read out, from the outbreak of the Great Fire on the night of 1-2 September, 1666, through its spread to the immediate aftermath a week later. His vivid descriptions of the events of that week have come down to us in an archetypal first-hand eyewitness form, but it is only as the process of recovery begins that we are given a clear perspective of, and insight into, the significance of  those events in the context of the time in which they happened.

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On 13th September, a Thursday, Pepys’ brother-in-law, Balty St Michel and his wife arrived at the Pepys’ house, to help them put the house and their belongings in order:

13 September: Up, and down to Tower Wharfe; and there with labourers from Deptford did get my goods housed well at home. So down to Deptford again to fetch the rest, and there eat a bit of dinner at the Globe, while the labourers went to dinner. Here I hear that this poor town doth bury still of the plague seven or eight a day. So to Sir G. Carteret’s to work (1); and there did, to my great content, ship off all the rest of my goods, saving my pictures and fine things, that I will bring home in wherrys when my house is fit to receive them. And so home and unloaden them by carts and hands before night, to my exceeding satisfaction; and so after supper to bed in my house, the first time I have lain there; and lay with my wife in my old closet upon the ground, an Balty and his wife the best chamber, upon the ground also.

14 September: Up, and to work, having carpenters come to help in setting up bedsteads and hangings; and at that trade my people and I all the morning, till pressed by public business to leave them, against my will, in the afternoon; and yet I was troubled in being at home, to see all my goods lie up and down the house in a bad condition, and strange workmen going to and fro might take what they would almost. All the afternoon busy; and Sir W. Coventry (2) came to me, and found me, as God would have it, in my office, and people about me setting my papers to rights; and there discoursed about getting an account ready against the Parliament, and thereby did create me infinite of business, and to be done on a sudden, which troubled me; but however, he being gone, I about it late and to good purpose; and so home, having this day also got my wine out of the ground again and set it in my cellar; but with great pain to keep ther port{er}s that carried it in from observing the money chests there. So to bed as last night; only, my wife and I upon a bedstead with curtains in that which was Mercer’s chamber (3), and Balty and his wife (who are here and do us good service) where we lay last night.

15 September. All the morning at the office, Harman being come, to my great satisfaction, to, to put up my beds and hangings; so I am at rest, and fallowed my business all day. Dined with Sir W. Batten. Mighty busy about this account, and while my people were busy, myself wrote nearly thirty letters and orders with my own hand. At it till 11 at night; and it is strange to see how clear my head was, being eased of all the matter of those letters; whereas one would think that I should have been dozed – I never did observe so much of myself in my life. Home to bed and find, to my infinite joy, many rooms clean, and myself and wife lie in our own chamber again. But much terrified in the nights nowadays, with dreams of fire and falling down of houses.

17 September. Up betimes, and shaved myself after a week’s growth; but Lord, how ugly I was yesterday and how fine today. By water, seeing the City all the way, a sad sight endeed, much fire being still in – to Sir W. Coventry, and there read over my yesterday’s work; being a collection of the perticulars of the excess of charge created by a war – with good content.

I find it interesting that Pepys visited Deptford, south of the river, a ‘town’ still affected by the plague. One of Pepys’ main concerns was to secure the efficiency of the Royal Dockyards there. Of course, as schoolchildren we are taught that the fire destroyed the plague in London, but not that London only really consisted then of the City of London, Westminster and a few other districts. It’s also revealing that Pepys considers the true marker of his family’s recovery as being that of his and Elizabeth’s return to their own bed and bedroom. His not shaving for a week during the emergency is another manly reaction that has a timeless context to it.

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His recurring nightmares about the disaster, especially the falling houses, provided the theme and narrative for an excellent, recent BBC Radio series, After the Fire. It juxtaposes Pepys’ orderly, chronological diary with the sense of discordant flash-backs, using them as a means to explore his inner psychology and emotional relationships.

Notes:

  1. Sir G. Carteret: Treasurer of the Navy, 1660-67, and Vice-Chamberlain of the King’s Household (see below).
  2. Sir W. Coventry: Secretary to the Lord High Admiral, 1660-67; Navy Commissioner (see below).
  3. Mercer: Mary was Elizabeth Pepys’ maid who had returned to her family during the fire and did not return to their service.

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Source: Robert Latham (ed.)(1978), The Illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the Diary. London: Bell & Hyman (Book Club Associates). Contents provided by Magdalene College, Cambridge.

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