Friday 18 September 1663

Up, and got our people together as soon as we could; and after eating a dish of cold cream, which was my supper last night too, we took leave of our beggarly company, though they seem good people, too; and over most sad Fenns, all the way observing the sad life which the people of the place which if they be born there, they do call the Breedlings’ of the place, do live, sometimes rowing from one spot to another, and then wadeing, to Wisbeach, a pretty town, and a fine church and library, where sundry very old abbey manuscripts; and a fine house, built on the church ground by Secretary Thurlow, and a fine gallery built for him in the church, but now all in the Bishop of Ely’s hands. After visiting the church, &c., we went out of the towne, by the help of a stranger, to find out one Blinkhorne, a miller, of whom we might inquire something of old Day’s disposal of his estate, and in whose hands it now is; and by great chance we met him, and brought him to our inn to dinner; and instead of being informed in his estate by this fellow, we find that he is the next heir to the estate, which was matter, of great sport to my cozen Thomas and me, to see such a fellow prevent us in our hopes, he being Day’s brother’s, daughter’s son, whereas we are but his sister’s sons and grandsons; so that, after all, we were fain to propose our matter to him, and to get him to give us leave to look after the business, and so he to have one-third part, and we two to have the other two-third parts, of what should be recovered of the estate, which he consented to; and after some discourse and paying the reckoning, we mounted again, and rode, being very merry at our defeat, to Chatteris, my uncle very weary, and after supper, and my telling of three stories, to their good liking, of spirits, we all three in a chamber went to bed.

33 Annotations

First Reading

TerryF  •  Link

[from the 1911 Britannica] "a district in the east of England, possessing a distinctive history and peculiar characteristics. ...Although low and flat, and seamed by innumerable water-courses, the entire region is not, as the Roman name of Metaris Aestuarium would imply, a river estuary, but a bay of the North Sea, silted up, of which the Wash is the last remaining portion. [...] The earliest inhabitants of this region of whom we have record were the British tribes of the Iceni confederation; the Romans, who subdued them, called them Coriceni or Coritani. In Saxon times the inhabitants of the Fens were known (e.g. to Bede) as Gyrvii, and are described as traversing the country on stilts. Macaulay, writing of the year 1689, gives to them the name of Breedlings, and describes them as 'a half-savage population ... who led an amphibious life, sometimes wading, sometimes rowing, from one islet of firm ground to another.' In the end of the 18th century those who dwelt in the remoter parts were scarcely more civilized, being known to their neighbours by the expressive term of 'Slodgers.' These rude fen-dwellers have in all ages been animated by a tenacious love of liberty. Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, the worthy foe of the Romans; Hereward the Saxon, who defied William the Conqueror; Cromwell and his Ironsides, are representative of the fenman's spirit at its best. The fen peasantry showed a stubborn defence of their rights, not only when they resisted the encroachments and selfish appropriations of the 'adventurers' in the 17th century, in the Bedford Level, in Deeping Fen, and in the Witham Fens, and again in the 18th century, when Holland Fen was finally enclosed, but also in the Peasants' Rising of 1381, and in the Pilgrimage of Grace in the reign of Henry VIII."…

Bradford  •  Link

Three ghost stories before bed! But it did not cross his mind to write them down for us. . . .

JWB  •  Link


Abraham Lincoln's progenitors were from the fens.

Todd Bernhardt  •  Link

"being very merry at our defeat"

Oh, I dunno ... 2/3 of something is better than 100% of nothing, after all...

Bradford -- *how* many ghost stories before bed? ;-)

TerryF  •  Link

Boston is a town in the Cambridgeshire fens. Emigrants from Boston named settlements after the town, notably Boston, Massachusetts, USA, whose baseball team, the Red Sox, play in Fenway Park, in the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood, on reclaimed wetlands, in part tidal, "The Back Bay Fens (also called The Fens)".…

Ruben  •  Link

What about the Glorious Grand Fenwicks Duchess? (Peter Sellers - The Mouse that Roared)

Linda  •  Link

I suppose, had they been staying with someone in the States, instead of hearing Pepy's tell stories, they would have sat down to watch TV-probably Survivors.

Michael Robinson  •  Link

three stories, to their good liking, of spirits ...

"a pretty town, and a fine church and library, where sundry very old abbey manuscripts; and a fine house, ... "

All in all, how very M. R. James!

GrahamT  •  Link

Boston (Lincolnshire) has a grand church - St Botolph's - which has the tallest parish church tower in England. It is visible over a very large area because of the flatness of the Fens and the height of its tower. It is better known as, ironically, The Boston Stump.

GrahamT  •  Link

Interesting that the Britannica cites:
"Macaulay, writing of the year 1689, gives to them the name of Breedlings, and describes them as ‘a half-savage population … who led an amphibious life, sometimes wading, sometimes rowing, from one islet of firm ground to another.’"
Whereas Sam writing in 1663 says: "the sad life which the people of the place which ... they do call the Breedlings’ ... sometimes rowing from one spot to another, and then wadeing". Did Sam meet Macaulay and pass on his notes, or is this a case of coincidence?

Michael Robinson  •  Link


I assume the usage passed on to the C 19th., if not longer, and that the Macaulay writing of 1689 (sic, but probably 1685 -- the title of the work is The History of England to 1688) is the historian T. B. Macaulay in the famous "Chapter III," The State of England in 1685, an extended passage of expository prose that can be enjoyed if not wallowed in, what ever one might think of the author's point of view or politics.

T.B. Macaulay - History of England, Vol. I, Ch. III (part 1) State of England in 1685 (part 1)…

Pedro  •  Link

“because of the flatness of the Fens and the height of its tower”

Also Ely Cathedral called “The Ship of the Fens.”

Michael Robinson  •  Link

Macaulay on the country gentry -- cf. Pepys experiences of yesterday and today

"We should be much mistaken if we pictured to ourselves the squires of the seventeenth century as men bearing a close resemblance to their descendants, the county members and chairmen of quarter sessions with whom we are familiar. The modern country gentleman generally receives a liberal education, passes from a distinguished school to a distinguished college, and has ample opportunity to become an excellent scholar. ... A country gentleman who witnessed the Revolution was probably in receipt of about a fourth part of the rent which his acres now yield to his posterity. He was, therefore, as compared with his posterity, a poor man, and was generally under the necessity of residing, with little interruption, on his estate. To travel on the Continent, to maintain an establishment in London, or even to visit London frequently, were pleasures in which only the great proprietors could indulge. It may be confidently affirmed that of the squires whose names were then in the Commissions of Peace and Lieutenancy not one in twenty went to town once in five years, or had ever in his life wandered so far as Paris. Many lords of manors had received an education differing little from that of their menial servants. The heir of an estate often passed his boyhood and youth at the seat of his family with no better tutors than grooms and gamekeepers, and scarce attained learning enough to sign his name to a Mittimus. If he went to school and to college, he generally returned before he was twenty to the seclusion of the old hall, and there, unless his mind were very happily constituted by nature, soon forgot his academical pursuits in rural business and pleasures. His chief serious employment was the care of his property. He examined samples of grain, handled pigs, and, on market days, made bargains over a tankard with drovers and hop merchants. His chief pleasures were commonly derived from field sports and from an unrefined sensuality. His language and pronunciation were such as we should now expect to hear only from the most ignorant clowns. His oaths, coarse jests, and scurrilous terms of abuse, were uttered with the broadest accent of his province. It was easy to discern, from the first words which he spoke, whether he came from Somersetshire or Yorkshire. He troubled himself little about decorating his abode, and, if he attempted decoration, seldom produced anything but deformity. The litter of a farmyard gathered under the windows of his bedchamber, and the cabbages and gooseberry bushes grew close to his hall door. His table was loaded with coarse plenty; and guests were cordially welcomed to it. But, as the habit of drinking to excess was general in the class to which he belonged, and as his fortune did not enable him to intoxicate large assemblies daily with claret or canary, strong beer was the ordinary beverage. The quantity of beer consumed in those days was indeed enormous. For beer then was to the middle and lower classes, not only all that beer is, but all that wine, tea, and ardent spirits now are. It was only at great houses, or on great occasions, that foreign drink was placed on the board. The ladies of the house, whose business it had commonly been to cook the repast, retired as soon as the dishes had been devoured, and left the gentlemen to their ale and tobacco. The coarse jollity of the afternoon was often prolonged till the revellers were laid under the table.

It was very seldom that the country gentleman caught glimpses of the great world; and what he saw of it tended rather to confuse than to enlighten his understanding. His opinions respecting religion, government, foreign countries and former times, having been derived, not from study, from observation, or from conversation with enlightened companions, but from such traditions as were current in his own small circle, were the opinions of a child. He adhered to them, however, with the obstinacy which is generally found in ignorant men accustomed to be fed with flattery. His animosities were numerous and bitter. He hated Frenchmen and Italians, Scotchmen and Irishmen, Papists and Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists, Quakers and Jews. Towards London and Londoners he felt an aversion which more than once produced important political effects. His wife and daughter were in tastes and acquirements below a housekeeper or a stillroom maid of the present day. They stitched and spun, brewed gooseberry wine, cured marigolds, and made the crust for the venison pasty."

T.B. Macaulay - History of England, Vol. I, Ch. III (part 2)…

GrahamT  •  Link

Anyone who watched the Channel Four documentary "The F***ing Fulfords" about the 24th generation "Country Gentleman" living with his family in the 800 year old Fulford hall, would recognise the description given by Macaulay, except for the accent.
As this article points out (… ) he is still angry about Cromwell's Roundheads stealing the lead off the roof 400 years ago.

Plus ca change...

Rex Gordon  •  Link

Boston, St. Botolph's, the Fens ...

There is to this day a St. Botolph's Street in Boston, Massachusetts, near Northeastern University. For people interested in the continuity of British cultures in the colonies, there's a wonderful book called "Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America" (maybe not the exact title, though I'm sure about the first two words) by an author named Fischer. Highly Rexommended.

GrahamT  •  Link

In my ignorance, I had assumed that Macaulay was writing IN 1689, rather than OF 1689. Having consulted the text linked by Michael, I can see that he consulted the Pepys library heavily, so maybe he read of Pepys' experiences in the fens, which could explain the similar phrasing.

Rod McCaslin  •  Link

Macaulay's description of the country squire certainly fits that of Fielding's Squire Western (in *Tom Jones*)
of the eighteenth century as well.
Macaulay, of course, read Pepys and Fielding,and used them as sources,thus explaining the similarities in descriptions.

Michael Robinson  •  Link

Albion's Seed ...

The author is David Hackett Fischer. It is vol I of a projected four volume "America: A Cultural History." Vol III "Liberty & Freedom A Visual History of America's Founding Ideas" appeared in 2005.

Australian Susan  •  Link


Like Rod, I also thought of Squire Western when reading Macaulay's description (which so embodies Victorian self-confidence and Whig historiography [which basically says everything is getting better and better]). But to counter the Westerns, there were also portrayls a little later of a different kind of Tory country gentleman such as Mr bennett in Pride and Prejudice. One of the other excellent biogs that Claire Tomalin has written (apart from Sam's) is that of jane Austen and of all the Austen biogs I have read, hers seems best to convey the life of the countryside and gentry society in which JA grew up and resided.
I also saw the Fulford documentary - Mr F seems the true inheritor of Squire W!!

Australian Susan  •  Link

Boston Stump.
Many years ago, (when a Probation Officer) I had to visit a remand Centre in the Lincolnshire Fens (North Sea Camp). It was converted Army huts, surrounded by marsh, not a tree in sight, and when I got out of my car, the wind blew me almost over. Everything rattled and sang in the wind. As I was visiting a prisoner, my imagination made me think I was about to meet Magwich coming out of the gloom. It was a truly terrible location - I don't think any of the urban teenagers incarcerated there ever ran off.I was as glad to leave the place as I am sure Sam was.

The image of people paddling around in small boats reminded me of C. S. Lewis's Puddleglum.

Aqua  •  Link

"...and then wadeing.." Fen folk like to use stilts to get away from the men seeking monies for the crown.
The weather must have been poor, overcast no doubt, for Sam fails to see the Great Cathedral of Ely. 'Tis one of most visual spots, it even was of major use to USAF, for guiding pilots and navigators back to one of the home bases when they had lost the navigational aides..
An aside, the Airforce donated monies to repair this relic, as it had help to save lives, it being such a wonderful Land mark on such flat lands devoid of hills, only having droves to be lost in, up to ones nags belly..

Aqua  •  Link

" islet of firm ground to another...." an islet was called localy a pimple, I do not know that it hit the fashion books of words.
Fenmen were also the Last rebels to be hung for going on strike. Littleport riots.

julie Smith  •  Link

Would anyone know where Pepys stayed while in Chatteris?

Second Reading

Terry Foreman  •  Link

"the people of the place which if they be born there, they do call the Breedlings of the place"

I.e. Natives of the place. L&M say "Macaulay mistook the word for a proper name." (Footnote)

Bill  •  Link

" a fine church and library, where sundry very old abbey manuscripts; and a fine house, built on the church ground by Secretary Thurlow, and a fine gallery built for him in the church”

Watson, in his History of Wisbeach, p. 239, names some of the printed books in the library there, but does not mention any of the MSS. Secretary Thurloe's gallery had been erected at the expense of the Corporation, out of gratitude to him for many services rendered to the town. It is now used for the general accommodation of the inhabitants.
---Diary and correspondence of Samuel Pepys, the diary deciphered by J. Smith. 1854.

Bill  •  Link

“if they be born there, they do call the Breedlings’ of the place”

Explained in Murray's "New English Dictionary," as "one born and bred in a place, a native," but no other quotation is given for the word besides this passage in the Diary.
---Wheatley, 1893.

Terry Foreman  •  Link

Rex Gordon: "there's a wonderful book called "Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America" an author named Fischer. Highly Rexommended"

Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America is a 1989 book by David Hackett Fischer that details the folkways of four groups of people who moved from distinct regions of England (Albion) to the United States. The argument is that the culture of each of the groups persisted, to provide the basis for the modern United States. Fischer explains "the origins and stability of a social system which for two centuries has remained stubbornly democratic in its politics, capitalist in its economy, libertarian in its laws and individualist in its society and pluralistic in its culture."…

Tripleransom  •  Link

Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, The Nine Tailors, is a splendid evocation of the Fen country as it appeared in the 1930's.

Chris Squire UK  •  Link

Re: ‘ . . they call the ‘Breedlings’ of the place . . ‘

ˈbreedling, n. One born and bred in a place; a native.
1663 S. Pepys Diary 18 Sept. (1971) IV. 311 Over most sad Fenns all the way observing the sad life that the people of that place (which if they be born there, they call the ‘Breedlings’ of the place) do live. [Taken by Macaulay for a proper name. See Hist. Eng. (1855) III. xi. 41.]’

Terry Foreman  •  Link

"to Wisbeach, a pretty town, and a fine church and library, where sundry very old abbey manuscripts;"

L&M: The library (founded c. 1654, and housed in a room over the church poty) was one of a fairly large number of parochial libraries formed at about this time from private gifts and subscriptions. Thurloe (Cromwell's Secretary of State) fad contributed 81 volumes; in 1718 there were 697: lists in HMC, Rep., 9/293-4; A catalogue of books i the library at Wisbech (1718). The MSS (from Bury and Ramsey) included some from the 13th century. In the 19th century the collection was moved to the town hall and later to the museum, where it now remains.

Terry Foreman  •  Link

"a fine gallery built for him in the church, but now all in the Bishop of Ely’s hands."

L&M: The town had built the gallery for Thurloe's use at the s. end of the church; it was taken down in 1856. Thurloe had bought the manor (originally belonging to the bishops of Ely) and c. 1658 had replaced the late 15th-century palace built by Bishop Morton by a house probably designed by Peter Mills :H. M. Colvin, Dict. Engl. Architects, p. 391; illust. in VCH, Cambs. lv. opp;. p. 251. This had now reverted to the bishop, but later was let to tenants, and demolished in 1816. It stood in the grounds of the castle, not the church. [anon.], Hist. Wisbach (Wisbech, 1833), p. 163.

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