Despite the gap of 340 years, a walk through London today can give you a very real sense of the scale and nature of Samuel Pepys’s world in a way that can genuinely bring his diaries to life. His daily world stretched from Westminster Hall in the south west to the Tower in the east. When he didn’t travel by water, he would walk a regular route up King St (now Whitehall), turning right at Charing Cross, following the Strand and Fleet, past St Paul’s Cathedral and on his way past London Bridge on his right to Seething Lane. While few buildings from his time remain, many of the landmarks (particularly churches) and most of the streets remain in name, if not in timber and stone. By walking in the footsteps of Samuel Pepys, a clear footprint of his world can be discerned.
Westminster remains the home of Parliament with the original Westminster Hall, Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s Church (where Pepys and Earl of Sandwich were both married) still in existence. Whitehall is still a formal thoroughfare of Government, with the Banqueting House, the last remaining part of Whitehall Palace and the site of Charles I’s execution, still an imposing building. The Strand and Fleet Street, to this day, remain a hectic mix of four and five storey buildings, the streets busy with pedestrians rushing between office and café and between shop and tavern. Even the traffic, dominated today by buses and taxis, appears to reflect a distant clamour of hackney carriages, horses and carts. The scale is defined by the absence of skyscrapers in this part of London, and with road widths and building heights very much what they were in the 1660s. And finally, St Paul’s, though not the building of the 1660s, remains a key landmark. The feeling of uniformity through time fades as you travel east of St Paul’s where the modern financial centre of the City is dominated by impersonal mirrored office blocks and towers.
On the route between Westminster and St Paul’s, Fleet Street was particularly significant and familiar to Pepys, forming a very central part in his life. He was born in Salisbury Court, a side street. When travelling along Fleet Street, on business or returning from a social event, he would stop at one of the many taverns1 for a draught of ale or a meal and often call in on his parents, still in Salisbury Court in the 1660s.
17 Fleet Street
There are few buildings remaining that Pepys would have looked upon with his own eyes, but 17 Fleet Street is one he would have visited. Built in 1610, it is believed that the elder son of James I, Prince Henry (who died of illness in 1612, leaving the future Charles I as heir) used the first floor room as a Council Chamber. The building was originally the Prince’s Arms tavern, but was renamed as the Fountain sometime during the 17th century, probably about 16402. The first floor room is now known as Prince Henry’s Room, housing a Pepys memorabilia museum run by the Samuel Pepys Club3.
There are a few references to a ‘Fountain’ tavern in the Diary4:
Captain Ferrers and I walked abroad to several places, among others to Mr. Pim’s, my Lord’s Taylour’s, and there he went out with us to the Fountain tavern and did give us store of wine, and it being the Duke of York’s birthday, we drank the more to his health.
14 October 1661
… then to the Chancellor’s, and there met with Mr. Dugdale, and with him … and others, to the Fountain tavern, and there staid till twelve at night drinking and singing …. Then Mr. Gawdon being almost drunk had the wit to be gone, and so I took leave too, and it being a fine moonshine night he and I footed it all the way home, but though he was drunk he went such a pace as I did admire how he was able to go.
28 November 1661
The first floor room includes an original ornate plaster ceiling and oak panelling (west wall). The building is one of very few houses that existed before the Great Fire and survive today. The permanent Pepys exhibition here is free, open 10am to 2pm weekdays. The attendant said that Pepys is believed to have spent time in this room when it was part of the tavern.
From the Pepys exhibition in Prince Henry’s Room:
The Cock Tavern at 22 Fleet Street
The Cock was a favourite of Pepys. Although the current building is not the one that he knew (see plaque, below), the gilded cockerel outside and a fireplace (on the first floor) are original (both believed carved by Master Carver Grinling Gibbons6). It is easy to believe that Pepys warmed himself in front of this very fireplace, and probably admired the immodest carvings above it (albeit later than the time of the Diary6).
… where meeting my uncle Wight by the way, took him with me thither, and after drinking a health or two round at the Cock, we parted, he and I homewards, parted at Fleet Street, where I found my father newly come home from Brampton very well.”