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Pepys’s letterbook (Mss ref: LBK/8)
Most people are familiar with Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) through the diary that he kept between 1660 and 1669. This is well known because it recounts some very important events in the history of England, including the Restoration of Charles II to the throne after the fall of the Commonwealth; the Great Plague of 1665, which killed almost 70,000 in London alone; and the Great Fire of London in 1666. Pepys is also noteworthy as a source of information on the Second Anglo-Dutch War of 1665–67, a seaborne conflict in which he was deeply involved as a navy official.
Pepys’s use of shorthand
The National Maritime Museum holds various papers relating to Pepys’s naval career and personal life. The letters shown on this page come from a collection of correspondence from 1662 to 1679. The first shown here was written in 1662. The letter of 1665 displayed below it is also by him but in a type of shorthand known as ‘tachography’, developed by Thomas Skelton in 1641. Both these letters survive because, as was his usual practice, they are the office duplicates which Pepys made for retention before the ‘top copies’ were signed and sent out.
The shorthand letter, dated 28 September 1665, was sent from Greenwich. The plague had broken out in London and the Navy Office had moved to Greenwich, which was then in the countryside. The recipient of the letter, Sir William Coventry, was Pepys’s superior at the Navy Board and the letter concerns the fitting out of the fleet for 1666.
Pepys was a very busy man and used shorthand to save time: his diary is also in shorthand, for a degree of confidentiality. By 1665 he was employing a clerk called William Hewer as his literary assistant, and had already started to complain of the eye strain that in 1669 forced him to stop keeping his diary for fear of going blind. Later, in a letter to his father on 20 June 1677, he begins by apologizing for not writing sooner, due to
‘the misfortine I lye under of not being able to write with my owne eyes, without a greate deale of paine and the muchnesse of my businesse preventing my doing it by other hand’.
This letter is in the Museum's collection (ref. AGC/19/6). Pepys’s eye problems led him to take a European holiday in 1669 with his wife Elizabeth, to rest his sight. It was while returning that she caught a fever, from which she subsequently died. They had no children and Pepys spent his last years living with his friend William Hewer at Clapham. In 1689 he had Kneller paint both their portraits as a ‘friendship pair’ and these are also in the Museum collection.
Other manuscripts relating to Pepys in the Museum include various orders signed both by him and Charles II (ref: OBK/8), letters relating to Pepys’s share in prize money from captured ships (ref: COP/1b) and a copy of his Tangier Diary of 1683 (ref: DAR/23).
Pepys and the Navy
Although Pepys’s involvement with the Royal Navy is less well known than his diary, this was, in fact, his life’s work. Starting his naval career as a clerk to the Navy Board in 1660, on an annual salary of £350, he rose swiftly through hard work and by capitalizing on all opportunities that came his way.
The Navy Board was in charge of the building and maintenance of ships and dockyards, the ordering of stores such as food, guns and ammunition as well as paying the sailors and dockyard workers. At this period the Navy was the biggest spending department of government, even in peace-time. Pepys’s job as clerk to the Navy Board was to attend its meetings, record decisions and prepare letters for signing and despatch. However, Pepys tried his hardest to learn as much as he could about all aspects of the Navy Board’s work and was soon composing his own letters, visiting dockyards and negotiating contracts himself.
After 1681, when Charles II assumed personal rule to his death in 1685, Pepys was effectively in control of the administration of the Royal Navy and became Secretary of the Admiralty in 1686. In this period he implemented important reforms such as the introduction of examinations for lieutenants, together with many other regulations and orders to improve efficiency. His career was not without its setbacks: in 1679 he was even imprisoned in the Tower of London on suspicion of selling naval secrets to the French, though the accusation was groundless. His career eventually came to an end in 1689 on the exile from England of his patron, James II (1633–1701), and he devoted the last years of his life to his friendships and organizing his huge collection of books and manuscripts.
Some interesting facts about Pepys’s life
Pepys was born in Fleet Street, London, and was the fifth of 11 children. His father was a tailor and his mother was the daughter of a butcher. However, luckily for Pepys, his great-aunt Paulina had married into the aristocratic Montagu family and it was Pepys’s connection to Paulina’s son, Edward Montagu, later 1st Earl of Sandwich, that was to be vital to his early career. By 1654 Montagu had employed Pepys as his secretary and in March 1660 Pepys accompanied him when Montagu brought back Charles II from his European exile. It was then that Pepys first met both Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York (later James II). It was also through Montagu that Pepys gained his first naval post in June 1660. It had not been Pepys’s ambition to work in the Navy but, as he said in his diary, ‘chance without merit brought me in’.
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