Skip to content

Samuel Pepys At St Olave’s

March 25, 2020
by the gentle author

I am currently reading Samuel Pepys Diary for 1665 as a diversion

Do you see Elizabeth Pepys, leaning out from her monument and directing her gaze across the church to where Samuel sat in the gallery opposite? These days the gallery has long gone but, since her late husband became celebrated for his journal, a memorial to him was installed in 1883 where the gallery once was, which contains a portrait bust that peers back eternally at Elizabeth. Consequently, they will always see eye-to-eye even if they are forever separated by the nave.

St Olave’s on the corner of Seething Lane has long been one of my favourite City churches. Dating from the eleventh century, it is a rare survivor of the Great Fire and the London Blitz. When you walk in from Hart St, three steps down into the nave immediately reveal you are entering an ancient building, where gothic vaults and medieval monuments conjure an atmosphere more reminiscent of a country church than one in the City of London.

Samuel Pepys moved into this parish when he was appointed Commissioner of the Navy Board and came to live next to the Navy Office at the rear of the church, noting his arrival at “my house in Seething Lane” in his journal on July 18th 1660. It was here that Pepys recorded the volatile events of the subsequent decade, the Plague and the Fire.

In Seething Lane, a gateway adorned with skulls as memento mori survives from that time. Pepys saw the gate from his house across the road and could walk out of the Navy Office and through it into the churchyard, where an external staircase led him straight into the private Navy Office pew in the gallery.

The churchyard itself is swollen above surrounding ground level by the vast number of bodies interred within and, even today, the gardeners constantly unearth human bones. When Elizabeth and the staff of the Navy Office took refuge from the Plague at Woolwich, Pepys stayed behind in the City. Countless times, he walked back and forth between his house and the Navy Office and St Olave’s as the body count escalated through the summer of 1665. “The sickness in general thickens round us, and particularly upon our neighbourhood,” he wrote to Sir William Coventry in grim resignation.

The following year, Pepys employed workers from the dockyard to pull down empty houses surrounding the Navy Office and his own home to create fire breaks. “About 2 in the morning my wife calls me up and tells me of new cries of fire, it being come to … the bottom of our lane,” he recorded on 6th September 1666.

In the seventeenth century vestry room where a plaster angel presides solemnly from the ceiling, I was able to open Samuel Pepys’ prayer book. It was heart-stopping to turn the pages. Dark leather covers embossed with intricate designs enfold the volume, which he embellished with religious engravings and an elaborate hand-drawn calligraphic title page.

Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys are buried in a vault beneath the nave. Within living memory, when the Victorian font was removed, a hole was exposed that led to a chamber with a passage that led to a hidden chapel where a tunnel was dug to reach the Pepys vault. Scholars would love to know if he was buried with his bladder stone upon its silver mount, but no investigation has yet been permitted.

If you seek Samuel Pepys, St Olave’s is undoubtedly where you can find him. Walk in beneath the gate laden with skulls, across the graveyard bulging with the bodies of the long dead, cast your eyes along the flower beds for any shards of human bone, and enter the church where Samuel and Elizabeth regard each other from either side of the nave eternally.

St Olave’s at the corner of Seething Lane

“To our own church, and at noon, by invitation, Sir W Pen dined with me and Mrs Hester, my Lady Betten’s kinswoman, to dinner from church with me, and we were very merry. So to church again, and heard a simple fellow upon the praise of Church musique, and exclaiming against men’s wearing their hats on in the church, but I slept part of the sermon, till latter prayer and blessing and all was done without waking  which I never did in my life…” SAMUEL PEPYS, Sunday 17th November, 1661

Samuel Pepys’ memorial in the south aisle

Samuel Pepys’ prayerbook

Engraved nativity and fine calligraphy upon the title page of Pepys’ prayerbook

Door to the vestry

The oldest monument in the church, 1566

Memorial of Peter Capponi, a Florentine merchant & spy, 1582

Paul Bayning, 1616, was an Alderman of the City & member of the Levant company

A Norwegian flag hangs in honour of St Olave

The gate where Pepys walked in from the Navy Office across the street

Sculpture of Samuel Pepys in the churchyard

You may also like to read about

Spires of City Churches

In City Churchyards

The Oranges & Lemons Churches

The City Churches of Old London

17 Responses leave one →
  1. March 25, 2020

    What a marvellous choice of reading matter for these anxious times. My late father loved Pepys diaries and used to take me to visit the city churches. Thank you for reminding me.

  2. Diana permalink
    March 25, 2020

    Thank you, Gentle Author, for all the rambles you have taken us on through your London eyes. Especially in these isolated times, they are a wonderful distraction, and so interesting!

    You are such a kindly soul, and so generous with your time and knowledge. I’ve been reading your posts for many years, but have never quite got around to thanking you.

    Stay healthy and safe,
    Diana (Australia)

  3. March 25, 2020

    Completely fascinating! Especially interesting that in the 1566 memorial there is a learned reference to the Greek Fate Atropos cutting the thread of life, in an otherwise conventional Christian context. To whom is the wonderful wall memorial with the four kneeling figures?

  4. Rebecca Buisson permalink
    March 25, 2020

    Thank you, this is interesting.
    Also I understand that Samuel Pepys visited his uncle at Impington Hall in the village of Impington in Cambridgeshire.

  5. Philip Binns permalink
    March 25, 2020

    Thank you, Gentle Author, for your daily postings which, in these difficult times, give a welcome sense of normality and lift the spirit. Well done.

  6. March 25, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, how apropos of you to be reading “Samuel Pepys Diary for 1665 as a diversion.” A diversion, indeed to be reminded that we are not to first, or last, to suffer calamity.

    St. Olave’s Church is so charming. Thanks for your essay and the photos.

  7. Jeanette Hollick permalink
    March 25, 2020

    Thanks for posting. Interesting account and most beautiful images.
    Will visit St Olave’s again once this is all over.

    Keep safe.

  8. Penny Gardner permalink
    March 25, 2020

    What a delight. Thank you for such an interesting article. Can’t wait to visit. I must have passed by many times without thinking. Looking forward to the Good Times again!

  9. March 25, 2020

    Thank you gentle author once again, today’s post is so interesting to me as I am intending to spend my time at home getting to grips with more family history and Samuel Pepys features in it as I have a ‘Pedigree’ (sorry for the word but that is how it describes itself) which is a document that traces my relationship to John West. who was a witness to Pepys’ will and who attended his funeral.

    John West’s father, Simon West, was the son of my ancestor, Edward West. John was apprenticed and became free of the Clothworkers’ Company on 6th March 1665/66. He was also a a City of London scrivener, which could then mean a notary (a man publicly authorised to draw up or attest contracts and similar documents, and to discharge other other duties of a formal character) or one who received money to place out at interest, and who supplied those who wanted to raise money on security. Such a man was sometimes called a money scrivener and John West is believed to have been an eminent one, a financier as we would say today.
    John received the Livery of the Clothworkers’ Company on 23rd July 1673 and was Master for the year beginning October 1707 and is described as an opulent Clothworker.

    He had held a retainer as a scrivener from the diarist Samuel Pepys, then known only as a senior civil servant, who had been Master of the Company in 1677-8. John West was one of the four witnesses to Pepys’ will and two codicils in 1703. He apparently attended Pepy’s funeral, and as his scrivener was presented with a 15s ring to mark the occasion, his clerk, Mr Martin, received a ring valued at 10s. Pepys’ will included ‘in plate to Mr West, some small piece’ which was ‘made good to him by a large pair of tumblers weighing 23oz. 10dwt.

    When John and his wife Frances died they owned large parts of London, but as they were childless, they left many generous gifts for charitable purposes and these include notable assistance for the blind, who still benefit under West Trusts administered by the Clothworkers’ Foundation. Among the other charitable provisions was one for the poor kin of John and Frances and this is now administered by the Trustees at Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, Sussex. As I can prove my consanguinity to John West I am now entitled to a pension should I fall on hard times which is useful to know ! One of my early ancestors was one of the first to benefit from their generosity as was my 2xgreat grandmother when she was widowed at an early age with a large family to bring up.

    All of which is why I find today’s post so interesting. I also have an interest in Seething Lane, where Pepys lived, as members of my Tyroe family mentioned their property there in their wills in the 17th century.

  10. paul loften permalink
    March 25, 2020

    The church is surely an oasis of serenity amidst the concrete towers and hustle and bustle of the City. One thing though, I am not sure about being placed eye to eye with my wife for eternity.
    It is possible that serenity may have an occasional interruption!
    Thank you for the beautiful pictures

  11. Karen Chapmam permalink
    March 25, 2020

    Thank you GA.

    As always, you provide valuable escapism as well as education, especially in these strange times.

    I am currently reading the diaries. I started on the 1st January 2020, as he did his on 1st January 1660, and I am reading the entries by the day. It will take a while…..

    “And so, to bed”

    Take care, GA,

    Yours gratefully,

    Karen

  12. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 25, 2020

    Interesting choice of reading – especially the year! Hopefully our current situation won’t escalate into quite such drastic crisis as the Great Plague of 1665…

    I have just finished reading a massive 800+ page historical novel by Ken Follett called Fall of Giants which starts in 1910 and follows the interlinked stories of families in Britain, Russia, Germany and America through to the beginning of the Twenties. So there is a massive amount about all the politics leading up to the Great War and the Russian Revolution etc, and given the present situation I was ‘looking forward’ to reading all about the Spanish flu epidemic but that wasn’t even mentioned in passing as that particular year was skipped in the story – shame!

    My reaction in any situation is to go into an “at least” mode… So – at least we haven’t just finished fighting a pointless and devastating war where millions of young lives were lost, only to be confronted with a flu pandemic which killed even more people.

  13. March 25, 2020

    This morning I received two blogs about Pepys which I enjoyed very much. The first one was my usual daily blog which is the previous day from Pepys diary (the year 1666/7) and the second is your own. Reading Pepys’ entries day by day has reinforced my admiration for him – his vivid, fluent writing; his enjoyment of books, music and theatre; his hard work – speaking successfully at length to the House of Commons and to the King; his compassion for the poor and his love for his friends (I’ve just finished reading the life of John Evelyn who held Pepys in high esteem). His laddish bawdiness reminds me of that other great diarist Alan Clark. So today to see St Olave’s church and its wonderful monuments was a treat. I would like to know more about Mary Skinner, the companion of his later years – Evelyn describes her as “Pepys’ inclination” and she was treated as his equal in society.

  14. Bernie permalink
    March 26, 2020

    It would be interesting to know how the scene is set for such a well-informed and well-illustrated article. For example, does the GA contact the locality ahead of time and arrange for the display of treasures such as Pepys prayerbook?

  15. March 26, 2020

    Thank you so much for this post. The city churches are such evocative places to visit and this one especially interesting with its connection to Pepys. I vowed to read the diaries when I retired, but so far have not. He was witness to so many events.
    Stay well, GA.

  16. Karin Barth permalink
    March 29, 2020

    Dear Gentle Author, how did you get hold of Pepys’ prayerbook? Is it kept in St Olave’s? I saw the SP show Plague, Fire, Revolution in the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich in 2015 but can’t recall this exhibit, can’t find it in the exhibition catalogue either.
    Thank you for this precious inspiration! Now I’m about to start reading Pepys’ diary of the plague year 1665, grateful for his lively observations, comments and experiences as encouragement in these turbulent times.
    All the best!
    Karin, Berlin

  17. March 30, 2020

    I visited St. Olave’s Hart in June of 2019. It is a wonderful church. I would like to return some day to explore it even more extensively. I was invited to descend into the crypt, where there is a small chapel. It was as though I was descending back into time.

    I was also very well received by the clergy and members who were there. This is a wonderful place to visit for those who are in London.

    And my visit inspired me to read Samuel Pepys’ diary as well.

    Ronald Harnack
    Sunnyvale, California USA

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS