It could be worse. Coronavirus isn’t bubonic plague. I realize that is scant consolation, in these times of economic and social devastation, but we do know one cheering thing about previous plagues, however dreadful: people got through them. Not all people, unfortunately, but society recovered eventually—more quickly, in some cases, than anyone could have thought, when the havoc being wreaked was believed to come not from a microbe but the hand of God. Individuals are more resilient than they know. Samuel Pepys, who lived through the Great Plague of London in 1665, was by temperament a cautious man who did not take greater risks with his health than he needed. (He did undergo an excruciating operation to remove a bladder stone, which, given the dangers of surgery, could easily have killed him. But the stone, the size of a tennis ball, was itself agony. After its removal, Pepys had it preserved in a special case.) But he still managed to have quite a good time. “I have never lived so merrily . . . as I have done this plague-time,” he wrote on December 31, 1665.
When the mortality rate in the square mile of the City of London, where he lived on Seething Lane, reached a thousand per week, he decamped to Greenwich, a few miles downstream. All Londoners knew Greenwich; it was a place of resort. There was a royal palace—pretty wrecked after the English Civil War, but Charles I’s widow, Queen Henrietta Maria, still used the Queen’s House, designed by Inigo Jones—and a park, where the public could walk; you could get there by boat. Pepys often went. “Away back home,” he writes in May 1665; “and not being fit for business, I took my wife and Mercer [a servant] down by water to Greenwich at 8 at night, it being very fine and cool, and moonshine afterward—mighty pleasant passage it was. There eat a cake or two, and so home by 10 or 11 at night, and then to bed . . .”
“I have never lived so merrily . . . as I have done this plague-time.”
Greenwich lay on the other side of a small creek from Deptford, which had a shipyard. As secretary to the Navy Board, Pepys often visited it, inspecting rope, timber, and canvas, poking into stores, investigating fire risks, and organizing contracts, leases, and surveys. This milieu must have seemed a world away from the other centers of his existence—the City of London, the courts of Charles II and his admiral brother the Duke of York, and the scientific community of the Royal Society. Here was a pandemonium of activity, with the clamor of hammers on wood or anvil, the killed-pig squeal of saws, the constant shouts of men, the mingled smells of sweat, pitch, raw wood, and baked cordage. Skilled men led teams of smiths, carpenters, sailmakers, rope-makers, gunfounders, powder-makers, and the like. Then there were the victualers who supplied bread, beer, and other stores. About the purlieus of the dockyard moved a demi-world of parasites and thieves. At Deptford Pepys could also find the mistress whom he invariably refers to as “Bagwell’s wife,” William Bagwell being a ship’s carpenter for whom he obtained preferment; the Bagwells had laid on a dinner for the great man, as best they could, after which Pepys sent Bagwell off on an errand and . . . well, the rest is not for the eyes of the #MeToo generation. Pepys was infertile, perhaps owing to the operation on the bladder stone, but not impotent.
To Pepys it was only a short walk from Deptford or the yard at Woolwich to Greenwich, or vice versa. Sometimes he had a specific reason for going, for instance when a warship was moored there, or more often one of the King’s yachts. But it seems that he also simply enjoyed the walk. In the Spring of 1663 he found it “very pleasant along the green corne and peas.” Once (on April 22, 1664) he got up at 4 a.m., left Seething Lane, went to Greenwich by river, and, in the cool and mist of the early morning, “walked with great pleasure to Woolwich, in my way staying several times to listen to the nightingales.” It was not always free from adventure. At night, he would be sure to have some stout fellow go with him carrying a blazing link or a lantern. Walking to Greenwich after having inspected the Royal James, in May 1663, he was—in one of those embarrassing episodes that Pepys doesn’t flinch from recording—“set upon by a great dog, who got hold of my garters and might have done me hurt”; he had been too flustered to use the sword he was wearing.
Pepys loved music, and Greenwich supplied it in various forms. There was a “Musique-house,” where, on August 21, 1663, “we had paltry musique till the Maister Organist came . . . and he did give me a fine voluntary or two.” When staying in Greenwich during the Plague, he attended St Alfege church, attempting to place himself nearest to those members of the congregation with a reputation for good voices. (On December 3, when he was prevented from doing this by being invited into Colonel Cleggatt’s pew, he had the compensation of being able to ogle a “rich merchant’s lady, a very noble woman” whom he describes as “my fat brown beauty of our parish.”) Even his barber at Greenwich played the violin and was much in demand for dancing. Mrs. Pepys’s fondness for dancing had troubled Pepys when it first showed itself; still, he was inclined to indulge in this taste for “mirth”—hang the expense. Though, it must be said, for Pepys one of the advantages of Greenwich during the Plague was that his jealous wife Elizabeth was not there, since she had retreated not to Greenwich but Woolwich. Pepys’s own appetite for mirth had free rein.
There were taverns at Greenwich, such as The Ship and The Bear, and Pepys had friends among the merchants and shipowners there. Foremost among them was Captain Cocke, a hemp merchant who served as Commissioner for the Sick and Wounded and Prisoners of War from 1664 to 1667. Since hemp for ropes was a naval necessity, and Pepys responsible for procuring it, he and Cocke inevitably saw much of each other; the latter was also good company, though boisterous. Pretty Mrs. Cocke had what to Pepys seemed a most unfortunate disposition, since she freely berated her husband for his errant ways. Their garden yielded an abundance of apricots, mulberries, and other fruit. Then there was the lawyer Mark Cottle, Registrar of the Prerogative Court, “with a very pretty house, and a fine Turret at top, with windeing stairs, and the finest prospect I know about all Greenwich, save the top of the hill—and yet in some respects better then that.” It was called The Belvedere. At Wricklemarsh Hall, Colonel Blount was a member of the Royal Society. That august body of scientists and scientifically inclined gentlemen—the “college of virtuosoes”—appointed a committee to investigate a new type of coach springs on nearby Blackheath. Blount himself designed a new kind of carriage, in which the coachman would sit between the horses rather than behind them.
A walk to Sayes Court, at Deptford, brought Pepys to that other seventeenth-century diarist, John Evelyn, the greatest connoisseur of his age, whose parade of learning Pepys found alternately fascinating and tiresome. Pepys leaves a vivid impression of the evening he spent there in November 1665.
[Evelyn] among other things, showed me most excellent painting in little—in distemper, Indian Incke—water colours—graveing; and above all, the whole secret of Mezzo Tinto and the manner of it, which is very pretty, and good things done with it.
The art of mezzotint printing had recently been introduced to England by Prince Rupert, once the Mad Cavalier at the head of Charles I’s horse, who described it to the Royal Society in 1662; like so many gentlemen of the time, and of Pepys’s acquaintance in particular, he had a passion for invention and science. The talk with Evelyn then turned to gardening, and Evelyn read some of his poetry—before Captain Cocke came in “as drunk as a dog.”
One of the advantages of Greenwich during the Plague was that his jealous wife Elizabeth was not there, since she had retreated not to Greenwich but Woolwich. Pepys’s own appetite for mirth had free rein.
A friend whom Pepys could invite to his lodgings was Lord Rutherford. Rutherford is described as “a mighty wanton man,” who ran his hands over Mrs. Daniels, the landlady’s heavily pregnant daughter-in-law, “and he would be handling her breasts, which she coyly refused.” It was not until December that Pepys himself had a go at fondling her (she was hoping her husband could be made a lieutenant), but in the interim he had been applying himself to the war effort: England was fighting the Dutch, largely at sea. Still, there were other distractions. Prime among them was Mrs. Penington. Pepys had an eye for modest and seemingly virtuous women, whose inaccessibility was not only seemly but clean. Mrs. Penington was the daughter of a knighted alderman, which should have raised her above the carpenters’ wives and landladies’ daughters-in-law with whom he usually dallied; so he found it “very strange” that, after only a short acquaintance, she allowed him to put a hand inside her chemise to feel her breasts. Mrs. Penington subscribed to the fashion for déshabillé, seen in the paintings of Sir Peter Lely: breasts were often on display. A barrel of oysters led to further intimacies, and Pepys had high hopes when—having been “might merry and free” with her during supper from the King’s Head tavern—he persuaded her to change into her nightgown, à la Lely. He agreed to walk outside while she was changing. Having gone to the park and back, he was distraught to find she had not merely changed into her nightgown but gone to bed. The night, however, was not over. When he got home, he found Mrs. Daniels waiting for him about her husband’s commission.
For all such romps, these were grim times. Pepys, humane as well as all too human, pitied “the horrible Crowd and lamentable moaning of the poor seamen that lie starving in the streets for lack of money—which doth trouble and perplex me to the heart.” The wretched condition of people on the Kent Road also moved him. Further, for all the consolations provided by a Mrs. Penington or a Mrs. Daniels, the removal to Greenwich was a financial cost that Pepys would have rather not borne. As well as his own expenses—Pepys was not the only person seeking to escape the Plague, and his landlady got a good price for her lodgings—he had to fund those of his wife and household at Woolwich, while a maid kept the Seething Lane house going. But such things had to be borne. One day when he walked from Woolwich to Greenwich in August 1665, he saw
a coffin with a dead body therein, dead of the plague, lying in an open close belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night and the parish hath not appointed anybody to bury it—but only set a watch there day and night, that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing—this disease making us more cruel to one another then we are [to] dogs.
It was not until the end of the year that the Plague had “abated almost to nothing,” and he could look forward for a return to Seething Lane. This happy event took place on January 22, 1666. When Pepys went to the City, he was relieved and surprised when he found shopkeepers, even pretty ones, still on their feet. All back to normal, then. Except that September 1666 saw the Great Fire of London break out, destroying 13,200 houses, eighty-seven parish churches, old St Paul’s Cathedral, and numerous City livery halls. Another calamity—but they got over that too.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 9, on page 78
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