The Pepys Library in Magdalene College

After All: Timeless observations of a once-bibulous technophile diarist

Image credit: Vitali Vitaliev

Our columnist looks back at the life and deeds of diarist Samuel Pepys, Cambridge alumnus and one-time president of the Royal Society.

My new workplace – Magdalene College – is one of the oldest in Cambridge. Founded in 1428 as a Benedictine monks’ hostel, it still abides to some peculiar medieval ways and traditions. On my induction day, a tutorial co-ordinator pointed out differently carved wooden banisters in each of the old Main Court buildings. “It was done deliberately to make it easier for the tipsy students and Fellows to grope their way up the stairs and back to their rooms in pitch darkness.”

After my first High Table dinner, a fellow Fellow drew my attention to a short narrow slit in the massive wooden door of the college’s ‘Buttery’ (kitchen). “This is where the last Fellow to leave the High Table has to drop the key to the wine cabinet. Why? For the college porters not to drink it all during the night!”

Having said that, he ferreted out a small time-battered key from under his gown and reluctantly pushed it through the hole.

I found it hard to imagine the present-day college porters – invariably helpful, polite, and impeccably dressed – plotting to decimate the poor Fellows’ wine supplies. But their medieval predecessors must have been a more uncouth and bibulous lot.

Reading the old chronicles of Magdalene (pronounced ‘Maudlin’) and other Cambridge colleges, it is easy to believe that drinking was one of the favourite pastimes of their students and Fellows alike. That certainly applies to Magdalene’s most famous alumnus Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) – a diarist, an MP and a naval administrator, who for many years was a member – and at some point, the president – of the Royal Society, founded in 1660 to promote “the improvement of natural knowledge”.

In Magdalene’s archives, however, his only recorded achievement as a student was ... getting drunk. As it was duly noted by John Wood, the college registrar, in October 1653: “Pepys & Hind were solemnly admonished by myself... for having been scandalously overseene in drink the night before; This was done in presence of all the fellowes then resident in Mr Hill’s chamber.”

Later, his bibulous Cambridge days behind him, Pepys went on to create one of the indisputable masterpieces of world literature, ‘The Diary of Samuel Pepys’ – a uniquely detailed chronicle of 17th-​century English life.

The Diary’s road to fame was long and bumpy. After Pepys’ death in 1703, discrepancies in his will meant that possession of his famous library of several thousand books, prints and documents (which included the diary), with all its original furniture, was disputed by Magdalene and Trinity until it finally arrived at Magdalene in 1724, to be kept there in a bespoke building until now.

Nothing was heard about the diary until the early 19th century when it was discovered, buried under some insignificant papers, by an accidental reader. There was an unexpected problem with the manuscript. As it was explained to me by Catherine Sutherland, Magdalene’s deputy librarian, the diary was written in a fairly obscure shorthand – Pepys’ own modified version of Thomas Shelton’s Tachygraphia – and was therefore unreadable. It took the scholars nearly 20 years to decipher the text, which was finally published in 1825 by Richard Neville.

Having opened a glass case, Catherine showed me Pepys’ mysterious scribbles. It was like staring into the eyes of history itself.

Since its first publication, the Diary has remained an international blockbuster, in modern-speak. The secret of such popularity is in Pepys’ colourful and meticulous descriptions of English daily life after the Restoration: transport and fashion, politics and religion, costumes and theatre, food and – most certainly – drink!

The Diary’s best pages carry an emotional account of the Great Fire of London in 1666, from which we learn about the problems created by the city’s predominantly wooden construction, the burning of St Paul’s, the confused reaction of the King, and of Pepys’ own attempts to preserve from burning some pricy Italian cheese (he was a true epicurean!). He describes how it felt to be in the midst of the burning fires, when “with one’s face to the wind you were almost burned with a shower of Firedrops”.

To me, however, one of the main attractions of the Diary is his descriptions of technology. Here it must be said that, despite the lack of scientific education, Pepys took keen interest in technology and had the spirit of an inventor, of which his own shorthand is an example.

Among Pepys’ prints, kept in the Library, which remains Magdalene College’s main treasure, I spotted a drawing of a mid-17th-century fire engine, the likes of which showed their complete ineptitude during the Great Fire.

Scores of keen technological observations are scattered all through the Diary, like ambers among pebbles. Pepys remarks that the first “calculating machines” of Morland were “pretty but not very useful”; he mentions a “Scotoscope” – an optical instrument used to enable objects to be seen in the dark, whose “name is derived from Greek”; and a “double-bottomed ship” (a kind of catamaran), designed by Sir William Petty.

Pepys was a keen amateur astronomer, which is also revealed on many occasions in his Diary.

And here’s an entry from May 1665: “... Then the ‘Change’ [the shopping mall of Restoration London] and thence to my watchmaker, where he has put [my watch] in order, and a good and brave piece it is, and he tells me worth £14, which is greater... than I valued it... So home and late at my office. But, Lord! to see how much of my old folly and childishnesse hangs upon me still that I cannot forbear carrying my watch in my hand in the coach all this afternoon, and seeing what o’clock it is one hundred times, and am apt to think with myself, how could I be so long without one; though I remember since, I had one, and found it a trouble, and resolved to carry one no more about me while I lived.”

As you see, apart from being technology-oriented, the great British diarist was also extremely time-sensitive.

Unlike, it has to be said, his own Library and his words, which are destined to stay with us for good. We’ll be toasting him in Cambridge on 25 February 2022 at Magdalene’s annual Pepys Dinner.

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