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The 2019 Muddy Stilettos Awards

24th April - 22nd May 2019

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A Peep at Pepys: key exhibition of the diarist’s life and times


Painting of the Fire of London, September 1666. BHC0291

Great Fire of London, September 1666.

What would you save if your house was on fire?

For Pepys it was a lump of parmesan and a good bottle of wine. He buried them in his garden as he fled from the Great Fire of London.

This was one of my favourite nuggets about the famous diarist that I gleaned from the Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution exhibition running at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich until March 28.

Pepys was a naval mastermind and well-connected socialite who lived through interesting times and it’s this timeline that forms the basis of the exhibition.

Portrait of Samuel Pepys, Attributed to John Riley, c.1680, The Clothworkers Company

Samuel Pepys

Like a sort of olden days Forrest Gump he was an eye witness to a series of major events in history – the execution of Charles I (he played truant from school to join the crowd); the coronation of Charles II (he had to leave before the end because he needed a wee); the rule of Oliver Cromwell; the plague; the great fire, and even an early performance of Macbeth.

king duo

Peyps was also a randy old goat. He had a passion for his wife… and various other women. Noone seems to have escaped his leers from the King’s mistress to Shakespeare’s witches – whose ankles he admired.

Portrait of Nell Gwyn, after Sir Peter Lely, c.1678, (c) Army and Navy Club, London

Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwyn

This is no doubt one of the reasons that he kept his diary in shorthand. I use shorthand as a journalist and I spent some minutes squinting at Pepy’s squiggles thinking they looked half guessable but a key alongside put me straight.

Pepys used a system called Shelton shorthand. It’s a shame the scholar who first translated his diaries didn’t know this. He had a massive head-desk moment after two years cracking Pepys’s code when he realised a book on the library shelf right above his noggin would have done the job for him.

First transcriptions of Samuel Pepys's diary, John Smith, 1825, (c) By permission of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College, Cambridge-3

First transcriptions of Samuel Pepys’s diary, John Smith, 1825 (c) Magdalene College, Cambridge

As the exhibition concentrates on the historical context of Pepys’s life I found it disappointingly low on actual quotations from the diary, though the recorded commentary (£2.50 extra) does contain a few more.

Pepys’s was quite a wit, but what I found most affecting was his description of walking through the streets around his home during the plague, noting which of the locals had joined the pile of corpses.

Some of the artefacts too were impressive, particularly the diminutive royal clothing, the examples of early calculators and 17th century surgical instruments of the kind used to remove Pepys’s massive bladder stone.

Suit worn by James, Duke of York, at his wedding to Mary of Modena, 1673, (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Duke of York’s wedding suit, 1673


Pepy’s tobacco box; medical instruments circa 1650

Though I found the exhibition drier than it might have been, it did make me want to get round to reading an abridged version of the diary.

There were a few earnest parents valiantly trying to keep the attention of their young offspring when I visited but this is not an exhibition geared to children, unless perhaps they’re old enough to have studied the great fire and the plague. If you do take kids make sure you look out for a medal awarded to a real life Captain Haddock. Also, check out the interactive areas elsewhere in the museum including the chance to dock a virtual ship.

Greenwich is my old stomping ground so I can also vouch for Meantime beer’s The Old Brewery and waterfront The Trafalgar Tavern as good pubs nearby. The latter has its own literary history – it was a haunt of Charles Dickens.

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution runs until March 28. Entry to the exhibition is £10.80 for adults (£9.00 concessions) and £5.40 for children over five. Family tickets cost £19.35-£27.45. The museum itself is free. You’ll find details of some connected events on the website, though the Great Fire walking tour on March 18 is now wait-list only.

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF, 020 8858 4422

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1 comment on “A Peep at Pepys: key exhibition of the diarist’s life and times”

  • louwhelan February 28, 2016

    The cheese and wine thing is the ONLY thing I remember about the GFoL from school – great write up Debbie


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