Pauline Croft reads a survey of London life as experienced by the 17th-century’s best-known diarist
Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) was a polymath. The great diarist was also a senior naval official, MP, book-lover, musician, keen theatregoer (recording his shock the first time he saw women on stage), twice master of Trinity House and president of the fledgling Royal Society.
Above all, he was a Londoner, and referred proudly to “this Lushious Towne”.
The principal street of the city then was medieval Cheapside, and in 1638 Queen Marie de Medici of France, visiting her daughter Queen Henrietta Maria, was escorted down it by the London trained bands. She must have seen the fine Cheapside cross, built by Edward I, but it was pulled down by radicals in 1643, reportedly to great shouts of joy.
The Royal Exchange in Cornhill, erected by Sir Thomas Gresham and opened in 1568, provided the main meeting place for merchants, and around it London’s burgeoning financial centre began to develop. By contrast London’s cathedral, medieval St Paul’s, was badly neglected; women sold apples and fish in the nave.
Westminster, although not part of the city itself, was the London home of most of the gentry and nobility, with the added cachet of the abbey and the houses of parliament. The New Exchange, built by Robert Cecil at the bottom of the Strand, opened in 1608 and provided
a smart shopping centre, though it never challenged the commercial primacy of the Royal Exchange.
Despite severe overcrowding in many parishes, the supply of foodstuffs coming in constantly from the countryside was sufficient to feed the growing population. Coal was shipped down from Newcastle. A good water supply flowed from the New River Company’s reservoir at Clerkenwell, built in 1613.
London survived the turbulent civil war years, when troops were quartered in St Paul’s, and after the Restoration the capital began to flourish again. Literacy levels were high; visitors noted the numerous bookshops, and ladies made notes on church sermons.
Suddenly in 1665, an endemic problem turned virulent. The Bill of Mortality for December 1664 to December 1665 stood at over 97,000, with the Great Plague accounting for at least two-thirds. Pepys noted that “the absence of the Court and emptiness of the city takes away all occasion of news”, except the death toll.
Then came the Great Fire, starting in September 1666 in a bakehouse in Pudding Lane. From the Tower to the Temple, and as far north as the city wall, London was almost burned out. The merchants promptly rebuilt their houses and warehouses, although poorer citizens fared less well. The new St Paul’s was planned and constructed by Christopher Wren.
By the 1690s, London had recovered from both plague and fire to become the biggest city in Europe.
Stephen Porter worked for many years on the Survey of London project, and his book gives a compelling, lively account of what one Italian visitor admiringly described as “the metropolis of the whole island”.
Pauline Croft is professor of early modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London