Samuel Pepys: in profile

English naval administrator Samuel Pepys is best known for the diary he kept over nearly a decade from 1660, in which he recorded in extraordinary detail notable events of the day along with his own personal routines.

Born in London, he rose to become chief secretary of the Admiralty, and his reforms helped bring a new professionalism to the Royal Navy.

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When did you first hear about Pepys?

I have always been a history geek. I became obsessed with epic historical events like the Great Fire of London and the bubonic plague, so when I chanced upon Samuel Pepys’ diaries I was hooked – they gave me a ringside view of events.

I love anything that transports one back to the distant past and reveals the detail of how life looked and smelled in days gone by.

What kind of man was he?

He was narcissistic enough to almost invent the diary form and to understand the importance of his chronicles, bequeathing them to Magdalene College, Cambridge for posterity. Pepys was fascinated by what was going on all around him, and wrote vividly about everyday life, from his breakfasts to his bowel movements.

What made him a hero?

First, his diligence in writing his diary every day. Second, the astonishing level of detail he included about 17th-century London life. For instance, he noted his sadness at the loss of shops forced to close during the plague, auguring the post-pandemic high street today. To me, the daily energy required to record this level of detail is heroic.

What was his finest hour?

It is said he was the first to bring the Great Fire of London to the notice of the king, and to suggest pulling down houses to create firebreaks. But I think Pepys himself felt that his finest hour was a speech he made at the bar in the House of Commons, in defence of the Navy Board, on 5 March 1668. So virtuosic was he that many proclaimed him to be the best speaker they had ever heard – and, as his diary entry makes clear, he revelled in the adoration.

Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire about him?

He treated his wife pretty shabbily, and his philandering and treatment of women were base and unforgivable.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Pepys had a fascination with the detail of life. He was greedy, gregarious and obsessively passionate, like me. We both came from humble backgrounds and worked like fiends to achieve success. And he was a foodie, too. His diary reveals that oysters were the pub snack of choice in his day, and that tables were laden with lamprey, carp and myriad fresh fish.

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What would you ask Pepys if you could meet him?

His diary has told me everything I could possibly want to know about him and London in the 1660s. If I could pluck up the courage, I would just ask him for an autograph and a selfie.

Nisha Katona is the founder of Mowgli Street Food restaurants. She is the author of 30 Minute Mowgli (Nourish Books)

This content first appeared in the July 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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