Collector Samuel Pepys Sets a Shining Example

A silver plate that once belonged to Samuel Pepys is carefully put on display at the Museum of London
A silver plate that once belonged to Samuel Pepys is carefully put on display at the Museum of London

by Ray Setterfield

December 31, 1666 — 1666 was not a good year, as Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary on this day. Apart from the Great Fire of London, which destroyed most of the city, commercial rivalry led to ongoing sea battles against the Dutch and the French, seamen were refusing to serve because of low pay, the remnants of the previous year’s Great Plague were still being felt and the court of King Charles II was in some disarray.

Pepys summed it all up with this diary entry:

“Thus ends this year of publick wonder and mischief to this nation, and, therefore, generally wished by all people to have an end. Myself and family well, having four mayds and one clerk, Tom, in my house, and my brother, now with me.

“Our healths all well, only my eyes with overworking them are sore as candlelight comes to them, and not else; publick matters in a most sad condition; seamen discouraged for want of pay, and are become not to be governed: nor, as matters are now, can any fleete go out next year.

“Our enemies, French and Dutch, great, and grow more by our poverty. The Parliament backward in raising, because jealous of the spending of the money; the City less and less likely to be built again, every body settling elsewhere, and nobody encouraged to trade.

“A sad, vicious, negligent Court, and all sober men there fearful of the ruin of the whole kingdom this next year; from which, good God deliver us!”

Pepys was born in 1633, the son of a tailor. His mother was the sister of a butcher but there were family connections to the gentry, which led in the 1650s to him living in the London home of his cousin, Admiral Edward Montagu. Edward was later to become the 1st Earl of Sandwich.

In 1655 Pepys married Elizabeth, the 15-year-old daughter of a French refugee. He later recalled how she “used to make coal fires and wash my foul clothes with her own hand for me, poor wretch, in our little room at Lord Sandwich’s; for which I ought forever to love and admire her, and do.”

On New Year’s Day, 1660, Pepys had started to write a diary, a personal “Journall” and chronicle of London social life and current affairs, which he continued for nine years until fear of blindness caused him to abandon it.

Lord Sandwich first employed Pepys as a general handyman but in 1660 the nobleman used his influence to secure a new post for his cousin – Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board. The board was responsible for the building and repair of ships and the management of the dockyards.

But even with this new job, which paid £350 a year (about £12,000 today), Pepys was worried about money. When he assessed his personal wealth at the beginning of his Diary, he had an estate worth just £25 (about £1,115 today) and was “much troubled with thoughts how to get money” to pay off his debts.

He was spending more than he earned and decided “to look about me to get something more than just my salary, or else I may resolve to die a beggar.”

According to Museum of London curator Hazel Forsyth, since every penny counted he made a point of keeping just three pence in his pocket while out drinking with friends, lest he be tempted to spend more.

She adds: “Pepys’ finances improved with a shower of bribes and gratuities for commissions, contracts and services rendered in his work for the Navy, and within a couple of years he was worth £1,000 (£45,000 today). At the end of the Diary period Pepys was rich, with a salary in excess of £500, a ‘mighty handsome’ home, a painted and gilded coach, and £10,000 in savings.”

Pepys had a passion for silver and would serve his dinner guests on silver plates rather than pewter.

He bought some of his silver collection himself, but often it came in the very welcome form of a gift or perquisite of office.

In July 1664, for instance, he received a fine leather case with a pair of silver-gilt flagons, the gift of Sir Dennis Gauden, Victualler of the Navy. Pepys wrote: "[They] are endeed so noble that I hardly can think they are yet mine."

In October 2019 the Museum of London acquired an extremely rare silver plate, originally owned by Pepys, one of only three known to still exist.

Curator Hazel Forsyth wrote: “This [came from] a time when wealth was demonstrated not by the size of the house but in its furnishings and silverware.

“The flagons were soon displayed to the envy of Pepys’ dinner guests, with a dozen silver salt cellars besides the ‘great Cupboard of plate’. Further acquisitions followed.”

One of the advantages of so much silver was the ability to show off and in April 1667 Pepys wrote: “I home and there find all things in good readiness for a good dinner.

“We had, with my wife and I, twelve at table; and a very good and pleasant company, and a most neat and excellent, but dear dinner; but Lord, to see with what envy they looked upon all my fine plate was pleasant, for I made the best show I could.”

The pride that Pepys took in his silverware collection provided the only upbeat note in his diary entry for December 31, 1666. It ended: “One thing I reckon remarkable in my owne condition is that I am come to abound in good plate, so as at all entertainments to be served wholly with silver plates, having two dozen and a half.”

Pepys rose to become Secretary of the Admiralty, a member of parliament and President of the Royal Society. He died aged 70 in 1703 at the home of a London friend.

Published: December 22, 2019

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