Today (November 9) in London History – Restoration sex pest

A particularly ripe entry in Samuel Pepys’s diary for November 9th, 1666 is the gem of this Today in London History podcast.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

I think it fair to say we’re on the home stretch now, on this canter through 2022 on the back of our Today in London History yearling.

With just 50 days or so to go, I’m suddenly aware that Samuel Pepys – that consummate Londoner and the greatest diarist in English Literature – has barely had a look-in. And that needs to be remedied. Remedied without further ado.

So here’s a big, hearty helping of Pepys. It’s November 9th, 1666. And as his diary entry makes clear, a lot happened on that day. A lot happened in London – the place was almost giddy with alarums and excursions, as Shakespeare might have put it. And all the while, Pepys managed to squeeze in some hanky panky in his personal life. I mean, not surprising, that, because Pepys was a sex pest, a bottom pincher par excellence. But still, given that pretty much all of London seemed to be on fire and there was general high anxiety about plots and the papists and possible invasions by the French or, failing the French, the Dutch. To say nothing of fears of insurrection by all the unpaid sailors and for good measure, a widespread belief that the Second Coming had come. Well, you get the idea. There was a fair old bit of buzz in London on November 9th, 1666. And hardly surprising, given that the whole city would have been in the grip of the world’s worst case of post traumatic stress disorder. Which is by way of saying, the place was still reeling – still charred, still smouldering – from the Great Fire of London, that had roared through the city just two months previously. So I’m going to read the entry. And for an afterword, a short 20th century diary entry about Samuel Pepys. The bonus diary entry was penned – also on November 9th, but November 9th, 1947 – by the politician, diplomat, writer and gardener, Harold Nicholson.

I’ll stop a couple of times part way through the Pepys entry to let some light in on his passing references. 

Here’s Pepys, taking survey of his November 9th, 1666 – inviting us in, showing us round his London as it were.

Up and to the office, where did a good deale of business, and then at noon to the Exchange and to my little goldsmith’s, whose wife is very pretty and modest, that ever I saw any. Upon the ’Change, where I seldom have of late been, I find all people mightily at a losse what to expect, but confusion and fears in every man’s head and heart. Whether war or peace, all fear the event will be bad. Thence home and with my brother to dinner, my wife being dressing herself against night; after dinner I to my closett all the afternoon, till the porter brought my vest back from the taylor’s, and then to dress myself very fine, about 4 or 5 o’clock, and by that time comes Mr. Batelier and Mercer [Mary Mercer was a  pretty 17-year-old girl who was a hired companion and maidservant to Pepys’ wife – there is, if I may be forgiven the expression, a nice touch about her right at the end of the entry] 

Anyway, yes, back to Pepys: “by that time comes Mr. Batelier and Mercer and away by coach to Mrs. Pierce’s, by appointment, where we find good company: a fair lady, my Lady Prettyman, Mrs Corbet, Knipp; and for men, Captain Downing, Mr. Lloyd, Sir W. Coventry’s clerk, and one Mr. Tripp, who dances well. After some trifling discourse, we to dancing, and very good sport, and mightily pleased I was with the company. After our first bout of dancing, Knipp and I to sing, and Mercer and Captain Downing (who loves and understands musique) would by all means have my song of “Beauty, retire,” which Knipp had spread abroad; [hmmm, notice the young woman Mercer – Pepys’ employee, remember, and his wife’s handmaiden and companion – pleads with him to perform the song – what’s going on there, chances are she’s just currying favour with her employer. But does Pepys take it as something more than that? We shall see.]  

Anyway, back to Pepys we go. He tells us that Knipp had sung the praises of the song, “he extols it above any thing he ever heard, and, without flattery, I know it is good in its kind. This being done and going to dance again, comes news that White Hall was on fire; and presently more particulars, that the Horse-guard was on fire; and so we run up to the garret, and find it so; a horrid great fire; and by and by we saw and heard part of it blown up with powder. The ladies begun presently to be afeard: one fell into fits. The whole town in an alarme. Drums beat and trumpets, and the guards every where spread, running up and down in the street. 

Ah, yes, fire. The great curse of London. The constant high anxiety about it that was every Londoner’s birthright.

Fire in London in the 17th century was a tale of arsonists and accidents. In the 1640s the Lord Mayor of London published a list of everything that could and did go wrong – a catalogue of the causes of the many fires that beset London on a daily occurrence.

Here’s the Lord Mayor’s trumpet blast of a warning.

“Some hath been burnt by bad Harths, Chimnies, Ovens or by pans of fire set upon boards; some by Cloaths hanging against the fire; some by leaving great fires in chimnies where the sparks…. fell and fired the boards, painted cloths, Wainscots, Rushes, Mats … some by … shooting off pieces [firing shot-guns up the chimney, a brisk way of cleaning it]…. some by setting candles under shelves; some by leaving candles neere their beds; some by snuffs of candles, Tobacco snuffs [pipe dottles]; some by drunkards, some by warming beds; some by looking under beds with Candles; some by sleeping at Work, leaving their Candles by them … or by foul chimnies…. some by Candles falling out of their Candlesticks; some by sticking their Candles upon posts …. and some have been fired a purpose by villany or Treason.”

Back to Pepys. Accordingly, he tells us, “I begun to have mighty apprehensions how things might be at home, and so was in mighty pain to get home, and that that encreased all is that we are in expectation, from common fame, this night, or to-morrow, to have a massacre, by the having so many fires one after another, as that in the City, and at same time begun in Westminster, by the Palace, but put out; and since in Southwarke, to the burning down some houses; and now this do make all people conclude there is something extraordinary in it; but nobody knows what. By and by comes news that the fire has slackened; so then we were a little cheered up again, and to supper, and pretty merry. But, above all, there comes in the dumb boy that I knew in Oliver’s time – [Oliver’s time – here Pepys is referring to Oliver Cromwell] – “above all, there comes in the dumb boy that I knew in Oliver’s time who is mightily acquainted here, and with Downing; and he made strange signs of the fire, and how the King was abroad, and many things they understood, but I could not, which I wondering at, and discoursing with Downing about it, “Why,” says he, “it is only a little use, and you will understand him, and make him understand you with as much ease as may be.” So I prayed him to tell him that I was afeard that my coach would be gone, and that he should go down and steal one of the seats out of the coach and keep it, and that would make the coachman to stay. 

[Some glossing here. On a night like this there was a fortune to be made if you were a coachman. People wanting to get home, being willing to pay over the odds to do so. So the coachman out front would have been raring to go – would have known that he was missing out on a lot of fares at probably triple time by just sitting there waiting for Pepys to come out. Ergo Pepys’ anxiety about his driving off and leaving Pepys stranded, facing a long walk home. Ergo the plan to tether the coachman to his station out front by having the dumb boy steal a cushion. But as we see, all was for nought. Pepys had to set out on foot but never mind, he got lucky at the Savoy.]

Pepys takes up the tale. Downing signs to the dumb boy “so that the 

dumb boy did go down, and, like a cunning rogue, went into the coach, pretending to sleep; and, by and by, fell to his work, but finds the seats nailed to the coach. So he did all he could, but could not do it; however, stayed there, and stayed the coach till the coachman’s patience was quite spent, and beat the dumb boy by force, and so went away. So the dumb boy come up and told him all the story, which they below did see all that passed, and knew it to be true. After supper, another dance or two, and then newes that the fire is as great as ever, which put us all to our wit’s-end; and I mightily [anxious] to go home, but the coach being gone, and it being about ten at night, and rainy dirty weather, I knew not what to do; but to walk out with Mr. Batelier, myself resolving to go home on foot, and leave the women there. And so did; but at the Savoy got a coach, and come back and took up the women; and so, having, by people come from the fire, understood that the fire was overcome, and all well, we merrily parted, and home. Stopped by several guards and constables quite through the town, round the wall, as we went, all being in armes. We got well home … Being come home, we to cards, till two in the morning, and drinking lamb’s-wool. So to bed.

And so we come to the end. But no, not quite. First of all, what was that drink, “lamb’s wool” Pepys calls it. It was a bevy consisting of ale mixed with sugar, nutmeg, and the pulp of roasted apples. Wow! A decade’s worth of sugar fix in a single mug. 

The other thing, though, is that ride home in the coach they flagged down at the Savoy. You have to be alert when you’re reading Pepys. He was so naughty – such a world-class sex pest – that 19th-century editors bowdlerised him. Expurgated the rude bits. So if you look closely at the text I’ve worked with here – you can check it out on the transcript on – the third sentence from the end reads: We got well home… And right there you have to be alert. Because of that tell-tale ellipsis after that sentence. What that ellipsis is telling us is that some editor, wanting to protect us from a bit of salaciousness, took a red pencil to something that came after those four words: We got well home.

Here’s the unexpurgated diary.

We got well home, and in the way I did con mi mano tocar la jambe de Mercer sa chair. Elle retirait sa jambe modestement, but I did tocar sa peau with my naked hand. And the truth is, la fille hath something that is assez jolie.”

What a sleaze bag he was. It’s classic Pepys this. The diary was at two removes from wife Elizabeth’s prying eyes. It was written short-hand, which she couldn’t read. And he invents a sort of pidgin foreign language for the rude bits, putting them at a further remove from poor Elizabeth. So what he’s saying here, I did con mi mano tocar la jambe…I did with my hand touch her leg. He goes on – in his pidgin Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, whatever it was – to say “she withdrew her leg modestly. He then says he has another go – he touches her skin – above her stockings in other words – and that the young lady – la fille – hath something that is assez jolie.

Very nice. Yeah, bears repeating, Mary Mercer was his wife’s companion, Pepys’s employe. What a sleaze bag he was.

Here’s the other diary entry, Harold Nicholson’s November 9th, 1947 entry.

“Read Arthur Bryant on Pepys. It is odd how the English love a man who is not a humbug like themselves. To my mind Pepys is a mean little man. Salacious in a grubby way; even in his peculations there is no magnificence. But he did stick to his office during the Plague which is more than most men did. It is some relief to reflect that to be a good diarist one must have a little snouty, sneeky mind.” 

And on that note, a today in London recommendation. 

I’d say it has to be a visit to what I call Pepys’ church. St Olave’s Hart Street. Pepys and Elizabeth are buried there. Special place. John Betjeman described it as “a country church in the world of Seething Lane.” It’s one of the few surviving mediaeval buildings in London. And here’s the frosting on the cake – they normally have lunchtime recitals at 1 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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