The City of London’s churches are fascinating places to while away some time, whether you are there to participate in a service or merely take stock of the surroundings that tell us so much about the history of our great capital. In the third of a six-part series, I discover where Samuel Pepys worshipped.
From the steeple of All Hallows by the Tower, on the eastern side of the City of London, the chronicler Samuel Pepys witnessed “the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw”. He added in his diary: “Everywhere great fires, the fire being spread as far as I could see it…. I became afeared to stay there long, and therefore down again as fast as I could.”
The Great Fire of London of 1666 resulted in 89 out of the City’s 109 parish churches being gutted, but All Hallows survived thanks to neighbouring buildings being pulled down. providing a firebreak. It had in fact only been re-built little more than 15 years previously having suffered considerable damage from a nearby gunpowder explosion in 1650. Oliver Cromwell paid for it to be rebuilt, giving us a rare example of Commonwealth architecture.
But after surviving the Great Fire the church, which was originally built in Saxon times and still retains an impressive arch from that period, was gutted by the Blitz and didn’t re-open until 1957. Despite the enemy action however, part of the structure dating from the 15th century remains.
The City’s churches formed a central part of Pepys’s life and regularly featured in his diary, which covers the period from 1660 to 1669. Born in Salisbury Court in 1633, he was a parishioner at nearby St Bride’s on Fleet Street where he was christened with his eight brothers and sisters.
Pepys went to Cambridgeshire to stay with his uncle when the Civil War broke out in 1642, but then returned to London to enrol at St Paul’s school. He graduated from Magdalen College, Cambridge in 1653 and had a number of jobs before being appointed the Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Office in 1660, the same year he started writing his diary.
When Pepys took up his new position he moved to in apartments in Seething Lane. This home, which he lived in all the years he kept the diary, is long gone (the site now occupied an office block). But the parish church where Pepys worshipped most Sundays survives and provides plenty of reminders of the great diarist.
St Olave Hart Street was first recorded in 12th century and re-built in 15th century (the current building dates from 1450, but the surviving crypt, which is now a chapel, dates from the 13th century). Dedicated to Olave Haraldson, the martyred king and patron saint of Norway, it once stood next to the religious house of the Crutched Friars (which I referred to in an earlier blog in this series). St Olave’s was one of only eight churches to be untouched by the Great Fire of 1666, but was damaged in the Blitz.
Pepys sat for services in the private Navy Office gallery, which was reached by an exterior staircase (no longer present, but still remembered thanks to an inscription which can be viewed from outside) in the churchyard and meant he wouldn’t be exposed to the elements when leaving his workplace. He called St Olave’s “our own church” and close to the pews he would have used there is a large plaque to him. It was here that he wrote that he “slept soundly all the sermon”.
When Pepys’s wife died in 1669, he commissioned John Bushell to produce a marble statue of her, which can still be seen high up on the south wall of the church. Elizabeth was buried at St Olave’s and her husband was later buried next to her, following his death in 1702. The church continues to hold an annual Pepys Commemoration Service every May.
St Olave’s featured in the Uncommercial Traveller by Charles Dickens, with the author describing “the gateway of St Ghastly Grim” as a “…small churchyard, with a ferocious piked iron gate, like a jail. The gates is ornamented with skull and cross bones, larger than life wrought in stone.” These gates are still the ones that can be seen by visitors today.
The church is administered jointly with St Katherine Kree and, as well as being open on weekdays, it holds weekly Sunday services. When I visited one lunchtime I had the place all to myself, so sat on one of the traditional wooden benches and spent some time taking in all the memorials on the walls, representing centuries of church history. It may have been peaceful when I was there, but judging by the notices on display it hosts a busy programme of talks and courses.
Plague and fire
When the Great Plague swept through London in 1665, killing some 100,000 (a quarter of the capital’s population) in its wake, churchyards in the City swelled with the bodies of its victims. One chronicler wrote that “the church-yards are so stuffed with dead corpses, that they are in many places swelled two or three higher than they were before; and new ground is broken up to bury the dead.”
Pepys lost his brother, Tom, to the plague and he is recorded as giving the grave digger at St Bride’s church in Fleet Street a bribe to “justle together” the dead bodies to make room for him to be buried. Soon huge pits were dug across London to cope with demand for burial space. The skull and cross bones etched on the side St Mary at the Hill church in the City denotes the fact that plague victims were placed in one of these mass graves.
Anyone diagnosed with the plague was condemned to their houses, along with every member of their family and watchmen were posted outside to stop them escaping. But this enforced quarantine was usually a death sentence for those concerned because, even if the householders didn’t have the disease when they were shut up, it was likely they soon would – the airless and dirty homes were prime breeding ground for the plague. In June 1665 Pepys saw some infected houses in Drury Lane “with a red cross marked upon the doors and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there.”
People became paranoid about catching the plague, taking considerable precautions such as toasting letters over the fire before reading them, in a bid to stop themselves catching the disease. Pepys wrote about the measures he took as he got himself dressed for church in September 1665:
“Up, and put on my colour’d silk suit, very fine, and my new periwigg, bought a good while since, but darst not wear it because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it. And it is wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of the infection – that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.”
Londoners at the time had a variety of theories as to the cause of the plague, but it can now be attributed to a bacterium which is usually transmitted through the bite of an infected rat flea. It killed more poor people given the dirty and squalid conditions they lived in (providing a perfect breeding ground) than it did those living in wealthy areas (this group could also afford to leave London). Pepys moved his family to Woolwich, which was then a rural village on the outskirts of the capital. Interestingly, Mary Ramsey, who is said to have brought the Great Plague to London in 1665, was buried at Pepys’s parish church of St Olave’s.
Pepys is probably best remembered for the eyewitness account he provided of the devastating events of the Great Fire of 1666. I’ve written a detailed blog on this before, so won’t repeat myself, but here it worth briefly re-emphasising the rich writing that the great chronicler has left us with.
At first Pepys was dismissive of Jane, his maid-servant, after she woke him in the early hours of the morning when she had spotted a blaze. But by 8am, he realised that that situation occurring half a mile to the west was more serious:
“By and by, Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fishstreet by London Bridge. So I made myself ready and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, Sir J Robinsons little son going up with me. And there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side of the bridge.. So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it begun this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding-lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnes Church and most part of Fishstreete already. So I down to the water-side, and there saw a lamentable fire.”
Many people, Pepys included (who stashed his gold in Woolwich), decided that the only options was to pack up their belongings and send them for safekeeping away from the City. But not everyone was in such a fortunate position, as the chronicler described:
“Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off. Poor people staying their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and the running into boats or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another…..”
As already mentioned, the impact of Great Fire on the City’s churches was devastating. John Evelyn, one of Pepys contemporaries described the aftermath at St Paul’s cathedral;
“I was infintely concerned to find that godly church, St Paul’s, now a sad ruin. And that beautiful portico now rent in pieces, flakes of vast stone split aslunder and nothing remaining entire but the inscription in the architrave showing by whom it was built – and not one letter of it deface.”
One week after the fire broke out, Pepys attended church and during the course of a “bad, poor sermon” the preacher suggested that London had been reduced from “a large folio to a decimo tertio” – from a large, impressive piece of paper to a small scrap. The chronicler wasn’t impressed with what he saw as a tasteless metaphor, but given the destruction the Great Fire brought and the re-building that would be subsequently required it was pretty accurate.
Pepys has not walked the streets of London for some 350 years, allowing plenty of time for the buildings he would have seen on a daily basis to disappear. But if he was to return to the City today, it is probably the churches that would probably seem most familiar to him. It is great that, despite the Blitz and other tragic events, so many survive. Together with the insightful diary that Pepys wrote, they help us remember a fascinating period in London’s history.
Next week: Discovering the churches that Sir Christopher Wren built after the Great Fire of London