John Evelyn - a most excellent person
John Evelyn is another famous 17th century London diarist, though his diaries reveal a far less colourful character than Pepys, and show none of the latter’s wide-ranging curiosity, nor his introspection, nor his love of gossip. The two lived contemporaneously - Evelyn was born before Pepys and died after him - and were friends, mentioning each other in their diaries. But what Evelyn’s diary lacks in colour and entertainment, it makes up for in time span and historical importance. He was much interested in London’s development, its new squares, houses and gardens, and, after the Great Fire, he was involved with rebuilding the city.
Evelyn was born in 1620 at Wotton, near Dorking in Surrey, the large family estate founded originally on wealth accumulated after his great-grandfather brought the invention of gunpowder to England. John would, eventually, inherit Wotton, but not until the end of his life, in 1699. John spent much of his childhood near Lewes in Sussex with his mother’s parents, and declined to go to Eton. He was admitted into the Middle Temple in 1637, and also became a fellow commoner at Balliol College, Oxford, though he left without taking a degree. After his father’s death in 1640, Evelyn inherited sufficient wealth to allow him to live independently.
These were, though, confusing times in England, especially for a Royalist like Evelyn. After a very brief involvement with the Royalist army, he managed to gain permission to go abroad, where he stayed - in France and Italy - for several years to avoid the Civil War. In Paris, in 1647, he married the 12 year old Mary Browne, daughter of the English ambassador. He returned to England soon after, but did not live with his wife for several years. In 1652, the couple moved into Sayes Court, Deptford. This was a property, once leased from the crown by his father-in-law, but which had been seized by Parliament, and which Evelyn had had to buy back. In time, he rebuilt the house and developed a beautiful garden. This latter was a project that would lead to his serious interest in botany and garden history, and the writing of an encyclopaedia of gardens and gardening practices - Elysium Britannicum.
Here is Pepys, a lifelong friend of Evelyn, describing a visit to Sayes Court some years later (in 1665): ‘ . . . and so I by water to Deptford, and there made a visit to Mr Evelyn, who, among other things, showed me most excellent painting in little; in distemper, Indian incke, water colours: graveing; and, above all, the whole secret of mezzo-tinto, and the manner of it, which is very pretty, and good things done with it. He read to me very much also of his discourse, he hath been many years and now is about, about Guardenage; which will be a most noble and pleasant piece. He read me part of a play or two of his making, very good, but not as he conceits them, I think, to be. He showed me his Hortus Hyemalis; leaves laid up in a book of several plants kept dry, which preserve colour, however, and look very finely, better than any Herball. In fine, a most excellent person he is, and must be allowed a little for a little conceitedness; but he may well be so, being a man so much above others.’
After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Evelyn was favoured by Charles II, though he never sought or held high rank. Instead, he busied himself with various minor posts usually aimed at improving public life, whether by licensing hackney coaches, developing sewers, reforming the streets, regulating the Royal Mint, or re-planning London after the great fire. He was a founder member of the Royal Society. Under the Catholic King James II, he became alarmed by attacks on the English Church, which led him to concur with the revolution of 1688 that brought William of Orange to the throne. Towards the end of his life, in 1695, he was made treasurer of Greenwich hospital for old sailors.
Writing was surely Evelyn’s main passion. His early works were largely Royalist tracts, but other, mostly scientific, books soon followed. He wrote pioneering works on tree cultivation (Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees), soils (A Philosophical Discourse of Earth) and pollution (Fumifugium). His later works tended to be more concerned with culture, art, and religion, with titles such as Sculpture: or the History and Art of Chalcography and Engraving in Copper, and Numismata - A discourse of medals, antient and modern. An 800-page history of religion was published after his death.
And then there is his diary which has come to overshadow all his other works. First edited by William Bray and published in two volumes by Henry Colburn in 1818 as Memoirs Illustrative of the Life and Writings of John Evelyn, comprising his Diary from 1641 to 1705/6, and a Selection of his Familiar Letters. A more complete and definitive edition comprising six volumes was edited by Esmond Samuel de Beer and published by Clarendon Press 1955. Experts acknowledge that some parts of Evelyn’s diaries were compiled at a later date from notes, and that because they show evidence of hindsight, they are more memoir than diary.
Though covering a period of over 50 years, Evelyn’s diary is not as long as Pepys’s, nor is it as entertaining or interesting. It is dry and factual, and mostly the entries are brief and unemotional - except on the death of a child. When Richard - aged but 5 - dies, Evelyn fills several pages with the precocious boy’s achievements, concluding with, ‘Here ends the joy of my life, and for which I go even mourning to the grave.’
Birds and animals in St James’s Park
9 February 1665
Dined at my Lord Treasurer’s, the Earl of Southampton, in Bloomsbury, where he was building a noble square or piazza [London’s first square, or at least one of the earliest], a little town; his own house stands too low, some noble rooms, a pretty cedar chapel, a naked garden to the north, but good air. I had much discourse with his Lordship, whom I found to be a person of extraordinary parts, but a valetudinarian.
I went to St James’s Park, where I saw various animals, and examined the throat of the Onocrotylus, or pelican, a fowl between a stork and a swan; a melancholy waterfowl, brought from Astrakhan by the Russian Ambassador; it was diverting to see how he would toss up and turn a flat fish, plaice, or flounder, to get it right into his gullet at its lower beak, which, being filmy, stretches to a prodigious wideness when it devours a great fish. Here was also a small water-fowl, not bigger than a moorhen, that went almost quite erect, like the penguin of America; it would eat as much fish as its whole body weighed; I never saw so unsatiable a devourer, yet the body did not appear to swell the bigger. The solan geese here are also great devourers, and are said soon to exhaust all the fish in a pond. Here was a curious sort of poultry not much exceeding the size of a tame pigeon, with legs so short as their crops seemed to touch the earth; a milk-white raven; a stork, which was a rarity at this season, seeing he was loose, and could fly loftily; two Balearian cranes, one of which having had one of his legs broken and cut off above the knee, had a wooden or boxen leg and thigh, with a joint so accurately made that the creature could walk and use it as well as if it had been natural; it was made by a soldier. The park was at this time stored with numerous flocks of several sorts of ordinary and extraordinary wild fowl, breeding about the Decoy, which for being near so great a city, and among such a concourse of soldiers and people, is a singular and diverting thing. There were also deer of several countries, white; spotted like leopards; antelopes, an elk, red deer, roebucks, stags, Guinea goats, Arabian sheep, etc. There were withy-pots, or nests, for the wild fowl to lay their eggs in, a little above the surface of the water.
Burning an effigy of the pope
10 June 1673
We went, after dinner, to see the formal and formidable camp on Blackheath, raised to invade Holland; or, as others suspected for another design. Thence, to the Italian glass-house at Greenwich, where glass was blown of finer metal than that of Murano, at Venice.
5 November 1673
This night the youths of the city burned the Pope in effigy, after they had made procession with it in great triumph, they being displeased at the Duke for altering his religion and marrying an Italian lady. [The Duke of York, who later became King James II, had converted to Catholicism, and some weeks prior to this diary entry married a 15 year old Italian princess, Mary of Modena.]
Practising for a siege at Windsor
21 August 1674
In one of the meadows at the foot of the long Terrace below the Castle [Windsor], works were thrown up to show the King a representation of the city of Maestricht, newly taken by the French. Bastians, bulwarks, ramparts, palisadoes, graffs, horn-works, counter-scarps, etc., were constructed. It was attacked by the Duke of Monmouth (newly come from the real siege) and the Duke of York, with a little army, to show their skill in tactics. On Saturday night they made their approaches, opened trenches, raised batteries, took the counter-scarp and ravelin, after a stout defense; great guns fired on both sides, grenadoes shot, mines sprung, parties sent out, attempts of raising the siege, prisoners taken, parleys; and, in short, all the circumstances of a formal siege, to appearance, and, what is most strange all without disorder, or ill accident, to the great satisfaction of a thousand spectators. Being night, it made a formidable show. The siege being over, I went with Mr Pepys back to London, where we arrived about three in the morning.
11 May 1676
I dined with Mr Charleton, and went to see Mr Montague’s new palace, near Bloomsbury, built by Mr Hooke, of our Society, after the French manner [now the site of the British Museum].
From Enfield to Bellsize House in Hampstead
2 June 1676
I went with my Lord Chamberlain to see a garden, at Enfield town; thence, to Mr Secretary Coventry’s lodge in the Chase. It is a very pretty place, the house commodious, the gardens handsome, and our entertainment very free, there being none but my Lord and myself. That which I most wondered at was, that, in the compass of twenty-five miles, yet within fourteen of London, there is not a house, barn, church, or building, besides three lodges. To this Lodge are three great ponds, and some few inclosures, the rest a solitary desert, yet stored with no less than 3,000 deer. These are pretty retreats for gentlemen, especially for those who are studious and lovers of privacy.
We returned in the evening by Hampstead; to see Lord Wotton’s house and garden (Bellsize House), built with vast expense by Mr O’Neale, an Irish gentleman who married Lord Wotton’s mother, Lady Stanhope. The furniture is very particular for Indian cabinets, porcelain, and other solid and noble movables. The gallery very fine, the gardens very large, but ill kept, yet woody and chargeable The soil a cold weeping clay, not answering the expense.
9 October 1676
I went with Mrs. Godolphin and my wife to Blackwall, to see some Indian curiosities; the streets being slippery, I fell against a piece of timber with such violence that I could not speak nor fetch my breath for some space; being carried into a house and let blood, I was removed to the water-side and so home, where, after a day’s rest, I recovered.
Dining with Pepys at the Tower
18 April 1678
I went to see new Bedlam Hospital, magnificently built, and most sweetly placed in Moorfields, since the dreadful fire in London.
4 June 1679
I dined with Mr Pepys in the Tower, he having been committed by the House of Commons for misdemeanours in the Admiralty when he was secretary; I believe he was unjustly charged.
3 July 1679
Sending a piece of venison to Mr Pepys, still a prisoner, I went and dined with him.
14 September 1681
Dined with Sir Stephen Fox, who proposed to me the purchasing of Chelsea College, which his Majesty had sometime since given to our Society, and would now purchase it again to build a hospital; or infirmary for soldiers there, in which he desired my assistance as one of the Council of the Royal Society.
4 August 1682
With Sir Stephen Fox, to survey the foundations of the Royal Hospital begun at Chelsea.
An innumerable assembly of drinking people
1 May 1683
I went to Blackheath, to see the new fair, being the first procured by the Lord Dartmouth. This was the first day, pretended for the sale of cattle, but I think in truth to enrich the new tavern at the bowling-green, erected by Snape, his Majesty’s farrier, a man full of projects. There appeared nothing but an innumerable assembly of drinking people from London, peddlars, etc., and I suppose it too near London to be of any great use to the country.
30 October 1683
I went to Kew to visit Sir Henry Capell, brother to the late Earl of Essex; but he being gone to Cashiobury, after I had seen his garden [later to become the famous Kew Gardens] and the alterations therein, I returned home. He had repaired his house, roofed his hall with a kind of cupola, and in a niche was an artificial fountain; but the room seems to me overmelancholy, yet might be much improved by having the walls well painted á fresco. The two green houses for oranges and myrtles, communicating with the rooms below, are very well contrived. There is a cupola made with pole-work between two elms at the end of a walk, which being covered by plashing the trees to them, is very pretty; for the rest there are too many fir trees in the garden.
Streets of booths on the frozen Thames
1 January 1684
The weather continuing intolerably severe, streets of booths were set up on the Thames; the air was so very cold and thick, as of many years there had not been the like. The smallpox was very mortal.
9 January 1684
I went across the Thames on the ice, now become so thick as to bear not only streets of booths, in which they roasted meat, and had divers shops of wares, quite across as in a town, but coaches, carts, and horses passed over. So I went from Westminster stairs to Lambeth, and dined with the Archbishop. [. . .] After dinner and discourse with his Grace till evening prayers, Sir George Wheeler and I walked over the ice from Lambeth stairs to the Horseferry.
24 January 1684
The frost continues more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of trades and shops furnished, and full of commodities, even to a printing press, where the people and ladies took a fancy to have their names printed, and the day and year set down when printed on the Thames: this humor took so universally, that it was estimated that the printer gained £5 a day, for printing a line only, at sixpence a name, besides what he got by ballads, etc.
Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, a bull-baiting, horse and coach-races, puppet-plays and interludes, cooks, tippling, and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water, while it was a severe judgment on the land, the trees not only splitting as if the lightning struck, but men and cattle perishing in divers places, and the very seas so locked up with ice, that no vessels could stir out or come in. The fowls, fish, and birds, and all our exotic plants and greens, universally perishing.
The air full of the fuliginous steam of sea-coal
Many parks of deer were destroyed, and all sorts of fuel so dear, that there were great contributions to preserve the poor alive. Nor was this severe weather much less intense in most parts of Europe, even as far as Spain and the most southern tracts. London, by reason of the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal, that hardly could one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles, exceedingly obstructed the breast, so as one could scarcely breathe. Here was no water to be had from the pipes and engines, nor could the brewers and divers other tradesmen work, and every moment was full of disastrous accidents.
Building about the city too disproportionate for the nation
12 June 1684
I went to advise and give directions about the building of two streets in Berkeley Garden, reserving the house and as much of the garden as the breadth of the house. In the meantime, I could not but deplore that sweet place (by far the most noble gardens, courts, and accommodations, stately porticos, etc., anywhere about the town) should be so much straitened and turned into tenements. But that magnificent pile and gardens contiguous to it, built by the late Lord Chancellor Clarendon, being all demolished, and designed for piazzas and buildings, was some excuse for my Lady Berkeley’s resolution of letting out her ground also for so excessive a price as was offered, advancing near £1,000 per annum in mere ground rents; to such a mad intemperance was the age come of building about a city, by far too disproportionate already to the nation: I having in my time seen it almost as large again as it was within my memory.
Fire on and in the river for the Queen’s birthday
15 November 1684
Being the Queen’s birthday, there were fireworks on the Thames before Whitehall, with pageants of castles, forts, and other devices of girandolas, serpents, the King and Queen’s arms and mottoes, all represented in fire, such as had not been seen here. But the most remarkable was the several fires and skirmishes in the very water, which actually moved a long way, burning under the water, now and then appearing above it, giving reports like muskets and cannon, with grenades and innumerable other devices. It is said it cost £1,500. It was concluded with a ball, where all the young ladies and gallants danced in the great hall. The court had not been seen so brave and rich in apparel since his Majesty’s Restoration.
7 December 1684
I went to see the new church at St James’s, elegantly built; the altar was especially adorned, the white marble inclosure curiously and richly carved, the flowers and garlands about the walls by Mr Gibbons, in wood: a pelican with her young at her breast; just over the altar in the carved compartment and border environing the purple velvet fringed with I. H. S. richly embroidered, and most noble plate, were given by Sir R. Geere, to the value ( as was said) of £200. There was no altar anywhere in England, nor has there been any abroad, more handsomely adorned.
Buried at Westminster without any pomp
14 February 1685
The King [Charles II had died on 6 February] was this night very obscurely buried in a vault under Henry VII’s Chapel at Westminster, without any manner of pomp, and soon forgotten after all this vanity, and the face of the whole Court was exceedingly changed into a more solemn and moral behavior; the new King [James II] affecting neither profaneness nor buffoonery. All the great officers broke their staves over the grave, according to form.
22 May 1685
Oates [Titus Oates instigated the fictitious Popish plot that led to several executions before being found out], who had but two days before been pilloried at several places and whipped at the cart’s tail from Newgate to Aldgate, was this day placed on a sledge, being not able to go by reason of so late scourging, and dragged from prison to Tyburn, and whipped again all the way, which some thought to be severe and extraordinary; but, if he was guilty of the perjuries, and so of the death of many innocents (as I fear he was), his punishment was but what he deserved. I chanced to pass just as execution was doing on him. A strange revolution!
The Apothecaries’ garden at Chelsea
7 August 1685
I went to see Mr Watts, keeper of the Apothecaries’ garden of simples at Chelsea [now the Chelsea Physic Garden], where there is a collection of innumerable rarities of that sort particularly, besides many rare annuals, the tree bearing Jesuit’s bark, which had done such wonders in quartan agues [fevers/chills]. What was very ingenious was the subterranean heat, conveyed by a stove under the conservatory, all vaulted with brick, so as he has the doors and windows open in the hardest frosts, secluding only the snow.
19 January 1686
This night was burnt to the ground my Lord Montague’s palace in Bloomsbury, than which for painting and furniture there was nothing more glorious in England. This happened by the negligence of a servant airing, as they call it, some of the goods by the fire in a moist season; indeed, so wet and mild a season had scarce been seen in man’s memory.
Shells, insects, animals - all destined for the British Museum
16 December 1686
I carried the Countess of Sunderland to see the rarities of one Mr Charlton in the Middle Temple, who showed us such a collection as I had never seen in all my travels abroad either of private gentlemen, or princes. It consisted of miniatures, drawings, shells, insects, medals, natural things, animals (of which divers, I think 100, were kept in glasses of spirits of wine), minerals, precious stones, vessels, curiosities in amber, crystal, agate, etc.; all being very perfect and rare of their kind, especially his books of birds, fish, flowers, and shells, drawn and miniatured to the life. He told us that one book stood him in £300; it was painted by that excellent workman, whom the late Gaston, Duke of Orleans, employed. This gentleman’s whole collection, gathered by himself, traveling over most parts of Europe, is estimated at £8,ooo. He appeared to be a modest and obliging person. [This collection was later bought by Sir Hans Sloane and formed part of the British Museum.]
16 March 1687
I saw a trial of those devilish, murdering, mischief doing engines called bombs, shot out of the mortar piece on Blackheath. The distance that they are cast, the destruction they make where they fall, is prodigious.
Coronation of King William and Queen Mary
11 April 1689
I saw the procession to and from the Abbey Church of Westminster, with the great feast in Westminster Hall, at the coronation of King William and Queen Mary [after the flight of James II]. [. . .] The Parliament men had scaffolds and places which took up the one whole side of the Hall. When the King and Queen had dined, the ceremony of the Champion, and other services by tenure were performed. The Parliament men were feasted in the Exchequer chamber, and had each of them a gold medal given them, worth five-and-forty shillings. [. . .]
Much of the splendor of the proceeding was abated by the absence of divers who should have contributed to it, there being but five Bishops, four Judges (no more being yet sworn), and several noblemen and great ladies wanting; the feast, however, was magnificent. The next day the House of Commons went and kissed their new Majesties’ hands in the Banqueting House.
8 July 1689
I sat for my picture to Mr Kneller, for Mr Pepys, late Secretary to the Admiralty, holding my ‘Sylva’ [his book] in my right hand. It was on his long and earnest request, and is placed in his library. Kneller never painted in a more masterly manner.
Buildings destroyed by a storm and a fire
11 July 1689
I dined at Lord Clarendon’s, it being his lady’s wedding day, when about three in the afternoon there was an unusual and violent storm of thunder, rain, and wind; many boats on the Thames were overwhelmed, and such was the impetuosity of the wind as to carry up the waves in pillars and spouts most dreadful to behold, rooting up trees and ruining some houses. The Countess of Sunderland afterward told me that it extended as far as Althorpe at the very time, which is seventy miles from London. It did no harm at Deptford, but at Greenwich it did much mischief.
10 April, 1691
This night, a sudden and terrible fire burned down all the buildings over the stone gallery at Whitehall to the water side, beginning at the apartment of the late Duchess of Portsmouth (which had been pulled down and rebuilt no less than three times to please her), and consuming other lodgings of such lewd creatures, who debauched both King Charles II. and others, and were his destruction.
Great auction of pictures at Whitehall
21 June 1693
I saw a great auction of pictures in the Banqueting house, Whitehall. They had been my Lord Melford’s, now Ambassador from King James at Rome, and engaged to his creditors here. Lord Mulgrave and Sir Edward Seymour came to my house, and desired me to go with them to the sale. Divers more of the great lords, etc., were there, and bought pictures dear enough. There were some very excellent of Vandyke, Rubens, and Bassan. Lord Godolphin bought the picture of the Boys, by Murillo the Spaniard, for 80 guineas, dear enough; my nephew Glanville, the old Earl of Arundel’s head by Rubens, for £20. Growing late, I did not stay till all were sold.
5 October 1694
I went to St Paul’s to see the choir, now finished as to the stone work, and the scaffold struck both without and within, in that part. Some exceptions might perhaps be taken as to the placing columns on pilasters at the east tribunal. As to the rest it is a piece of architecture without reproach. The pulling out the forms, like drawers, from under the stalls, is ingenious. I went also to see the building beginning near St Giles’s, where seven streets make a star from a Doric pillar placed in the middle of a circular area; said to be built by Mr Neale, introducer of the late lotteries, in imitation of those at Venice, now set up here, for himself twice, and now one for the State.
A death, a fire, a storm and a fog
5 March 1695
I went to see the ceremony. Never was so universal a mourning; all the Parliament men had cloaks given them, and four hundred poor women; all the streets hung and the middle of the street boarded and covered with black cloth. There were all the nobility, mayor, aldermen, judges, etc. [Queen Mary II had died of smallpox two months earlier.]
5 January 1698
Whitehall burned, nothing but walls and ruins left. [In fact, Inigo Jones’s Banqueting House survived the fire.]
26 March 1699
After an extraordinary storm, there came up the Thames a whale which was fifty-six feet long. Such, and a larger of the spout kind, was killed there forty years ago (June 1658). That year died Cromwell.
15 November 1699
There happened this week so thick a mist and fog, that people lost their way in the streets, it being so intense that no light of candles, or torches, yielded any (or but very little) direction. I was in it, and in danger. Robberies were committed between the very lights which were fixed between London and Kensington on both sides, and while coaches and travelers were passing. It began about four in the afternoon, and was quite gone by eight, without any wind to disperse it. At the Thames, they beat drums to direct the watermen to make the shore.
The death of Samuel Pepys
26 May 1703
This day died Mr Samuel Pepys, a very worthy, industrious and curious person, none in England exceeding him in knowledge of the navy, in which he had passed through all the most considerable offices. Clerk of the Acts and Secretary of the Admiralty, all which he performed with great integrity. When King James II went out of England, he laid down his office, and would serve no more; but withdrawing himself from all public affairs, he lived at Clapham with his partner, Mr Hewer, formerly his clerk, in a very noble house and sweet place, where he enjoyed the fruit of his labors in great prosperity. He was universally beloved, hospitable, generous, learned in many things, skilled in music, a very great cherisher of learned men of whom he had the conversation. His library and collection of other curiosities were of the most considerable, the models of ships especially.
26-27 November 1703
The effects of the hurricane and tempest of wind, rain, and lightning, through all the nation, especially London, were very dismal. Many houses demolished, and people killed. As to my own losses, the subversion of woods and timber, both ornamental and valuable, through my whole estate, and about my house the woods crowning the garden mount, the growing along the park meadow, the damage to my own dwelling, farms, and outhouses, is almost tragical, not to be paralleled, with anything happening in our age. I am not able to describe it; but submit to the pleasure of Almighty God.
31 October, 1705
I am this day arrived to the 85th year of my age. Lord teach me so to number my days to come, that I may apply them to wisdom!