Samuel Pepys

Famous diarist, and a bit of a weather-watcher
by Philip Eden

His diaries reveal him to have had obsessions about food and extra-marital assignations, but Samuel Pepys was also, it appears, something of a weather watcher. It would be stretching it to suggest that he was the sort of "weather anorak" that some contemporary diarists clearly were, but his published journals are dotted with descriptive asides which remind us that the vagaries of the weather were just as noteworthy in the seventeenth century as they are now.

Indeed, they were more important in the day-to-day lives of most folk heating, motor cars, and even the simple old umbrella. We do not have to worry about the water freezing in our bowl on the bedside table, or the stench of sewage in the city streets during a summer heatwave, or milk going off by evening on a warm day. Most days we can, with a little care, keep dry and warm - or cool - as the case may be.

Thanks to fragmentary instrumental records as well as those detailed daily weather diaries kept at the time we do have a pretty good idea of the climate of England during the period Pepys kept his diaries, between 1660 and 1669. They indicate that the 1660s were overall slightly cooler than recent years, with a preponderance of cold winters not seen in the twentieth century, and one long hot summer fit to rank alongside some of the record-breakers we have experienced recently.

That prolonged heatwave came during July and August 1666, immediately preceding the Great Fire of London. Although much concerned with naval matters at the time - we were at war with the Dutch between 1664 and 1667 - Pepys still had time to observe on June 20: "...all evening doing business and at night in the garden, it having been these three or four days mighty hot weather," and on June 26, "this afternoon, after a long drought, we had a good shower of rain, but it will not signify much if no more come." The high temperatures soon returned, and on July 15 he teills us: "... so walked only through to the park and there, it being mighty hot, and I weary, lay down by the Canal upon the grass and slept a while." Surprisingly he makes no mention of dramatic thunder and hailstorms noted by others during this month.

January 1667 is generally believed to have been the coldest month of the decade; the Thames was clogged with ice-floes. Pepys' first entry of the year notes: "My wife up, and with Mrs Pen to walk in the fields to frostbite themselves," and later the same day he returned home from the theatre, "... and so by link walked home, it being mighty cold but dry, yet bad walking because very slippery with the frost and treading."