London’s first cuppa

With the mention of a diary today most Londoners would give Samuel Pepys as the most famous of diarists, but this narrative by an obscure civil servant lay undiscovered for nearly 200 years.

The story of the diary’s discovery came from a rather unexpected quarter. In 1812 Scottish historian David Macpherson was researching his prosaic account: The History of European Commerce in India, and for reasons lost over time while working in the Bodleian Library, Magdalen College, Oxford, came across the passage in Pepys’ diary:

And afterwards, I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink), of which I never had drunk before’.

It was the first mention we have in English of anyone drinking a cup of tea.

Today anyone researching life in the 17th century London would do worse than check out this famous (and infamous) diary. But here’s the extraordinary thing, Pepys’ six volumes of dense and secret scribblings had lain untouched for nearly two centuries.

What gave Macpherson the idea of checking out the work in the first place, how in its hundreds of pages did he stumble to the correct entry, let alone managing to crack the code.

Another lucky break was that the Reverend George Neville, Master of Magdalen, saw Macpherson’s passing reference to Pepys’ diaries and decided they needed further investigation, as they recorded some of the momentous times in England’s history.

He commissioned John Smith, a clever but poor student, to decipher the code and transcribe the entries.

It took Smith three years of research to bring us the most celebrated diary in the English language. From that single sentence about an unknown beverage, when everyone was drinking coffee in London’s coffee houses; had Macpherson not mentioned it in his dry account; the Master of Magdalen not taken a keen interest of the History of European Commerce; and had John Smith been less intelligent and not so tenacious, we wouldn’t have Pepys’ detailed account of the coronation of King Charles II, the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London and the minutiae in the life of a middle-class Englishman.

8 thoughts on “London’s first cuppa”

  1. Samuel Pepys father lived in Brampton near Huntingdon his house is still standing but in private hands and not open to the public. Samuel attended Huntingdon Grammar School who’s most famous ex-pupil was Oliver Cromwell.

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  2. I first read the Pepys diaries in my teens, when still at school. Many years later, I bought a hardback copy of the ‘collected diaries’, and often use it as reference. One of my favourite parts is when he buried his Parmesan cheese in the garden to save it from the Great Fire. Shows how valuable it must have been.
    Best wishes, Pete.


    1. My favourite:
      Turned into St. Dunstan’s Church, where I heard an able sermon of the minister of the place; and stood by a pretty, modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me; and, at last, I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again — which seeing I did forbear, and was glad I did spy her design. And then I fell to gaze upon another pretty maid in a pew close to me, and she on me; and I did go about to take her by the hand, which she suffered a little and then withdrew. So the sermon ended, and the church broke up, and my amours ended.


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