Finance in History: Pepys Show

The 17th-century business world revealed in Samuel Pepys's famous diary is not so far removed from our own.

“Most happy in the keeping of all my accounts, for that after all the changings and turnings necessary in such an account, I find myself right to a farthing in an account of 127,000 pounds.” — Samuel Pepys’s diary entry, August 20, 1666

Public officials in 17th-century England had not yet refined the notion that one has to pay to play; that is, pony up political contributions to obtain government contracts or favors. But when Samuel Pepys was an important naval administrator in London during the mid-1660s, the basic idea was well understood. Like others similarly situated, Pepys gladly accepted gifts, and he recognized the debt he incurred in accepting them.

We know this from reading Pepys’s diary, regarded by many as the greatest in the English language. Between January 1, 1660, and May 31, 1669, Pepys (rhymes with “keeps”) chronicled his everyday life, from his professional concerns to his sexual escapades, from the state of the financial accounts he kept to the painful progress of his kidney stone. The practice of diary keeping began to catch on during the 17th century, according to Pepys biographer Claire Tomalin. But his is prized for its confessional insights, large cast of characters, accounts of significant events, and entertaining narrative, combining to reveal a singular sensibility.

“What is extraordinary is that he went into areas no one else considered recording, looked at himself with as much curiosity as he looked at the exterior world, weighing himself and the world equally in the balance,” observes Tomalin in Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (2002). Writing for his eyes only, Pepys used a private shorthand and, in especially delicate passages, French. His six-volume diary was only deciphered and published in the 1820s, more than 100 years after his death.

To historians, Pepys was an invaluable chronicler of a period when the press was censored by the government of Charles II. From him we have poignant accounts of the Great Plague, which decimated England in 1665, and of the Great Fire of London, which destroyed half the city in 1666. On a more personal scale, Pepys supplied entertaining accounts of his financial wheelings and dealings as a government administrator.

“The Diary sends a beam of light into the way in which government officers and businessmen worked together, through clubs, through hospitality, through trips that mixed business and pleasure, through well-chosen and discreetly given presents and through cultivating the friendship of those in a position to be helpful in giving contracts or licenses,” observes Tomalin. “The circumstances were different, but there is something eerily familiar about it too: today’s arms and building contracts, entertainment of clients, quiet words at the club, conferences in luxury hotels, boardroom rivalries and contributions to favourite charities are all in the same tradition. Pepys was, among other things, mapping a recognizably modern world.”

Accounting for the Royal Navy

As one learns from the diary, Pepys was ambitious, intelligent, and well connected. Born in 1633, he never became a sailor, but gained an accounting post in the British Navy and turned it to steady profit. Pepys had the good fortune to capitalize on his family’s one political connection: he was a distant cousin to Sir Edward Montagu, later the Earl of Sandwich. Oliver Cromwell put Montagu in joint command of the British fleet, and the 27-year-old Pepys sailed in on Montagu’s coattails. In 1660 Pepys was appointed Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board, and as such was responsible for requesting funds from Parliament and dispensing them to build the navy and keep it afloat.

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