London: St. Olave’s ( Samuel Pepys’s Church)

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Gate with skull details.

At the intersection of Hart Street and Seething Lane, around the corner from Tower Hill, sits St Olave’s Church, where Samuel Pepys is buried.  Despite his constant womanising, Pepys is one of my favourite historical figures, and I’d been wanting to visit St. Olave’s for a while, but had been deterred by the fact that it’s only open on weekdays (presumably one can gain entrance on weekends by attending service, but that wasn’t something I’d be inclined to do) and is near the City, which is not an area of London that I frequent.  However, my boyfriend had an afternoon off work, and we were planning on heading towards East London anyway, for the Royal London Hospital Museum (post to follow), so the time was right to visit the “churchyard of St. Ghastly Grim,” (as Dickens referred to it).

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Elizabeth Pepys memorial, commissioned by Pepys after her death.

The church isn’t terribly large (and there was some building work going on during our visit, which made it feel even more crowded), but it is packed with Pepysy goodness. Elizabeth, Samuel, and his brother John are all buried in a vault beneath the Communion table, so there’s no effigy atop the tomb in the manner of Westminster Abbey et al, but there’s no shortage of memorials around the church.  The memorial to Elizabeth, shown above, was directly opposite the Navy Office pew where Pepys sat, so he could gaze upon her during services.

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Pepys Memorial

On the side of the church, there’s a Victorian era memorial to Pepys, which was paid for via public subscription, largely thanks to the efforts of Henry B. Wheatley, one of the editors of Pepys’s diary (in stereotypical Victorian fashion, he omitted most of the juicy stuff). There’s also quite a few other plaques in the church unrelated to Pepys that are worth a look.  St Olave’s was restored in the 1950s, after being damaged in the Blitz, and it is a lovely little church, with an appropriately solemn air.

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The “best beloved” churchyard is similarly compact, with only a few headstones, but it is nicely shaded, and contains a tablet marking the former entrance to the Navy Office Pew. Pepys used the side entrance to the church, as he lived just opposite on Seething Lane.  Unfortunately, the Navy Office and his home, which was attached, were destroyed by fire in 1673 (after Pepys went through all the trouble of saving it (and his Parmesan) in the Great Fire of 1666), so St. Olave’s is the only remaining testament to Pepys in the surrounding area.

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Well, that, and the nearby street which bears his name.

Pepys isn’t the only famous person connected with St. Olave’s.  As hinted at above, St Olave’s was mentioned by Dickens in the “Uncommercial Traveller” articles, and according to the sign outside the gate, someone called Mother Goose is buried in the churchyard.  All in all, St. Olave’s is a charming piece of history, but it is still a working church, so please bear that in mind.  As I mentioned at the start, St. Olave’s is shut on weekends, and during the month of August, and you are poking around a religious building, so be respectful!  That said, if you are a fan of Pepys, it’s well worth coming in for a “pepys” around (had to work that it somewhere), as St. Olave’s is clearly proud of their connection with the diarist.

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4 comments

  1. Must take a look next time I’m in London. You definitely sold it to me and I think my husband’s family has a connection to the church.

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