The Day Samuel Pepys Came to Reading

During the June of 1668, the usually London-bound naval administrator Samuel Pepys had a bit of a travelling adventure across the South of England. 

He visits Bristol, which he says is in 'every respect another London' and stands for a while in awe at a new ship being built at the docks, deciding that it will be very 'fine'. He then travels onto Bath, where he ogles some 'very fine ladies', takes a two-hour dip in the natural springs and has a look around Bath Abbey, although gets bored at 'a vain, pragmatical fellow' giving a sermon, and even falls asleep during a service. Pepys then travels on to Wiltshire, gets quite excited about the prehistoric stone circle at Avebury and then stays overnight at The White Hart Inn, in Marlborough, where he 'lay well all night and long'. 

Samuel Pepys, British Library, Public Domain

Journeying on, he marvels at Littlecote House near Hungerford, then owned by Alexander Popham, the MP for Bath - and then eats dinner at Newbury. 

At some point in the warm, balmy evening of 16th June, after just over a week on the road, his cart pulls up to a stop. He stiffly steps out onto the dusty path and straightens his back. Samuel Pepys' eyes rested, approvingly, over the town of Reading. 

At this time, Reading was still a cloth-producing town, but it had started to decline from the giddy heights of the trade during Medieval and Tudor times. It had its fair share of inns and taverns - The George on Minster Street and The Sun at Castle Street stood much as they do today. St Lawrence's stood proudly in the market place, where just eight years before, Charles II had been proclaimed at his Restoration with 'greate solemnity and rejoycing'. Reading would have been a scene of bonfires and ale-swigging, with each Reading parish granted £1 to spend on ale and firewood for the celebration. The chequered tower of the Minster soared up into the clouds around the corner. 

Just aside from St Laurence, there were the town stocks, and a tangle of buildings crammed around today's triangular marketplace which touted their wares. The Corporation Diary entries for Stuart Reading are peppered with accounts of pickpockets working the area that was then Shoemaker's Row, Butcher's Row and Fish Row. Taverns had a good trade, and there are accounts of drunken behaviour and fights. For which, coming full circle, you'd expect to spend a few hours in the stocks the next day. 

Pepys' King, Charles II, doesn't seem to have been a regular visitor of Reading, but he did pass through in 1663 with his wife Catherine of Braganza, being greeted at 'Orte Lane' and presented with gifts, including a purse of coins, provided of course by the townspeople. 

Pepys, scribbling in his diary, seems genuinely impressed by the town. When he arrives, he listens to his wife reading Mustapha, a tragedy play based on the life of Solyman the Magnificent by the Earl of Orrery. He eats some supper - although we don't know what or where, and then decides to take a wander around the town. 

He writes: 

"In the evening betimes come to Reading, and there heard my wife read more of Mustapha and then to supper, and then I to walk about the town, which is a very great one, I think bigger that Salsbury: a river runs through it, in seven branches, and unite in one, in one part of the town, and runs into the Thames half-a-mile off one odd sign of the Broad Face. W. Hewer [Hewer was Pepys' clerk] troubled with the headake we had none of his company last night, nor all this day nor night to talk. Then to my inn, and so to bed."

The Broad Face was an inn in Reading's High Street, and had a slim, narrow frontage with an opening on the ground floor for horses and carts that could be secured for the night. Photos from the 1920s show the inn's sign attached to the pale, outside wall: a man depicted from the neck up, with an unusually wide face, smiling (a little bit manically, to be fair) and holding what looks like a bell. Perhaps it was a sign similar to this that Pepys thought was 'odd'. The inn was demolished in 1926, so that an extension to Lloyd's Bank could be built. You can see a rare photo of The Broad Face's frontage before it was demolished here at the Reading Museum website. 

It's frustrating for us that Pepys doesn't mention at which inn he stayed, although considering where he went for a walk, The spacious George in the centre of town could be a good contender as any. Of course there were countless Stuart inns in the town that are no longer standing today. It's strange that he doesn't mention the abbey, which could suggest that either his visit was brief, or that he wasn't staying at this end of town to have stumbled upon it on his walk. He doesn't detail any conversations with locals or note down any naval business as he does in other towns and so it seems, as an administrator preoccupied with boats and the sea, Reading was just a quick pit-stop to rest at night, when the roads would have been risky after dark. 

The next morning he woke, with 'musick, the worst we have had, coming to our chamber-door, but calling us by wrong names, we lay'. He settled up, making payments to his servants and the poor and then set out on his next destination, which was Maidenhead and then home to London. 

Pepys' diary entry about Reading - however brief - is exciting. It gives us an intimate glimpse into Stuart life, the disorganised and untalented musicians calling out wrong names and Pepys and his wife just lying there, ignoring them, probably rolling their eyes. He describes the town through its river networks, which were historically so important. He seems genuinely impressed with his visit (up until the musicians at his inn!) and we can pin-point him to a standing-spot in time with his mention of The Broad Face inn. His scrawled diary entry is short, but it's significant in the clues it gives to the seventeenth century town. 

Victoria County History, Borough of Reading

You might also like: Where Was Reading's Lost Castle? , a review of the book A History of Death in Seventeenth Century England or this post about the women accused of Witchcraft in Reading. 

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