John Pepys goes to Cambridge

To mark the beginning of the academic year, Ellie Swire tracks the university career of John Pepys – younger brother of Samuel Pepys – from his arrival as a new student at Cambridge in 1660.


Samuel Pepys wasn’t the only member of his family to have been an undergraduate student at Cambridge. In 1660, his younger brother, John, came up from London to study at Christ’s College, under the tutelage of Ralph Widdrington.[1]

As an older brother, Pepys evidently felt some responsibility for John’s welfare and his diary entries in the weeks leading up to John’s departure suggest that he was active in the decision to send his brother to Cambridge and in preparing him for university life more generally. On the 19th February, Pepys records in his diary a visit to his father’s house, where he spent “all supper talking of Johns going to Cambrige [sic]”, and the following evening, after dinner, “ took him [i.e. John] to my study at home and at my Lord’s, and gave him some books and other things against his going to Cambrige”.[2]

As the date for John’s departure neared, preparations in the household intensified. On the evening of the 22nd February, Pepys writes, perhaps not a little disappointedly, of there being “nothing but a small dish of powdered beef and a dish of carrots” for supper at his father’s house, since they were “all busy to get things ready for my Brother John to go tomorrow”.[3] The family party set off the next day, Pepys having decided to travel separately with his wife, Elizabeth. By the 25th February, however, they had come:

[…] to Cambrige by 8 a-clock in the morning, to the Faulcon in the Petty Cury. Where we found my father and brother very well. After dressing myself, about 10 a-clock, my father, brother and I to Mr. Widdrington at Christ’s College, who received us very civilly and caused my brother to be admitted, while my father, he and I sat talking.[4]

John Pepys was first admitted to Christ’s as a sizar – a term used to describe poorer students who were eligible for subsidised tuition fees and living costs in return for carrying out menial domestic chores. He would be later awarded a scholarship, but when he started out in February 1660, money was still in short supply. Before he left Cambridge to return to London, Pepys gave John 10s in a touching act of kindness which, like the subsequent gifts of books and money Pepys made to his younger brother, suggests a conscious and well-meaning effort to help John where possible.

Relations were not always as harmonious. Pepys made a determined effort to call in on John whenever he happened to be passing through Cambridge, and while the brothers enjoyed talking together in John’s chambers and trips to the local inn for a dish of herrings, not all of his visits were as successful as Pepys might have hoped. On the 15th July 1661, for example, Pepys reports, with some exasperation, that he was “Up by 3 a-clock this morning and rode to Cambrige [from Brampton], and was there by 7 a-clock. Where after I was trimmed, I went to Christ College and find my brother John at 8 a-clock in bed, which vexed me”.[5] It is easy to imagine and relate to how irritating it must have been for Pepys, after travelling a long way, to find his sibling still asleep under the covers!

If stern words were exchanged, it would not, as it turned out, be the only instance. Pepys felt a certain duty to keep John focused on his academic studies and was concerned about his proclivity for idleness. “I am troubled,” Pepys writes in his entry for the 29th August 1663, “to see how, contrary to my expectation, my brother neither is the scholar nor minds his studies as I thought he would have done – but loiters away his time”.[6]

A sharper exchange followed several weeks later, on the 23rd September:

So by water home and to my office; whither by and by came my Brother John to me, who is to go to Cambrige tomorrow, and I did give him a most Severe repremende for his bad account he gives me of his studies. This I did with great passion and sharp words, which I was sorry to be forced to say, but that I think it for his good; forswearing doing anything for him, and that what I have yet and now do give him is against my heart and will also be hereafter, till I do see him give me a better account of his studies. I was sorry to see him give me no answer.[7]

One hopes that John was duly chastened by this encounter – he certainly worked hard enough to graduate from university and subsequently took up Holy Orders. Later, with the help of his older brother, he was appointed Clerk to Trinity House and later Joint-Clerk to the Navy Board. Yet when he died, unmarried, in 1677 at the age of thirty-six, it was Pepys who paid off John’s outstanding debts.

By Ellie Swire

Libraries Assistant and Invigilator

[1] Like Pepys, John was admitted to Magdalene College in June 1659, but quickly transferred to Christ’s without ever having formally taken up residence at Magdalene.

[2] Latham, R.C. & Matthews, W. (eds.) The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A new and complete transcription, vols.1-10. London: 1970-1983. 1.60-61.

[3] Ibid. 1.64.

[4] Ibid. 1.66.

[5] Ibid. 2.135.

[6] Ibid. 4.291.

[7] Ibid. 4.316.


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