Library find casts a new light on Sam Pepys's lost love
- Library find casts a new light on Sam Pepys's lost love
By Ben Fenton
One of the enduring secrets of the life of Samuel Pepys - what became
of his 17-year-old inamorata Deb Willet after Mrs Pepys flung her out
of the family home - has been solved by documents found in the
Bodleian Library in Oxford.
Pepys, whose nine-year diary provides an incomparable insight into
life in late 17th-century England, took an instant shine to Deb, who
was half his age, when she arrived to be a "waiting gentlewoman" to
his wife Elizabeth. And she, the niece of a well-to-do Bristol
merchant, returned his affection.
Samuel Pepys was caught by his wife
One fateful day in Oct 1668, Elizabeth "coming up suddenly, did find
me imbracing the girl [with] my hand [under] her [petti-]coats; and
endeed I was with my [hand] in her. I was at a wonderful loss upon it
and the girl also..."
This was not the last time the couple were found in flagrante delicto,
although Deb never did bestow the "final favours" on her 35-year-old
lover, according to Dr Kate Loveman of Leicester University, the
academic who has uncovered previously unknown documents relating to
"As far as we can tell, the relationship was not consummated, although
Pepys did have several other mistresses," said Dr Loveman, who did her
research in the Bodleian while a researcher at St Anne's College, Oxford.
Elizabeth Pepys, however, was not one to admit defeat.
On Nov 18, 1668, Deb and Pepys were canoodling in a coach and Mrs P
got wind of the continued affair.
"The next day, Pepys describes how she threatened to 'slit Deb's nose'
and she certainly threatened her husband with a pair of hot tongs, "
said Dr Loveman.
Deb was thrown out of the house and although Pepys continued to track
her around various addresses in London, apparently still in love with
her, by the time he ends his diary in May 1669, he says his "amours
with Deb are past".
"In fact, he cites that as one of the reasons why he is no longer
going to keep the diary, because his life isn't interesting enough to
write about any more."
Until now, that is all that historians have known about Deb, but Dr
Loveman discovered letters between Pepys and a parson named Jeremiah
When tracing his life as part of a project to enter the names of the
great diarist's contacts on a database, she discovered that Wells had
married one Deb Willet in Chelmsford in January 1670, and 10 months
later they had a daughter.
Further research confirmed that this was the same woman who had won
Pepys's heart and that he, in his position of Clerk of the Acts for
the Royal Navy, had helped her new husband find a job as a ship's
chaplain, Dr Loveman has written in the current issue of the
"Pepys seems to have got him a place on a ship called the Dover, and
later he moved to the larger Resolution. He was undoubtedly on board
that ship when she lost 120 dead out of her crew of 400 at the Battle
of Sole Bay in June 1672, which must have been a traumatic place for a
chaplain to be.
"Pepys's actions in finding work for Jeremiah Wells might have been
done out of benevolence, but it can be read in such a way as to
suggest that he did have other motives.
"And we certainly know that he did the same thing for the husbands of
two of his other mistresses."
The story has a tragic ending, for Deb died aged 27 in March 1678 and
her husband the following year, at just 31. There is no record of what
happened to their daughter.
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