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Walking With Pepys at Moorfields, London

Samuel Pepys did not like to stand still. He was an active participant in city life, in work and in leisure. Among his outings, he records more than twenty trips to Moorfields, a public open space to the north of the City.

For many years, Moorfields was unique in London as a protected area for public recreation. Various attempts had been made to drain its swampy marshland, eventually successful, and in 1415, Moorgate broke through the wall providing convenient access for London’s cooped up citizens. The fields were not owned by the City, and moves by landowners to cultivate and build there were systematically thwarted by violent protest, acts of parliament and royal intervention. In 1605, much of the park was bequeathed to the City, and the following year the plots were formally landscaped in three sections of different character: Upper, Middle and Lower Moorfields.

Pepys’ forays into Moorfields were driven by a variety of whims. He was often found there in conversation with Sir William Penn, his friend and colleague at the Navy Board. He was always appreciative of good weather, and his fellow walkers – commenting on those that he came across: ‘young Davis and Whitton, two of our clerks, going by us in the field – who we observe to take much pleasure together’. In the evening, he watched bouts of wrestling, followed by a visit to one of the many alehouses that surrounded the park. An attempt to build a theatre at Moorfields was prevented, but Pepys found enjoyment in puppet shows, particularly Polichinelle, an ancestor of Punch and Judy, which he appreciated so much that he saw it two weeks in succession. It was the venue for Pepys’ solicitous, and ultimately fruitful attempts to seduce Mrs Bagwell, the wife of a carpenter of his acquaintance. These ambitions were in character with the surrounds as Moorfields provided the backdrop to a number of notorious brothels – Pepys refers to them in his comments on the violent apprentice riots of the spring of 1668: ‘great talk of the turmolt at the other end of town about Moore-fields among the prentices, taking the liberty of these holidays to pull down bawdy houses’.

When the plague was rife in London in 1665, the tone of the park changed, as parts became impromptu sites for mass graves. Pepys takes a morbid detour on one occasion to check whether any such burials were taking place. After the Great Fire, Moorfields, by default, provided the location for the temporary encampment of displaced citizens,‘poor wretches carrying their goods there’. By April 1667, the City had leased part of Moorfields for seven years to build a commercial street, to be used whilst the City was being rebuilt. Pepys visits to see for himself, finding that, ‘the street is already paved as London streets used to be – which is a strange, and to me an unpleasing sight’.

The New Bethlem Hospital was built over this stop-gap street in 1675, though Moorfields was to hold out as a place of open recreation for another century. Finsbury Square, and its surrounding streets were built over Upper and Middle Moorfields in 1777, and the Lower fields were replaced by Finsbury Circus in 1812. Today, a neat bowling green presides in the centre of the Circus, as a gentle reminder of its prior state.

The history of Moorfields is an eloquent opening line in the story of modern city parks. Its status emerged from the love-hate relationship that Londoners have with the concept of the city, providing a psychological precedent for the emergence of the public parks, open squares and community gardens that soften London. There is no need to decant to the Garden City, as an acceptable version already exists within – not planned, but accumulated as a natural expression of London’s own narrative and strong will.

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