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John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys, Friends

Alec Samuels

John Evelyn, diarist and friend of Samuel Pepys, was born 31 October 1620 at Wotton in Surrey, being thus some 13 years the older man. 1637 he was admitted to the Middle Temple and the same year proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford. A royalist, he spent most of the Civil War abroad on the continent, in Paris, Leiden, Padua and elsewhere; and married in 1647 the daughter of the English representative in Paris. 1647 he returned to England and settled at Sayes Court Deptford, inherited from his father. Here he developed a consuming lifelong interest in botany, horticulture, gardening, bees and garden design, especially landscape gardening involving trees. 1664 he published Sylva, a pioneer study on trees. Trees, timber and wood were of great importance for the building of ships and houses and iron smelting and charcoal burning. Evelyn was one of the first to recognise that the nation could not just fell all the trees without developing a replanting or reforestation regime.
Evelyn was a polymath, scholar, and connoisseur, typical of the intellectuals in the Restoration period, and was a founder member of the Royal Society 1661. Maths, science, anatomy, chemistry, physics, technology, architecture, philosophy, law, politics, poetry, art, numismatics, all attracted his interest; also religion and theology. His motto was Omnia explorate: meliora retinete (Explore everything, keep the better). Throughout his lifetime he produced a prodigious number of publications, including many translations from the French and Spanish.
Evelyn was much involved in public work: Commissioner for the sick and wounded in the Dutch wars; involvement in the Chelsea Hospital project; Commissioner for foreign plantations; Commissioner of the Privy Seal; Commissioner for Greenwich Hospital; Commissioner for Sewers, and indeed his work Fumifugium is the first work on pollution.
Following the Great Fire of London in 1666 Evelyn came up with ideas for planning and rebuilding London, and St Pauls, which in the event came to nothing.
Many of the leading men of the time were friends, Pepys, Boyle, Wren, Dampier, Clarendon, Fox, Godolphin, Gibbons, Hooke, Locke.
Evelyn intended to write a history of the Royal Navy including the Dutch wars but it was never done. He did make sketches of the Dutch ships in the Medway. The material was passed to Pepys, but in vain.
The written estate, mentioned in Domesday Book, was acquired by Evelyn’s grandfather in the time of Elizabeth I and inherited by Evelyn late in life in the 1690s. The grandfather made his fortune in the manufacturer of gunpowder under a royal monopoly. The original manor house is late C15 early C16, still in existence, but now largely concealed by a Victorian gothic “makeover” in the 1870s. The estate still belongs to the Evelyn family, the National Trust owning a lot of the surrounding countryside. An up-market conference company now leases the property, maintaining house and garden in excellent order. Evelyn wrote of Wotton: The house is large … and so sweetly environ’d those many delicious streams and venerable woods, as in the judgment of strangers as well as Englishmen, it may be compared to one of the most tempting and pleasant seates in the Nation.
Before inheriting Wotton Evelyn lived at Sayes Court, Deptford. Subsequently. Sayes Court was unfortunately sublet to Peter the Great, the Tsar from Muscovy, during his sojourn in England to learn about ships, and the estate was ruined by the barbaric Russians. During his lifetime he was involved in a number of legal cases over property.
Evelyn died 27 February 1706, aged 85. He is buried in Wotton Church.