Mrs Elizabeth Bagwell
One of the great jewels of English literature is the diary of Samuel Pepys. His ability to transport us back into the seventeenth century is in no small part due to his utter frankness in exposing himself and all those around him, no matter how embarrassing a situation may have been. Perhaps the act, for which he should be most embarrassed, indeed ashamed, is his affair with Mrs Bagwell during which she grants him access to herself for the career advancement of her husband, the shipwright William Bagwell of Deptford Dockyard. Their affair has been commented on by many authors over the years, including this one, in his book Restoration Warship published in 2009. Authors and their readers have long lamented Pepys’ reticence in giving her Christian name but after studying the vast quantity of surviving papers relating to the dockyard an Anne Bagwell was revealed which seemed to me to be William’s wife. I was mistaken but nevertheless have always maintained a keen interest in the subject.
Recently my interest was renewed when the seventeenth century naval historian, Dr Peter LeFevre, pointed out how much more accessible the Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills have become since they were transferred in the early 1970s from Somerset House to the Public Record Office (now the National Archives) especially since they have been digitised and can now be browsed on line through the TNA website or through the Ancestry website. William Bagwell’s, made out in 1697 is to be found in the National Archive Prob11/443/275 and cannot be mistaken as it mentions correctly that he was Master Shipwright at Portsmouth Dockyard. In it he states “That Elizabeth well beloved wife shall have hold and enjoy the use and profits of all my goods, chattels and estate” and she was his sole executrix. One good reason why Pepys never used her Christian name in the diary was to avoid confusion and attract attention to his wife, also called Elizabeth. Three years ago I found a copy of Pepys’s fingerprint which was published in the Pepys Club Newsletter and am now very happy to be able to name the woman who was touched so intimately by it.
Samuel Pepys’s Fingerprint
On 5th March 1674 the Navy Board received a letter from Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Admiralty Commission, a position he had held for only eight months since his promotion from the Navy Board as Clerk of the Acts. The letter itself is not remarkable, being a request at the suggestion of Captain Killegrew to appoint one Benjamin Holmes as Master of Killegrew’s ship, the Swan. What is interesting is the signature, for it appears to contain the partial patent index fingerprint from Pepys’s right hand. It seems when forming the lower curved section of the capital ‘P’ his pen flicked a quantity of ink to the left, part of which landed on his finger. Then, as he finished writing, his wet finger left the impression on the paper. Also noticeable are the tiny reflective particles added to the ink for decoration.
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