Sympson the Joiner
Sympson the Joiner (fl. 1660s) was a joiner (and perhaps cabinet maker) who worked at the Royal Naval Dockyard at Woolwich in London. He is remembered only because Samuel Pepys mentions his name several times in his diary.
Pepys' job as a naval administrator brought him into daily contact with the naval dockyards and he was responsible for various aspects of their administration. Although the diary explicitly notes that Pepys was paying him handsomely, it is probable that Sympson was working for Pepys instead of working on the interiors of warships.
In the 17th century, a "joiner" built furniture out of frame-and-panel construction, a refined version of the techniques that were also used to frame up doors and for the panelling of rooms, while a "cabinet-maker" built furniture with flush surfaces suitable for veneers or marquetry, assembled using dovetails. The two trades were quite distinct, and for the fitting out of Royal Navy ships the services of a joiner would have been much more appropriate.
Pepys' diary records that he used Sympson's services on several occasions to work on improvements for his office and his home in Seething Lane, London. For example on 14 August 1668 he wrote: "At home I find Sympson putting up my new chimney-piece in our great chamber which is very fine, but will cost a great deal of money, but it is not flung away".
Of especial interest is the fact that Pepys had Sympson build bookcases for his growing library of official papers and personal manuscripts and printed books. It is probable that these cases are the same ones that have been preserved in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College in accordance with the stipulations of Pepys's will.
Pepys wrote on 17 August 1667
- So took up my wife and home, there I to the office, and thence with Sympson, the joyner home to put together the press he hath brought me for my books this day, which pleases me exceedingly.
and a few days later
- and then comes Sympson to set up my other new presses for my books, and so he and I fell into the furnishing of my new closett ... so I think it will be as noble a closett as any man hath.
The surviving bookcases have paired glazed doors each in 21 small panes, over a low section, also with glazed panes, made to hold large folio volumes. The doors of the lower section slide to the side like a sash window, probably Pepys' own invention. The base moldings and cornices are finely and robustly carved with acanthus leaf. Such tall bookcases with doors glazed like paned windows, were a contemporary innovation, but Pepys was alert and curious and well-connected in London, and there is no reason to think his "book-presses" were the very first with glass-paned doors.
Pepys began with three or four and kept adding to them until he had twelve.