An Eighteenth Century American Polymath in London : Benjamin Franklin

On Friday I joined my sister for a weekend break in London. Right now London is riding on the crest of the Olympic Games wave and there’s evidence everywhere that the Games have just taken place and the Paralympics are due to begin in about ten days’ time. We checked in at our bargain priced four star hotel in the City early on Friday and shared ideas on where to go and what to do. My first suggestion, taken from Quiet London by Siobhan Wall, was to call and make a booking to visit Benjamin Franklin House.

We’d both come across Franklin in a vague sort of way on our various trips to Boston and New England but we really knew nothing much about him. Our visit to 36, Craven Street right next door to Charing Cross Station was to change all that.

Craven Street, WC2

Here’s a brief resumé of his career in England taken from the Benjamin Franklin House website.

“While lodging at 36 Craven Street, Franklin’s main occupation was mediating unrest between Britain and America, but he also served as Deputy Postmaster for the Colonies; pursued his love of science (exploring bifocal spectacles, the energy-saving Franklin stove); explored health (inoculation, air baths, cures for the common cold); music (inventing the delightful glass armonica for which Mozart, Bach and Beethoven composed) and letters (articles, epitaphs, and his witty Craven Street Gazette), all while forging a hearty social life and close friendships with leading figures of the day.”

Franklin lived at 36 Craven Street between 1757 and 1775

Benjamin Franklin House, 36, Craven Street, London, WC2

The Historical Experience brings to life the years that Franklin spent in London lodging in this house with Mrs Margaret Stephenson and her daughter Polly, later to be joined by Polly’s husband William Hewson (in 1770) who ran an anatomy school on the premises. The Historical Experience is based on Franklin’s last day at the house (20 March 1775) and we followed the actress as Polly around the house from room to room as the drama unfolded with use of lighting, sound and visual projection.

The house itself held great interest for us. It was so very like 13, Princelet Street in Spitalfields where we stayed last January. Both houses were built in the first half of the eighteenth century and have a very similar design and  layout and have managed to survive with surprisingly many of their original fixtures and fittings in place.

The Hall, Benjamin Franklin House

The rear of Benjamin Franklin House

The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House rescued the house from its dire condition at the end of the last century and after a great deal of hard work the Grade 1 listed Georgian building was opened to the public on 17 January 2006 which was 300 years to the day since the birth of Benjamin Franklin. Miraculously it is the only surviving house on the street. From the front this is not at all obvious but at the back the neighbouring houses are all of new brick.

“A house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body.”


11 comments on “An Eighteenth Century American Polymath in London : Benjamin Franklin

  1. ms6282 says:

    I have to admit to not knowing much about the American Revolution and it’s leaders so was surprised that Franklin spent so much time in London. 18 years at this address and I wonder whether he lived elsewhere in Britain. In those days you couldn’t exactly nip back and forth between Britain and America so he must have spent a significant portion of his adult life over here.

    • Hi, I admitted here that I knew very little about Benjamin Franklin other than his name and the fact that he’s American. He went home once during his stay in the UK if I remember correctly. His wife would not travel over here and so his family waited patiently in Philadelphia. A while after returning to the States he returned to Europe and lived for some time in Paris! Amazing what he fitted into his lifetime. Certainly puts me to shame.

  2. […] visit to Benjamin Franklin House (QL p. 23) on Friday was such a success for us both that we decided to devote the rest of the […]

  3. Nilly says:

    My heart stopped when I saw this post! Many many years ago I ran away to London with my true love and we stayed next door to Benjamin Franklin’s house. I think someone had told us there were guest houses in Craven street, though ours turned out to be a very modest B&B occupied by homeless families, just a few young tourists & us. Franklin’s house was not open to visitors at that time of course, though we did notice the blue plaque.

    • Well remembered, Nilly. I mean the blue plaque when so much other excitement was going on in your life! I think the final inhabitants of Franklin’s House before it came into the ownership of the Trust were squatters. It’s now a street of very fine houses although no. 36 is the only original one remaining from the front it is hard to tell. Thanks again for adding your memories to the comments here.

      • Nilly says:

        The house we stayed in was run-down, but clean and quite unaltered – the front hallway was just like that in the Franklin house and the only bathroom available to us was a corrugated iron shack attached to the back of the house. I’m 99.9% sure that the plaque was blue then – I see that there is a grander one now. Not even love could dull my appetite for history!

  4. I have a picture taken in the basement of the old, original ‘blue plaque’ that hung on the wall outside but I can’t seem to be able to add here. It will be in my Flickr list to right shortly then you can see if you recognise it!

  5. […] more and more about this remarkable woman throughout the afternoon I began to think that here was another American polymath about whom I knew only the merest facts and of whose literary output I have read […]

  6. […] – it would have been almost impossible to stick to it all the time – still the kind of success he achieved as a polymath –  is hard to come by […]

  7. sajida says:

    i have learnt a lot about Benjamin Franklin which i didn’t know about before. I am 8 years old and am doing a topic about Benjamin Franklin that i didn’t know about before. Next week,my mum and dad is going to take me to where Benjamin Franklin live.Cant wait.

    • Thank you for getting in touch, Sajida. I hope you liked reading about Benjamin Franklin here. If it is the same house that you are visiting with mum and dad I am sure you will all enjoy it.

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