Benjamin Franklin is one of the great figures in world history. Politician, philosopher, publisher, journalist, scientist, inventor. He epitomised the virtues of the Enlightenment man. Founding father of the United States, he was lionised in his own time and ever since. Yet at the height of his powers, for the best part of 16 years, he was content to live as a lodger in a modest suite of rooms in a terraced house in Craven Street near Charing Cross. Today the Benjamin Franklin House is a living museum and education centre.
This Grade I-listed building is the only surviving home of Franklin anywhere in the world. It is owned and run by the Benjamin Franklin House Trust who reopened it in 2006, the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s birth. It was built in about 1730, at the time an unremarkable terraced town house of the type which had proliferated around the capital since the Fire. When Franklin arrived in London in 1757 it was leased by Mrs Margaret Stevenson, who lived in the house with her daughter Polly.
The Stevensons soon became a second family to Franklin, whose wife Deborah was unable to accompany him to England through her chronic fear of sea travel. On arrival, he cannot have guessed the ultimate length of his stay. His mission was to represent to Parliament the interests of the Congress of Pennsylvania, who were in dispute with the Penn family over taxation. He succeeded in this, but subsequently was also engaged as agent on behalf of the colonies of Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. He intervened on behalf of the colonies over the hated Stamp Act 1765, being instrumental in its repeal.
But try as he might, Franklin was powerless to prevent the decline in relations between the American colonies and the Crown. Polemics such as Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One fell on deaf ears. His position was to urge the colonies to present a united front in airing their grievances, while cajoling the Crown – with little success – to curb its expoitation of the colonies without consent. By 1775, the situation had deteriorated beyond the point of no return. Franklin’s place in London was by now untenable. He returned home to make some more history.
Aside from his ambassadorial duties, Franklin kept busy by hob-nobbing with the leading radicals and scientists of the day. At Craven Street he entertained a constant stream of visitors including William Pitt the Elder. He travelled around England and visited Ireland and France. His circle included radicals like Joseph Priestley, engineering pioneers Matthew Boulton and James Watt. He beavered away in his rooms, perfecting his inventions such as the lightning conductor and making new ones, not always successful: his phonetic alphabet and a musical instrument called the glass armonica. He continued his work on the Gulf Stream, a boon for mariners for years to come. He promoted healthy living: fresh air, diet, innoculation.
The story of Franklin’s stay at Craven Street has a macabre footnote. In 1770 Polly Stevenson married an eminent surgeon called William Hewson. Hewson opened an anatomy school in the house. During restoration of the building in 1998, workers discovered the bones of 10 individuals buried in what was the rear courtyard of the house in Franklin’s time. Forensic analysis of the bones both dated them to the period and identified signs of anatomical dissection. A selection of them is on display in the basement of the house.
While the fabric of the house, inside and out, is almost totally original, it remains unfurnished. This is a deliberate policy of the Trust. Since nothing is known of the original decor, it was deemed preferable not to deck the place out based on period guesswork, however well-informed that might be. The added advantage of this is that as a visitor you can wander around the building completely unhindered.
The Benjamin Franklin House is open every day except Tuesdays. You can take the guided architectural tour on Mondays for £3.50. Otherwise, the house runs the Historical Experience tour Wednesdays to Sundays for £7.00. London Historians members get a £2 discount for this. More information here.