Monday 30 June 2014

Benjamin Franklin's London House ...

I've been meaning to visit the great man's house for a while now, and when I finished his autobiography recently I resolved that it ought to be sooner rather than later, now rather than never.

And here it is, the only surviving residence, anywhere in the world, of Benjamin Franklin:

You can find it at 36 Craven Street, London, WC2N 5NF, although, back in Franklin's day, this street, which runs from the Strand down towards the Embankment, was known as Spur Alley. As you can see it's very close to the river. Franklin was keen on physical exercise, and is known to have gone swimming in the Thames, which must have been a malodorous experience given that it was full of London's sewage.

Benjamin Franklin's House
Map showing location of Dr Franklin's house at 36 Craven Street, London, WC2N 5NF

This is how the street where he lived looks today:

His old house is a solid, functional town house. I wasn't surprised that it was modest and comfortable, rather than being flashy and brash. Franklin lived here from 1757 to 1775. He rented the first floor of the house for himself, and another attic-level floor for his two servants. His landlady was a widow called Margaret Stevenson. The picture below is of his parlour, which is easily the brightest and most attractive room in the house.

Mrs Stevenson lived on the ground floor and her son-in-law, William Hewson, ran an anatomy school from what was in essence a shed down at the bottom of their garden. It must have been a busy, boisterous, colourful household, and for Franklin, so far removed from his own family, it soon became his sanctuary. I mean let's just put this in its historical context: he wasn't always terribly popular with the English throughout his time in London. There was the little matter of the colonists wanting their independence, which didn't exactly go down well with the grand folk over in Westminster. However, having come home and firmly closed his front door on the hurly-burly of London politics he relaxed and enjoyed the cosy domesticity of Mrs Stevenson's home.

Franklin's front door - from inside
The photograph below is of Mrs Stevenson's best parlour on the ground floor of the house, where she received her guests.

She also had a little antechamber, where she and her daughter, Polly, would have played cards, done their sewing and entertained their more intimate associates. In my mind's eye I can easily see Dr Franklin in there, sitting large amongst the diminutive ladies, entertaining them with his wit, and endearing himself to everyone with his straightforward, kindly ways.

And this is the staircase (photographed from Dr Franklin's room) that everyone would have climbed up and down to reach his rooms.

Everyone appears to have got on rather splendidly in the little household. Dr Franklin was adopted as part of the Stevenson family unit, and he, in turn, referred to them when writing to the folks back home as his English family.

In 1998 the Friends of Benjamin Franklin Society, set about restoring the house to how it would have looked back in Dr. Franklin's day. They painstakingly chipped away no fewer than 26 layers of paint to reveal the original colours in which they believe it was decorated when he lived there. The exact grey/green colour has since been named Benjamin Franklin green.

This is the original plaque that was exhibited on the outside wall of the house to announce that it was the one-time home of Benjamin Franklin. Previously these terracotta plaques were used throughout London on heritage properties where someone famous had lived. Today English Heritage use blue enamel plaques for this purpose. This old plaque is displayed in the basement. 

 In the course of this conservation work they unearthed a pit in the garden containing human remains. In all they found over 1,200 human bones. Everyone paused and wondered whether they had stumbled upon the forgotten lair of some previously unknown serial killer. The story hit the headlines, and the coroner was called in. But after a few forensic tests it was established that the bones were more than 100 years' old, which meant that there didn't need to be a formal, legal inquest. Closer examination established that they came from about 15 different individuals and revealed dissection marks consistent with Hewson's surgical instruments. There were also free-flowing globules of mercury and the vertebrae of a turtle, apparently tossed into the pit after an experiment that Hewson was known to have carried out at the Royal Society showing the flow of mercury through the body of the turtle, which demonstrated its lymphatic system. A few of his discarded microscopic slides were also unearthed. Some of these remains are on view in the basement of the house, along with some surgical tools of the day and a pair of the bifocal glasses of the type that Franklin invented.

Rear elevation of the Franklin house
There is nothing to suggest that Franklin was involved in any of the dissections that were carried out; indeed it would be strange if he had been given that his scientific interests lay elsewhere. However he did use his contacts to help get Hewson admitted to the Royal Society.

The study of anatomy through dissection was a popular interest at that time, but there was a shortage of cadavers to be had legally. It is highly probable that Hewson would have engaged the Resurrectionists, the body-snatchers who raided cemeteries for the bodies of the newly-dead and then shipped their grisly wares down the Thames under cover of darkness to sell to the city's doctors.

It was a dangerous business for any number of reasons, as poor Hewson found out to his cost when he caught septicaemia during a dissection in 1774. He died at the age of just 34 leaving his young wife, Polly, with two children and a third one on the way. Franklin wrote home of his grief at Hewson's death, and Polly became something of an adopted daughter, following him back to the US to make a life there for herself and her children with their great friend and former lodger.

If you'd like to visit the house you can find the website here: Franklin House. Its opening as a museum in 2006 on the tercentenary of Franklin's birth seems to me to have been a fitting testament to the enduring friendship that developed between Britain and the US after the War of Independence. This house was, in essence, America's first de-facto foreign embassy, and it was also the first site outside of the US to gain Save America's Treasures designation. If he were around today, I think Dr Franklin would still recognise his old lodgings and would be happy to see how he's remembered there.

All the best,

Bonny x

Friday 27 June 2014

Death and the Victorians ...

This week I've been researching a character that I'm trying to create. For now her name is Phillice Anne Swift, but she's known to all and sundry as Philly Swift. Her mother had hoped that folk would use her full name; she reckoned Phillice sounded like a right proper lady's name. However, as is so often the case in life, things didn't quite work out according to plan. By the common consensus of their neighbours, none of whom could be bothered to add that precious extra syllable, Phillice was forever destined to be plain Philly Swift.

Now the point in time at which I am making Philly's acquaintance is in the late summer of 1888. She's a girl of sixteen, living in Chiswick, a middling sized village to the west of London, where her father works as a grave digger in Saint Nicholas' Churchyard on the banks of the Thames.

Philly's given up on school and spends her days helping her mother, who takes in laundry and earns a crust laying out the dead for them that are too grand or too clueless to see to their own when they pass. From time to time they travel into the less salubrious parts of the metropolis to work as street hawkers, selling a foul-smelling unguent of Mrs Swift's own invention, which she swears will cure the clap.

Now all of this has set the scene for a look at how people treated death way back in 1888. For them it was very much a part of life, and was far from being the taboo subject that it is today. The average life expectancy of a city labourer was only 38, and that of a well-heeled member of the middle class in a more convivial, rural setting was still only a relatively youthful 52. Infant mortality in the first year of life ran at 153 deaths per thousand live births. So, whilst Philly has done well to have survived to the age of 16, her chances of living into her 40s are not that great.

Back in Philly's day  one of the many worries that haunted humble folk was the prospect that they might suffer the indignity of a pauper's funeral.

Rattle his bones over the stones;
He’s only a pauper, whom nobody owns

So burial clubs were set up to enable the poor to pay a few pennies each month to defray the cost of their funerals when they passed. Charles Booth, the famous philanthropist, recounted the story of a girl who was a member of one such burial club in east London:

Her friends in the club, who were told that there was no hope of her recovery, joined together before her death to buy a wreath for her coffin; they were exceedingly anxious that she should live long enough to see it ... and by permission of the doctor, they went with it in a body to her room. She was immensely pleased and touched.

Can you imagine turning up at the bedside of an ill friend with a funeral wreath today? My guess is that you'd come out wearing it if their nearest and dearest caught up with you.

Then they worried that the Resurrectionists might seize their remains and take them off for the doctors to practice dissection on. So elaborate precautions were taken to protect the graves of the dead from the body snatchers. Heavy slabs of marble were wedged into place. Railings with pointed ends, on which a grave robber might impale himself, were erected like the outer curtain walls around a medieval castle under siege. 

And, as with everything, there was endemic corruption with the grieving relatives falling prey to unscrupulous undertakers. Dickens in From the Raven in the Happy Family satirises the way in which the concern to keep up appearances led to bereaved families being duped into shelling out way more than they could afford. 

Hearse and four, Sir? says he. 

No, a pair will be sufficient.

I beg your pardon, Sir, but when we buried Mr Grundy at number twenty, there was four on 'em, Sir; I think it right to mention it.

Well, perhaps there had better be four.

Thank you, Sir. Two coaches and Four, Sir shall we say?

No, coaches and pair.

You'll excuse me mentioning it, Sir, but pairs to the coaches, and four to the hearse, would have a singular appearance to the neighbours ... 

The whole business grew so out of hand that sections on funerals and bereavement were added to household encyclopaedias, which were fast growing in popularity.  Cassell's Household Guide (published in 1869) had an extensive section offering advice on the going rate for plots in the new metropolitan cemeteries and for all the funeral accoutrements as well as guidance as to what would be appropriate for each level of person. 

You can access an on-line version of Cassell's work here Cassell's Household Guide. It provides a fascinating window into so many aspects of domestic life in the second half of the nineteenth century. It offers advice on everything from first aid to legal matters, from accepted practice on bereavement to dressmaking, and from child birth (or confinement as they liked to call it) to recipes for the kitchen. 

 Cassell goes into an impressively detailed account on the likely price of everything and the degree to which the various mourning customs ought properly to be observed. The curtains were to be drawn in the deceased's house and only raised again once the coffin had been taken out to the funeral. It was advisable for the remains to be carried out feet first in case the spirit of the deceased might attempt to reach back for consolation from the living. There was a general fear that, left to their own devices, the dead might linger on with a view to persuading the living to join them. The mirrors were to be turned to face the walls, and all the clocks in the house were to be stopped at the exact time of death.

It was all part of an elaborate social ritual in which many of the people involved seemed to have relished the pomp and spectacle of a good send off.  Maybe, at the moment of crisis, it was therapeutic to observe each small detail of established mourning practice, and in being encouraged to display grief publicly.

Whatever the way of it I'm finding Philly's world in 1888 both compelling and just a little bit overwhelming at times.

All the best,

Bonny x

Wednesday 25 June 2014

St Paul's to Trafalgar Square: the best walk in London

How'd you like to go on the very best walk in London? Well here it is, the big daddy of all the London walks. This is the wander that I take all my overseas visitors on. For anyone who comes to stay with me this one is a must-do, obligatory excursion on which I come along and enthuse about the many and wonderful things that can be seen along the way. I will never be English, but you can safely bet your last dollar that I'll always be a Londoner.

This walk ticks a lot of the big-name boxes: St. Paul's Cathedral, the Millennium Bridge, the Globe Theatre, the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Downing Street, Whitehall, Horse-guards Parade, Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. It's a kaleidoscope of the very best that London has to offer.

Here's a quick map of where we go:

Key: A- St. Paul's Cathedral, B- Millennium Bridge, C-Tate Modern Art Gallery, D- Globe Theatre, E- Oxo Tower, F- London Beach, G- Gabriel's Wharf, H-Hayward Gallery, I-London Eye, J-Aquarium, K-London Dungeon, L- Westminster Bridge, M- Big Ben, N- Houses of Parliament/ Palace of Westminster, O- Westminster Abbey, P-Supreme Court, Q- Downing Street, R- Horse Guards Parade, S- Banqueting House, T-Nelson's Column, U-National Gallery

And where better to start than St. Paul's Cathedral? We usually grab a fortifying cappuccino and linger for a moment or two in St. Paul's Churchyard. It's a busy thoroughfare these days, but then I guess it's always been a tad on the busy side in this neck of the woods.  In the old days the area was packed full of the coffee houses from which the whole banking sector of today has grown, and I imagine there was a lot of hustle and bustle in the alleyways and byways around the old cathedral.

St. Paul's Cathedral

Yes, I should mention that this is our new cathedral. The original one was burnt down in the Great Fire of London way back in 1666, and what we have today is the replacement built by Sir Christopher Wren. It  rose like a phoenix from the ashes to become a symbol of the city's hopes and aspirations for a better, fire-proof future. London must have been an amazing place in the decades following the fire as the people set about re-building their city. Just imagine the noise and activity as everything was re-constructed. There must have been forests of scaffolding with draught horses pulling loads of building materials this way and that, as an army of masons and builders grew rich on the profits.

These days, however, I think the area immediately around the cathedral is way too built up. In my view Wren's masterpiece deserves to be appreciated from a distance. What we need (and hang the expense) is a huge piazza where we can stand back and admire the line and symmetry of this gem. I remember how wonderful it looked when they were working on Paternoster Square and knocked down the (very ugly) buildings that crowded around the cathedral. For a brief period one summer we had the most sublime views of the uninterrupted line of St. Paul's and it looked amazing.

As it happens the one place where you get a really good view back to the Cathedral is from the Millennium Bridge. If you want to take some great photos that's a really good spot to go snapping. I remember going for a trot across the newly constructed bridge just after it had been built and gripping the handrail in horror as it started to sway in the breeze. They closed it after that and fixed it so that it wouldn't wobble and scare away all the lovely tourists, but for some of us it will always be the Wobbly Bridge.

St. Paul's Cathedral

To get to the Millennium Bridge, just follow the signs down the wonderfully named Sermon Lane and cross two busy main roads (Victoria Street and Upper Thames Street) at the traffic lights. On your right as you cross Victoria Street, you'll see the College of Arms, where the really posh people go to register their coats of arms.

College of Arms, London

Be sure and pause once you get onto the Millennium Bridge to cast a glance back at St. Paul's.


Push on a bit further and cast a glance to your left, and you will have a first class view of Tower Bridge, a bridge or two over, in the distance. The very tall pyramid-like structure on the right is the Shard, our tallest building and the strange squashed Tetra Pac building is another office building under construction, which is affectionately known to city workers as the Walkie Talkie, and just behind it (out of frame) is the Cheese Grater. It's nice to see that the spirit of Shakespeare lives on in the creative names that they come up with in these parts!

Trot on a bit further and cast another glance to your left and you will see the reconstructed Globe Theatre. It's not the original joint in which ole Bill Shakespeare actually staged his plays. That bit the dust a very long time ago. No, this is a faithful reconstruction that was built more or less on the site of the original in the 1990s. Never mind the authenticity, it's a really cool building.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

And if you want to go to listen to the works of the Bard you can pop in there for rather less than a king's ransom. They advertise 700 seats every performance for the princely sum of £5 each, which can't be bad to watch professional actors perform in the Great Man's home theatre. Just wrap up against the elements and bring a cushion.

Tate Modern, London

As you reach the south bank of the Thames you will see the hulking grandeur of the Tate Modern in front of you. Once upon a time this was the Bankside Power Station, but these days it's one of my favourite museums in London. I love how huge, accessible and unpretentious it is. I also enjoy how it covers pretty much the entire canon of modern art. Anyone who's drawn, squiggled, splodged or splashed anything significant will have a canvas hanging in there. It's an education to spend a day strolling slowly around learning about their work. I have a feeling that the collection comprises the B-list paintings of the A-list artists. Maybe I'm wrong, but it doesn't really matter to me as I'm there to enjoy the breadth of what's on display. They've also got a great restaurant up on top with superb roof-top views across the city.

Now shall I show you a map of the terrain we've covered to date?  I'm a little bit in love with the newfangled wizardry of Scribble Maps at the moment. It's taken me a day or two (and many muttered expletives) to get my head round how it all hangs together, but I think I'm well on my way. Ok, here it is, my map of how to get across the river:

Key: A- St. Paul's Cathedral, B- College of Arms, C- Globe Theatre, D- Tate Modern

If you can resist the allure of the Tate Modern, swing a right and head on down the pedestrian pathway that hugs the river bank.

Millennium Bridge, London

The Thames is a pretty busy thoroughfare. I'm always amazed by how many craft of all shapes and sizes are bobbing along on the waves.

The Thames, London

The next stop on my itinerary is the Oxo Tower. There's a fabulous fancy restaurant at the top with fantastic views across the river and wonderful food. The Oxo Tower Wharf is a great mixture of interesting little shops, cafés and galleries.
Oxo Tower, London

London Beach is next, just beyond the two wooden jetties that jut out into the water. This may or not be a big splash depending on the time of the year you stroll by. Obviously in the summertime the weather is a bit more favourable for all things beach-related, and they have amazing sandcastle competitions and beach parties down there. The other day we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

London Beach, Thames

Climb back up to the pathway and carry on. Next you'll come to Gabriel's Wharf, which is a good lunch stop. There are loads of little restaurants and bars huddled around the old wharf.

Gabriels Wharf

 Carry on a bit further and you will reach the National Theatre with the cloaked statue of Sir Laurence Olivier outside strutting the boards as Hamlet.

Laurence Olivier

Now you've reached the South Bank Centre, which is one of my favourite bits of London. I'm not a huge fan of the sterile brutalist architecture, but I love, love, love how it's been colonised by the locals who have added colour and given it a flavour very much removed from the austere vision of the original architects. It's also a great space for the arts with the National Theatre and the Hayward Gallery. There are usually a number of free foyer exhibitions, and the whole thing has a brilliant creative vibe, which always energises me.

There are great places to eat if you fancy an impromptu snack and don't have a reservation.

Southbank Centre
And there's a ship load of street art to admire, especially around the skateboarders' park.

Skateboarders' Park, Southbank Centre

Most weekends this place is full of young men showing off their skills on skateboards and bikes. I don't know what they do for their day jobs, but they always amaze me with the stunts they can perform on two or four wheels. Emi, my eight year-old, would happily hang out down there all day pretending that he was one of the cool kids.

Skateboarders' Park, Southbank Centre

And round about now the London Eye should start to loom large on your near horizon.

London Eye

And, as you keep going, you should also be treated to some great views of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament on the other side of the river.

Houses of Parliament and Big Ben

On the way past you'll see the Aquarium and the London Dungeon.

The Aquarium is a great place to while away a wet afternoon. Inside they have an amazing collection of sea creatures, and I'm always blown away by how they've managed to house them in the old County Hall Building. It feels like a purpose-built-aquarium building when you're inside. Now, having said all that, if you've only got a limited amount of time this aquarium isn't radically different from the dozens of other aquariums you'll find in other places so I wouldn't put in on the list of quintessentially London experiences.

And as for the London Dungeon, well ...  I've never been brave enough to go inside ... .

County Hall building and the London Eye

Now the next thing we need to do is shuffle on over Westminster Bridge. And on the way across don't forget to look back and admire the London Eye and the old County Hall Building.

As you come across the bridge, however, it's easy to forget everything else when you come face to face with Big Ben. He's a very splendid old clock, and when he sounds the hour it's just magical.

Big Ben

As you come off the bridge don't forget to nod to Boudica in her chariot. As the Romans found out to their cost, she's not a woman to mess with.


Now we're ready for a jog around Parliament Square. You can stop for a closer look at the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Supreme Court (the highest appellate court in the land) and the statues of the great statesmen to be found dotted around the square.

Parliament Square
Starting top left hand corner and proceeding clockwise: Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, St. Margaret's Church with Westminster Abbey on its right and (bottom left) the Supreme Court

Amongst others you should watch out for Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela. They all hang out and shoot the breeze on Parliament Green these days.

Parliament Square

Now, I can feel another map coming on. This one shows how you navigate your way around Parliament Square and up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, where the walk finishes.

Key: A- Westminster Bridge, B-Houses of Parliament, C- St. Margaret's Church, D- Westminster Abbey, E, Supreme Court, F-Banqueting House
Carry on up Whitehall and the second road on your left is Downing Street, the official London residence of the British Prime Minister and the British Chancellor of the Exchequer. There's a big road-block at the start of Downing Street so you can't get enter it unless you've got an official appointment with the PM or the Chancellor. The best you can hope for is to squint through the bars and get a look at the place from a distance.

Downing Street

If you walk on down Whitehall you'll come next to Horse Guards Parade, also on the left. This is usually a more picturesque stop than Downing Street. The horses and the guards dressed up in in their ceremonial outfits look really impressive, although there are usually so many tourists around that it's hard to move. Maxi, my dog, gets a real bee in his bonnet around horses, so we normally have to shuffle on before he causes some sort of military skirmish.

Horse Guards Parade

When you've finished with the Horse Guards carry on over to the opposite side of the road where you'll see the Banqueting House. When we were passing it was covered in scaffolding, but it's normally an impressive venue. Way back in 1649 they built a scaffolding outside on which they executed King Charles I. They wanted as many people as possible to see the king's demise so that they would lose heart in the royalist cause. Immediately inside from the site of execution is a truly splendid room with an amazing ceiling that was painted by Rubens. At least the poor man had something sublime to gaze upon in the last minutes of his life.

Now keep on going to Trafalgar Square, where you'll see Admiral Lord Nelson keeping look-out on top of his column.

Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square

On the other side of Trafalgar Square you'll find the National Gallery with the National Portrait Gallery off to the right hand side. So if you've got any energy left you can finish off the outing with a turn around the pictures.

National Gallery, Trafalgar Square

Or if you're not up for any more art you can always chill out in Trafalgar Square with the pigeons and all the other people. It's usually heaving with folk. Watch out for the fourth plinth. They've been putting random works of art up there. When we stopped by they had a very handsome blue rooster strutting his stuff, and very fine he looked too in the lovely sunshine.

Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square

It's a terrific walk. If you keep going you should easily cover it in an hour and a half to two hours. However there are so many things to stop off and see that it would be better to stretch it out all day. Just wear comfortable shoes and have a ball!

All the best for now,

Bonny x

As shared  on the Alphabet ProjectSYC Thursday and Monday Murals