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


  1. Truly enjoyed my visit and the history lesson. You are a wonderful storyteller. Thank you for taking us along.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Diane. Glad you found it interesting. All the best, Bonny

  2. Thank you Bonny for your wonderful history on Dr Franklin, I wish I had got to see his house, but sadly was not aware that he ever lived in London. Your photos of his residence were fantastic.

    1. Thank you, Carmel. Hope you get to check it out on your next trip to London. All the best, Bonny

  3. Very intriguing and interesting! I love those tall windows in his front room. Beautifully written and wonderful photos!! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Beverly. So glad you found it interesting. All the best, Bonny

  4. Fascinating I never knew the connection with London another place to include in my next visit. Have a wonderful weekend.

    1. Thanks, Viv. Have a great weekend too. All the best, Bonny

  5. Very special! Ben and I share same the birthday (month and day...not year).

  6. Thank you, Denise. Yes it would be quite something if you shared the same year, and were still around enjoying the digital age. All the best, Bonny