Founding Father of the United States of America. Politician. Musician. Diplomat. Inventor. Philosopher. Botanist. Father of Electricity.
Most of us would be pleased just to be able to describe ourselves as one of the above. Benjamin Franklin, on other hand, embraced all of those roles – and more besides.
Today, I visited Dr Franklin’s London dwelling, a grade-1 Georgian house on Craven Street, just around the corner from Charing Cross station. Built in 1730, this is the world’s only remaining Franklin house and it is now used as a museum and educational facility. It’s a typically Georgian residence: tall and narrow, with a long and winding staircase that apparently Dr Franklin used to run up and down for the purposes of exercise.
I took the Historical Experience tour, which involves being accompanied around the house by Polly Hewson, the daughter of Franklin’s landlady – and a “second daughter” to Franklin. The tour takes place during Franklin’s last night in London, when he was faced with the choice of leaving England or risking arrest: the American War of Independence was looming. Guided by Polly from room to room, we learned about Dr Franklin’s home life, his family and friends and his many & varied interests and achievements.
Who really was Benjamin Franklin and why is he remembered with so much respect and affection over two hundred years after his death? Franklin’s achievements are even more incredible when you consider how humble his beginnings were. Born in Boston in 1706 to an American mother and British father, Benjamin was one of 17 children and had left school by the age of ten, although instilled with a life-long love of books. Franklin was raised in a Puritan household and retained a strong belief in God throughout his life, although he did, eventually, stop attending church.
Having spent a number of years working with his brother, James, a printer, Franklin moved to Philadelphia at the age of 17, where he continued to work in the printing trade. Within a few months, and with the backing of the Governor of Philadelphia, Franklin went on what would be his first mission to London, where he worked as a typesetter in a printer’s shop. He returned to Philadelphia in 1726 and over the next thirty or so years would found Philadelphia’s first subscription library (at that time, books were incredibly dear to purchase), a printing house and America’s first German-language newspaper. He would also establish a volunteer fire service, the Pennsylvania Hospital and an academy that in due course became the University of Pennsylvania.
Franklin’s personal life was somewhat complex, but in 1730 he entered into a common-law marriage with the woman who would remain the love of his life, Deborah Read (the couple were unable to legally marry due to Deborah’s first husband having absconded with her dowry and no-one knowing whether or not he was still alive).
Franklin made a second visit to London in 1557, this time as diplomat for the Pennsylvania Assembly – but without Deborah, who was never able to overcome her fear of sailing. He returned to America, briefly, in 1762, but was back in London by 1764, his mission to persuade the King to make Pennsylvania a Royal colony rather than a proprietary province. It is upon these two stays in London that the tour focuses – in particular the latter visit, which lasted for eleven years. Franklin worked tirelessly to improve relations between Britain and the colonies, establishing strong relationships with the likes of William Pitt, who was a regular visitor to 36 Craven Street. Despite his heavy political workload, Franklin also continued with his scientific research, and a number of his discoveries and intentions are discussed during the tour. Franklin even found the time to write a publication which he called the Craven Street Gazette and which took the form of a court circular.
I enjoyed my tour of Benjamin Franklin’s house very much. The actress playing Polly was excellent, and the tour itself provides an excellent insight into Franklin’s character, his life in London and some of his many achievements (until today, I had no idea that I have Benjamin Franklin to thank for my bi-focal glasses). I also liked the fact that much of the dialogue is based upon Franklin’s own correspondence with friends and relatives.
I would highly recommend taking the Historical Experience tour if my post has whetted your appetite and you’re keen to learn more about this inspirational individual, particularly his activities in London. Don’t, though, go along to Craven Street expecting to see any of Franklin’s belongings – the house is not like, for example, Charles Dickens’ house on Doughty Street which is fully-furnished and where many of Dickens’ belongings still remain. Franklin’s Craven Street house is devoid of possessions; the emphasis of the tour is very much on getting to know Dr Benjamin Franklin, the man.