The ’historical experience’ at Benjamin Franklin House, London

The Many Faces of Benjamin Franklin

30th September 2016

As Americans gear up to elect a new president, Jack Watkins reflects on the life of one of the USA’s Founding Fathers, whose achievements are still remembered at his former home in London’s West End...

He may not be one of the heads on Mount Rushmore, but it’s arguable that the achievements of Benjamin Franklin (1705-1790) were no less mountainous than the four presidents so strikingly commemorated at the site in South Dakota. One of the so-called seven Founding Fathers of the United States, Franklin never held presidential office, but there was a time during the struggle against British colonial rule that he was second in prestige only to George Washington.

You might think it ironic, therefore, that the only remaining Franklin house in the world is in the heart of London’s West End – but actually it’s quite fitting. Franklin, in the period of turmoil leading up to the War of Independence, worked tirelessly for reconciliation. Living in Craven Street for nearly sixteen years between 1757 and 1775, his house at number 36 was effectively the first American embassy.

Now a Grade I listed building, the property was restored by the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House and opened as a museum ten years ago this year, making it a relative newcomer to the list of West End tourist attractions. It still retains many original features, including a creaky old wooden staircase connecting all levels of the terrace house, which Franklin used to climb for exercise.
Craven Street is one of those strangely silent little London thorougfares which has retained something of its ancient resonance despite the busy environment that surrounds it. Situated just off the Strand, moments from Charing Cross Station and Trafalgar Square, the road – formerly more evocatively known as Spur Alley – runs down a faint incline in the direction of the river.

A little remembered Georgian humourist, James Smith, who lived here caught something of its former character in verse: “In Craven Street, Strand, ten attorneys find place/And ten coal barges are moor’d at its base.” At the end of the line of Georgian terrace houses there’s a blue plaque to Herman Melville, another former resident, and then you’re back with the traffic of Northumberland Avenue, abruptly cut through the end in the 1870s like some great Parisian boulevard. It’s probably a lot more salubrious than in the days when the aromas coming off the Thames were so overpowering in summer that people avoided using the Hungerford Bridge.

According to Stephen Wilson, education manager at Benjamin Franklin House, the houses in the street are built on in-filled soil, and by the time the Trust became interested in restoring no36 it was in a state of serious disrepair. Even after £1 million pounds of structural repairs, carried out by 2000, with help from, among others, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the interior was still derelict. It became a race against time to meet the overall project cost of around £3.3 million and achieve the goal of opening the building in time for the tercentenary of Franklin’s birth in 2006.

Franklin was active across so many fields that it’s difficult to know where to start when assessing them. “He was a true polymath,” agrees Stephen, who says the property offers the visitor a “multi-faceted interpretation” of the life of a man who, as a printer, scientist, inventor and diplomat, is far better known and appreciated in the US than here. “Many visitors know him for his more famous contributions, such as his status as a Founding Father, or for his invention of the lighting rod, while understanding less about other facets of his life and character.”

What’s important to remember is that Franklin was no firebrand. He arrived in Britain as a diplomat in 1757, and, according to Stephen, “came to esteem the country’s scientific, social and administrative life.” When called to speak in the House of Commons in 1766, his address was considered masterly as he carefully answered over 170 questions. Yet as the two countries slid relentlessly towards war, Franklin was left frustrated. As he wrote in a letter, penned while at Craven Street, “I do not find that I have gained any point in either country except that of rendering myself suspected for my impartiality; in England, of being too much of an American, and in America of being too much of an Englishman.” By the time he departed London for the last time, in 1775, the American Revolution was already underway.

Franklin is, all the same, often considered the founder of our cross-Atlantic ‘special relationship’, with his negotiations and writings always aimed at reducing misconceptions and hostilities between America and Britain. And his broader accomplishments, as well as his involvement in politics and diplomacy, are examined in a new publication from Voyager Press: Ben Franklin – Inventing America by the American Pulitzer prize-winning historian Thomas Fleming (to be published on 1 October).

Aimed at young adults, this was originally published in 2005. It’s now being made available in paperback with full colour photos, period art and a helpful timeline, invaluable for getting a handle on such a busy and complicated life. If your grasp on 18th century American history is a little shaky, it’s a more than handy primer, whatever your age.

Franklin was a great aphorist, witty and wise. “He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with flees” was one, and “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid,” are just two from an endless list. “Lost time is never found again” is another, and few individuals can have used their own time so purposefully. His lightning rods stemmed from his investigations into electricity, and he is credited as the inventor of bifocals and of the Franklin stove. His publication of a North Atlantic Gulf Stream chart in England in 1770 enabled sailors to cut two weeks off sailing times to America (though Franklin did not actually discover the existence of the Gulf Stream, which had been known about since the 16th century).

Americans are great ones for self-improvement manuals, and Franklin may have been a pioneer. By the age of twenty he was seeking to cultivate ‘character’ by devising a plan to follow thirteen virtues, one of which he would try to follow each week. They are listed in the autobiography and one of the best relates to Silence: “Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.” How pertinent is that to the ceaseless babble of today’s twittersphere?

For more information about Benjamin Franklin House and opening hours,
visit www.benjaminfranklinhouse.org

‘Ben Franklin – Inventing America’, by Thomas Fleming, (£8.99) is published by Voyager Press: www.qbookshopuk.co.uk – The front cover shows a reproduction of ‘Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky’ by Benjamin West c1816; Philadelphia Museum of Art

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