Benjamin Franklin an American in London

By Wright, Esmond | History Today, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Benjamin Franklin an American in London

Wright, Esmond, History Today

Esmonds Wright recalls the life of the American philosophers, scientist and man of letters in his years in a street near Charing Cross.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, a poorly-educated Boston boy who ran away from home to find his fortune in Philadelphia as journalist, editor, printer and publisher, founder of its University and of the American Philosophical Society, was the nearest to a genius of all the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was a practical man as well as a theorist. He was fascinated by natural phenomena, and constantly asked the question `Why?'. When a steady succession of appalling winters and dry summers hit Europe in the 1780s, he traced the cause to a volcanic eruption in Iceland. These climatic conditions produced famines across Western Europe and were among the causes of the French Revolution. From his frequent journeys across the Atlantic, Franklin discovered and mapped the Gulf Stream. From his observations of climate he concluded that lightning was electricity. He devised and played the harmonica, his `musical glasses'. He realised -- though he never fully explored the reasons for -- the contagious character of the common cold. He was, in the Italian phrase, l'uomo universale, a renaissance man, or, as the Scots put it, `a man o' pairts'.

For seventeen years (1757-75) he lived in London, in `four rooms and very genteel', as he put it. In these years, though he was proud to be an American, he was, also, in his own phrase, `an Old England man' and proud of that too. He sought to avert the political separation that he saw coming. When it came to war, he went to Paris to secure the support of France that ensured American success. He was present in 1787 in Philadelphia at the Convention that drew up the Constitution.

When Mary Munn of Philadelphia married the 10th Earl of Bessborough in 1948, perhaps she did not realise that in London she would renew acquaintance with the most famous Philadelphian of all, Benjamin Franklin. Or maybe she did: 2nd Earl of Bessborough in. the eighteenth century as Postmaster General had been in charge of Franklin's activities as a colonial post officer-in-chief. For the last thirty years Lady Bessborough and a group of trustees have campaigned to raise money in the US and in the UK to restore the house in which Franklin lived during his London years as the agent for Pennsylvania (and eventually for Massachusetts, New Jersey and Georgia) from 1757 to his return home on the outbreak of the War for American Independence in 1775.

He made 36, Craven Street in the Strand a home from home. Franklin was as much at ease in London as he was in Philadelphia in the hurly-burly of business. Goods were landed from the river at the foot of the street and transported to the Hungerford Market at the top, where it meets the Strand. As the wits put it, there was craft on the river, and craft on the street; and Franklin, a strong swimmer, was at ease with both, the lawyers and journalists at one end, the tradesmen -- and the tides -- at the other. Opposite 36, Craven Street then stood the large and daunting Northumberland House, the town-house of the Dukes of Northumberland, and a thriving social centre -- on the site of what is now Charing Cross Station.

His domestic circle included not only his landlady, Mrs Stevenson, and Polly, her daughter, but Franklin's grandson, Temple, and Sarah Franklin, daughter of one of his Northamptonshire cousins. The latter lived in Craven Street, and was as a second daughter to him.

The Craven Street Gazette, a newspaper which he produced for fun, testifies to his contentment. It is clear that he ruled over his `Court' -- at least in `Queen Margaret's' infrequent absences -- as `Big Man', `Great Person' and `Dr Fatsides'. He hoped that Polly might marry his son, but they both had other ideas. Polly married a surgeon, William Hewson, but became in fact the `intellectual daughter' that his own daughter Sarah (back in Philadelphia) never was. …

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