To paraphrase Dorothy: 'There is no place like London.' I hope I can convince you of that here. Also check out my blog at damselwithadulcimer.wordpress.com and my theatre reviews at www.playstosee.com
Published October 30th 2011
Between 1757 and 1775 Benjamin Franklin, one of America's founding fathers, lived in London. He lodged with the widowed Margaret Stevenson and her daughter, Polly Hewson, at 36 Craven Street, close to Whitehall and was in England was as Colonial agent and intermediary between Britain and America.
During this period he was also Deputy Postmaster for the Colonies, but aside from politics he was a true man of the Enlightenment. Whilst in London he pursued scientific discoveries including the lightning rod (which can still be seen at St Paul's Cathedral) and the energy-saving Franklin stove.
He charted the Gulf Stream, to make navigation safer for ships crossing the Atlantic, invented the glass armonica (for which Mozart and Beethoven composed music) and wrote letters, epitaphs and the Craven Street Gazette, in the form of a court circular. His wife, Deborah, refused to make the sea crossing from America, so Margaret and Polly, along with Polly's son, Billy, became his surrogate family.
The house at 36 Craven Street was built around 1730 and is Grade I listed, retaining the original floors, staircase, shutters, ceilings, panelling and fourteen fireplaces. Franklin claimed that he used the staircase for his daily exercise, a thought worth bearing in mind when you walk up and down the heavily worn wooden treads. The property was rescued from dereliction at the end of the twentieth century by the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House.
The renovations were completed in time to open the house on 17 January 2006, the anniversary of Franklin's 300th birthday. There is no original furniture to be seen and this contributes all the more to the atmosphere of the rooms that were rented by Franklin. To compensate for the lack of interior décor a visit to the house consists of a series of filmed projections, accompanied by sound and lighting, in a ghostly reconstruction of the mid eighteenth century.
Your tour guide is an actress, in period costume, playing the part of Polly Hewson. She never speaks directly to the present day visitors, but remains in the past with the voices of the house's earlier occupants and guests. The 'Benjamin Franklin House Historical Experience' begins in the basement (in what was then the garden) and continues in the upstairs rooms: the kitchen, Margaret Stevenson's sitting room, the card room, Dr Franklin's parlour and Franklin's laboratory and powder closet.
After the final peace negotiations between America and Britain broke down in 1774 he returned to his native country at the outbreak of the American Revolution the following year, signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He subsequently took up residence in France as a United States representative, where in 1783 he signed the Treaty of Paris between Britain and America that ended the Revolutionary War and finally returned home to sign the US Constitution in 1787 and died in Philadelphia in 1790.
Although the Benjamin Franklin house is the only remaining Franklin home in the world, it is a rather closely kept secret and relies on donations and foundations for its funding. This is all the more reason to visit and to make sure that others (especially visitors from the US) are made aware of its existence.
When:On Wednesdays to Sundays The Historical Experience takes place at 12.00, 13.00, 14.00, 15.15 and 16.15. On Monday guided tours of the house are at 12.00, 13.00, 14.00. 15.15 and 16.15. Tuesdays are student days.