Benjamin Franklin in Britain
Gary Powell discovers the London haunts of a Transatlantic hero
It is the working man who is the happy man
It is the idle man who is the miserable man
Benjamin Franklin (1706 to 1790)
This greatest of Americans, Benjamin Franklin, born in Boston, Massachusetts, crossed the Atlantic to London, England aged 19 years in order to expand his knowledge of the printing trade. He was apprenticed as a typesetter to a printing firm in Smithfield, City of London; an area synonymous with the printing and stationary industry. Franklin returned to America and set up his own printing firm, becoming such a successful businessman he was able to retire at the age of 43 years.
Now financially secure, Franklin concentrated his formidable creative intelligence to the world of invention and experimentation. Many people, both sides of the Atlantic, wrongly believe Franklin to be a former American president; let's be honest, as the founder of the American library system, an author, an inventor (Franklin stove, swimming fins, bifocal glasses, the glass armonica), civic activist, economist, diplomat, first United States Postmaster General and a scientist (a pioneer in the field of electricity), where would he have found the time!
Franklin returned to London in 1757 where his interest in politics grew; he became a political mediator between the British and American governments at a time when the 'special relationship' was non–existent, often addressing the British parliament on political and social issues of the day.
He lodged at No.36 Craven Street, Westminster, between 1757 and 1775, a house that is now dedicated to the life of Franklin and the only remaining Franklin residence to survive either side of the Atlantic. Shocking discoveries of human remains – all showing signs of mutilation – were discovered in the basement of No.36 in 1998. The culprit was probably a fellow tenant of Franklin's; surgeon and anatomist William Hewson (1739–74) who opened a school of anatomy in the basement, the wretched corpses he dissected would have originated from the filthy River Thames only yards away.
At the commencement of the American War of Independence (1775–83) Franklin returned to America and assisted in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence before being appointed the first American ambassador to France at the Court of Louis XVI. However, this was not the end of his influence in British/American politics as he was a prominent figure in the drafting and ratification of the Treaty of Paris 1783, in which the United Kingdom recognised the independence of the United States. A plaque, that reflects Franklin's contribution to this piece of political history, can be viewed at former American president John Adams' house at No. 9, Grosvenor Square.
Franklin's impact on the creation of modern America is well documented, but one should not forget his significant contribution to British politics, social history and the world of science.
Gary Powell is a retired London detective; he is the author of Square London, a social history of the London square. His latest book Death in Disguise is published in October 2014 (History Press). He also conducts several walks around the darker side of London.