London is replete with historic homes but only a few have become museums. In this series we want to look beyond the more famous ones – think of the Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury or of the John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, to name two – to some of the lesser known homes that have became museums.
First up, it’s Benjamin Franklin House at 36 Craven Street. While the history of this Georgian terraced house goes back to 1730, Franklin himself is known to have lived in what was a lodging house for some 16 years from 1757 to 1775 (his wife Deborah had apparently refused to come and remained in Philadelphia).
Franklin, who had first lived in London in the mid-1720s while working as a trainee printer and stayed in various lodgings including in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, initially served as an agent for the Pennsylvania Assembly in London but, after a brief time back in Philadelphia, returned to London in 1764, this time as ambassador for the colonies in America. He left the property in 1775 to return to Philadelphia where, shortly after, on 4th July, 1776, he was among the signatories to the Declaration of Independence.
The four storey townhouse, which is the only surviving property lived in by Franklin left in the world, remained a lodging house up until World War II. It later served as the headquarters for the British Society for International Understanding.
The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House was founded by Mary, Countess of Bessborough in 1978 and in 1989 the government gave the friends the freehold to the land. The friends then undertook a major renovation and restoration project.
During the works some 1200 bones fragments – believed to be the remains of 15 people, at least six of them children – were found buried in the cellar. They were dated to about the time Franklin had been living there.
But, fear not, the bodies were not of Franklin’s doing. It is believed that William Hewson, an early anatomist and friend of Franklin (as well as being married to Polly, the daughter of the property’s landlady Margaret Stevenson), was responsible for the remains.
Hewson, who was among tenants at the property between 1770 and 1774, ran a small anatomy school here where he conducted secret dissections to avoid any legal complications. The bodies were thought to have been buried in the back garden which, when the property was expanded, later became part of the basement.
The Grade I-listed property – which contains many original features including the floorboards, ceilings and staircases – finally opened as a museum for the public in January, 2006.
These days, the history of the property – including its architecture and Franklin’s residency – can be explored through an ‘historical experience’ and ‘architectural tour’. There’s also a virtual tour available online recreating what the property may have looked like in Franklin’s time.
Among the artefacts on show in the house are Franklin’s leather wallet (inscribed with the Craven Street address and his name), a bust of Franklin dating from about 1800, and what is believed to be the property’s original door-knocker.
The house also features an English Heritage Blue Plaque – although the plaque, which was erected in 1914, is grey, not blue and rectangular, not circular.
WHERE: Benjamin Franklin House, 36 Craven Street, Westminster (nearest Tube stations are Embankment and Charing Cross); WHEN: Various times for tours – check the website for details; COST: Historical Experience – £9.50 adults/£8 concessions/free for under 12s; Architectural Tour – £7.50 adults/£6 concessions/free for under 12s; WEBSITE: https://benjaminfranklinhouse.org.