10 historic London homes that are now museums…1. Benjamin Franklin House…

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.

PICTURES: Courtesy of Google Maps

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.

What’s in a name?…Little Britain…

Little-BritainThis central – and rather unassuming – London street owes its name to the French – not British – who apparently once lived in the area which lies just south of Smithfield.

Originally named Little Brittany, it was settlers from Brittany in the east of modern France that inhabited the area where the street can be found after the Norman Conquest. Foremost among them apparently was the Duke of Brittany who apparently had a house here prior to the 1500s.

Between the late 15th century and early 18th century, the street was known as a location for booksellers (it was here that Britain’s first daily newspaper, the early 18th century Daily Courant, was printed in the area after moving from Fleet Street).

Famous residents over the years have included the 17th century poet John Milton (there’s also a much-repeated anecdote that has a Little Britain-based bookseller trying to convince the Earl of Dorset to buy as many copies of the apparently immoveable Paradise Lost as he could carry) , a very young Samuel Johnson (the then three-year-old and his mother lodged with a bookseller when she brought him to be touched by Queen Anne as a cure for his scrofula), and Benjamin Franklin who stayed here in 1724.

Literary references included a mention in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations – the office of the lawyer Mr Jaggers were placed here.

St Bartholomew’s Hospital now occupies many of the buildings in the street.

Famous Londoners – Madame Tussaud…

Famed around the world for her London-based wax museum (and the chain of waxworks which now bears her name), French-born Madame Tussaud is a towering figure of the early 19th century.

Born Anna Maria Grosholtz in Strasbourg on 1st December, 1761, Marie Tussaud’s association with waxworks came early when, her father Joseph having apparently died from wounds sustained in the Seven Years War just before her birth, she accompanied her mother Anna Maria Walder to Berne in Switzerland where her mother took up a position as a housekeeper for a physician and anatomical wax sculptor and portraitist Dr Philippe Curtius.

Madame-TussaudIn 1765, Dr Curtius moved to pre-Revolutionary Paris where he was soon to open a couple of establishments – at the Palais-Royal and the Boulevard du Temple (later consolidated at the latter site) – displaying his works in wax. Marie, whom Dr Curtius brought to Paris with her mother in 1768, started working with him on wax models and in 1777, at the age of just 16, produced her first wax figure, that of philosopher Voltaire. Other early works of Madame Tussaud’s depicted Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin.

The story goes that such was the renown of Tussaud and her “uncle” Dr Curtius, that their social circle came to include members of the Royal Family. Tussaud is widely believed to have been an art tutor to King Louis XVI’s sister Elizabeth and may have even taken up residence at Versailles.

Tussaud recounts that she was arrested during the French Revolution – the story goes that she was imprisoned and eventually released thanks to the intervention of family friend and revolutionary Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois but whether this is true remains a matter of debate.

Tussaud claims she was then forced make death masks of those who ended their life on the scaffold including Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Marat and Robespierre. When Curtius died in 1794, she inherited his wax works and the following year married an engineer Francois Tussaud with whom she had two sons, Joseph and Francois (later known as Francis).

In 1802, Madame Tussaud accepted an invitation to go to London to exhibit her work at the Lyceum Theatre but thanks to the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars, she and her four-year-old son Joseph were unable to return to France. Separated from her husband, she subsequently spent the next three decades travelling with her exhibition – which included relics from the Revolution and, like those of Curtius, was being constantly updated to reflect current affairs – around Britain and Ireland.

Her son Francois joined her in 1822 and Tussaud continued travelling until 1835 when she first established a permanent exhibition in Baker Street, London. Known as the Baker Street Bazaar, it apparently contained more than 400 wax figures. In 1846, Punch Magazine is credited with having invented the term ‘Chamber of Horrors’ for the room where the relics of the French Revolution were displayed.

Tussaud wrote her memoirs in 1838, and, in 1842, completed a wax model of herself. She died in her sleep on 16th April, 1850, in London. Her son Francois became chief artist for the exhibition after her retirement – he was succeeded by his son and then grandson. The exhibition moved to its current site in Marylebone Road in 1884.

Now owned by the Merlin Entertainments Group, Madame Tussauds has branches in cities in some 10 countries as well as its London base. Many of her original models still exist and are on display in the London museum along with the exhibition’s oldest attraction – known as ‘Sleeping Beauty’, it dates from 1863 – a breathing likeness of Louis XV’s sleeping mistress Madame du Barry.

For more on Madame Tussauds today, see www.madametussauds.com.

For more on the life of Madame Tussaud, see Kate Berridge’s book, Waxing Mythical: The Life and Legend of Madame Tussaud.