FRANKLIN, Benjamin (1706-1790)
Plaque erected in 1914 by London County Council at 36 Craven Street, Charing Cross, London, WC2N 5NF, City of Westminster
Journalism and Publishing, Politics and Administration, Science
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (1706-1790) LIVED HERE
The writer and scientist Benjamin Franklin was one of the founding fathers of America. He spent many years in London and lodged at 36 Craven Street in 1757–62 and 1764–72, about a century before the construction of Charing Cross Station, which now dominates the street.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Franklin trained as a printer and by the 1730s had become a highly successful writer and newspaperman. Meanwhile he developed his scientific interests, which led him to retire from printing in 1748. He earned international acclaim for his work on electricity and his many inventions, including bifocal glasses and the lightning rod. He was also active in the political arena, chiefly in Pennsylvania, where he lived from the 1720s.
It was diplomatic work that took Franklin to London for two vital periods: 1757–62 and 1764–75. During these years, as agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Franklin encouraged pro-American sympathies, continued his scientific experiments, mixed in circles that included James Boswell and Joseph Priestley and was active as a writer.
Franklin was amazed by the ‘dearness of living’ in the capital and in 1758 wrote to his wife:
The whole Town is one great smoaky House, and every Street a Chimney, the Air full of floating Sea Coal Soot.
Franklin’s years in London were spent at two addresses in Craven Street. His blue plaque can be found on most significant of these, number 36 (then numbered 7), which was a lodging-house run by Margaret Stevenson. Here, in 1757–62 and 1764–72, Franklin occupied four comfortable rooms shared with his son and assistant, William (‘Billy’) – later Governor of New Jersey – and two enslaved men, Peter and King.
PETER, KING AND FRANKLIN’S ATTITUDE TO SLAVERY
While Franklin was out of London, King fled the household. He joined the service of a lady in Suffolk, who taught him to read and write, and play the violin and French horn. Having tracked him down, Franklin agreed to sell King to the woman. He later wrote to his wife:
Peter continues with me, and behaves as well as I can expect in a country where there are many occasions of spoiling servants, if they are ever so good. He has as few faults as most of them [but I see them] with only one eye and hear with only one ear; so we rub on pretty comfortably.
Franklin owned enslaved people from about 1735 until 1781. In his household in America, he owned six slaves in total – Peter, his wife Jemima and their son Othello, George, John and King. Like most white Americans of his time, Franklin viewed black people as inferior, as he believed they couldn’t be educated.
However, in 1758 Samuel Johnson took him to one of Dr Bray’s London schools for black children, a philanthropic association affiliated to the Church of England, and the following year Franklin donated money to the association. After this, Franklin’s attitudes to slavery and people of African descent started to shift. From the 1770s he began to openly question the morality of slavery – though he didn’t free his own slaves – and in 1787 he became president of Philadelphia’s Abolition Society. A few months before his death in 1790, he petitioned Congress to provide the means to bring slavery an end.
RETURN TO AMERICA
In October 1772 he – and Mrs Stevenson – moved to 1 Craven Street (now demolished), which was his home until his return to America three years later.
Following his return to Philadelphia, he assisted in the preparation of the Declaration of Independence of 1776. He went on to serve as the United States’ Ambassador to France from 1776 until 1785, and later became President of Pennsylvania (1785–8).
He died on 17 April 1890, aged 84, and was buried at Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia.
Franklin was first commemorated in 1869 when the Society of Arts installed a plaque at 7 Craven Street. However research carried out by Sir Laurence Gomme showed that this identification was incorrect: the number 7 in which Franklin had resided had later become number 36. The London County Council corrected the error in 1914 by mounting the bronze plaque now seen today. For a short time, until the demolition of number 7, the two plaques to Franklin rather embarrassingly stood on opposite sides of the street.
Number 36 has since been restored and was opened to the public as the Benjamin Franklin House on 17 January 2006, the 300th anniversary of his birth.