Several blocks from Trafalgar Square, with Nelson’s Column, fountains, lion statues, and pigeons, in the heart of London sits a short street of well-preserved Georgian homes in the shadow of Charing Cross station. At number 7 Craven Street, a small sign says “Benjamin Franklin lived here.” Until recently the sign was all there was to hint to passers-by of the American history associated with the house.
But in 2006 on the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s birth, after a long journey to restoration, the house became a museum and is now open to the public. It was Benjamin Franklin’s home for nearly sixteen years, between 1757 and 1775, and ironically is the only house standing in the world that Franklin lived in. While the site of his home in Philadelphia is interpreted by the National Park Service, only a frame outlines what the house looked like.
In 1757 the Pennsylvania assembly appointed Franklin as its agent to the English government in the colony’s dispute with the Penn family. Franklin rented four furnished rooms from a widow, Mrs. Stevenson, who, along with her daughter Polly, would become a second family for him. Eventually Franklin became an unofficial spokesman for all of America and officially represented four American colonies. In some ways it could be argued that the house was the first U.S. embassy in England and that Franklin was the first ambassador – a stretch to be sure, but it can’t be denied that Franklin made an indelible mark on English society in his day and his stay in one of the world’s most populous cities increased his stature throughout the world.
Known far and wide for his curious mind, Franklin demonstrated his kite and key experiment in London and St. Paul’s Cathedral was the first building in Britain to install a Franklin lightening rod. He invented both the Franklin stove and the musical instrument, the glass armonica, in London. Both Mozart and Beethoven composed for the armonica.
Franklin cultivated a circle of a broad variety of British friends and upon leaving for a trip to America wrote:”I cannot leave this happy island and my friends in it without extreme regret.” Though he could not get his wife to make the sea voyage with him, this apparently didn’t stop him from wanting to stay. “I shall probably … settle here forever. Nothing will prevent it, if I can, as I hope I can,… especially if we have peace.”
As tensions grew between the colonies and Britain, Franklin was caught in the middle. He wrote “In England I am thought of as too American, whilst in America I am considered too British.”
He left England for the last time in March 1775, only a month before the shots of Lexington and Concord began the American Revolution. The following year he helped draft and then signed the Declaration of Independence.
Visitors to the house must take a guided tour that includes the main rooms associated with Franklin. The house is not furnished, but several pieces of furniture help visitors imagine the Franklin story. The tour uses the first-person interpretive technique and my guide was in character as Polly Stevenson. Through the use of audio, the sounds of Franklin’s London come alive. The majority of the scripted program is drawn from original sources. A visit certainly offers tourists, especially American ones, a window into a topic they probably know little about. And the bones in the basement, discovered during excavation at the site, add an element of mystery to the place.