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  • Mark Taylor

Benjamin Franklin

Get out the crisps and nuts, pour yourself a glass of beer, and lets toast Ben Franklin, former resident of this very parish…………….he once said, “God gave us elbows to make bending our arms easier to drink beer.”………

Franklin lived for many years at 36 Craven Street, WC2. Americans always seem to be impressed by this man. He is held in high esteem, and seeing the house where he lived is a pilgrimage for stateside historians. A short walk up from Embankment Place, London cab drivers can go and see his house, a mere stones throw from Trafalgar Square..……Craven Street gives the centre of London a little taste of Americana as the writer of the great classic, obsessive, America novel, Moby Dick, Herman Melville, also resided briefly on Craven Street at number 25.

So who was this Ben Franklin fellow? And, why so revered by many? The face of Franklin adorns the one hundred dollar bill. He earned the title of “The First American” with his tireless campaigning for colonial unity. A Founding Father of the United States his sphere of interest and influence is impressive, from diplomacy, to politics, science and writing.

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts on 17 January 1706. His father, Josiah had been born in Ecton, Northamptonshire, England and his mother was, Abiah Folger, born in Nantucket, Massachusetts to a Puritan family who had fled England as King Charles I began persecuting Puritans. Ben Franklin was proud of his working class background. His father was a candle and soap maker and wanted him to become a clergyman; however he could only afford to send him to school for two years. Franklin was a voracious reader and had a gift for languages. He worked briefly with his father then became an apprentice printer under the guidance of his older brother, James. His brother founded the first truly independent newspaper in the American colonies called, The New-England Courant. Ben tried to write for the paper but was not allowed to. He began contributing under the cheeky pseudonym of “Mrs Silence Dogood” whose letters caused a stir among the readership. Once James found out about his brother’s secret identity, he was furious, and Ben left town. Aged 17, he was on his own and seeking a new start in Philadelphia.

Knowing his way around a printing press held young Franklin in good stead. Printers were at the cutting edge of eighteenth century technology, rather like today’s new media tech savvy entrepreneurs. Franklin came to people’s notice and Governor William Keith of Pennsylvania sent him on his first mission to England. Governor Keith had misled Franklin so he was somewhat stranded and worked in two prominent London printing houses to make ends meet and try to make his way back to America. Meanwhile, he absorbed as much as he could of intellectual London life expanding his knowledge, honing his writing and communication skills plus, developing a passion for the metropolis. He was only in his early twenties. Over the course of a very long life, Franklin lived to be 84 years old; he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean over ten times. This is when it was no luxury cruise….He writes about using a fizgig, a harpoon like tool, to catch food. Sometimes they would land a dolphin and have no qualms about dining on it.


Much of the time spent crossing the Atlantic would be when Franklin was writing and observing. He had an enquiring scientific mind and was one of the first people to acknowledge the existence of the Gulf Stream, and use it to make trade and travel quicker. He also invented the lightening rod which prevented buildings catching fire when struck by lightening. Another invention was bifocal spectacles along with an energy dispersion oven that would also heat a room. Eclectic innovations or what!

His diplomacy skills lead him to damage limitation between Britain and the US after the American war of independence. He served as US ambassador in Paris and Sweden. His philosophical thinking led to many pronouncements and sayings that are commonplace in the English language.” A place for everything, everything in its place,” plus: “To have an axe to grind,” the cautionary tale of a man taking his axe to a blacksmith to be sharpened. At the blacksmith, the customer finds himself turning the grindstone while the blacksmith merely hold the axe. “All men are created equal,” possibly not all Franklin’s work, nonetheless, with Thomas Jefferson, this was a crucial mantra to the war against King George III of Britain.

Franklin became an abolitionist of slavery in his later life, he knew it was abhorrent, but chose to justify this on economic grounds on writing that, free labour moves at will, whereas keeping slaves required the costs of buying the slaves, interest on the outlay, food, clothing, the sickness incurred and security risks. It took America over sixty years after his death to abolish slavery. He championed the rights of women long before it was fashionable. He praised a vegetarian diet and questioned religious doctrine. As a member of the Enlightenment movement, Franklin was always looking to quiz orthodox religious thinking and allow faith to flourish.


Franklin’s personal life seems somewhat colourful. He clearly enjoyed the company of women. He had an illegitimate son, William, before a common law marriage to Deborah Read, with whom he had two other children. Deborah stayed in the US while Franklin went off to Europe. He stayed at 36 Craven Street for 16 years on and off between 1757 and 1775, just before the Declaration of Independence. Number 36 Craven Street is the only surviving house Franklin lived in. He lodged at Craven Street with Mrs Margaret Stephenson and latterly her daughter, Polly, who went on to marry William Hewson, who ran an anatomy school on the premises. Evidence of this is shown when visiting, as bundles of bones were unearthed in the rear yard. Franklin is believed to have been very charming and Margaret and Polly were very fond of him. Franklin urged parents to inoculate their children. Here he puts it in his own words from his autobiography, using his own interesting mix of capital and lower case lettering. “In 1736 I lost one of my Sons a fine Boy of 4 Years old, by the Small Pox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly & still regret that I had not given it to him by Inoculation; This I mention for the Sake of Parents who omit that Operation on the Supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a Child died under it; my Example showing that regret may be the same either way, and therefore the safer should be chosen.”


Philosopher, polymath, diplomat, Franklin’s interests were broad. He writes in his autobiography “I had begun in 1733 to study Languages. I soon made myself so much a Master of the French as to be able to read the Books with Ease. I then undertook Italian.” He goes on to mention Spanish too and his year of learning Latin, as a lad, had made these Mediterranean languages easier. This is Franklin at his most boastful, other writings show a more empathetic side. Writing about the Native Americans, he continues; “the Indian Men, when young, are Hunters and Warriors; when old, Counsellors; for all their Government is by the Counsel or Advice of the Sages; there is no Force, there are no Prisons, no Officers to compel Obedience, or inflict Punishment. Hence they generally study Oratory; the best Speaker having the most Influence. The Indian Women till the Ground, dress the Food, nurse and bring up the Children, and preserve and hand down to Posterity the Memory of Public Transactions”…..this is a long way from modern day America with the world’s largest prison population. In 2013, the USA had 1% of its population (320million) banged up. Contrast that with around 85,000 people in prison in the UK and a population of 60million, our percentage is massively lower at 0.14% and the UK has more people jailed than any other EU nation. One wonders what one of America’s favourite sons would have made of these numbers?

To visit 36 Craven Street, check out their web site. The tour is a tad cheesy, however, very informative and with some good acting and sound effects. It could be said, 36 Craven was, de facto, the first American embassy. Nearby you can visit the Sherlock Holmes pub, which as central London tourist pubs goes, is very agreeable. Or, there’s the Ship and Shovel straddling the walkway through to Villiers Street that has Benjamin Franklin quotations decorating the walls. He would be very pleased to see you having ale, as we know, Franklin very much approved of beer drinking. Cheers!....hic…


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