Benjamin Franklin House, London

Craven Street, London has two neighbouring Museums, but very different.

Just off the Strand near Trafalgar Square is the Georgian road, Craven Street.

See my article https://b-c-ing-u.com/architecture/trafalgar-square-londons-national-heritage-grade-1-square/

It was originally called Spur Alley, and the Medieval area was completely crime-ridden. It was demolished and renamed in 1730 when Baron William Craven rebuilt it.

Several famous people lived there, including Aaron Burr, the 3rd Vice President of America, Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, lived at No. 25 in 1849, and Benjamin Franklin lived at number 36, which is now called Benjamin Franklin House, our first Museum.

Benjamin Franklin left his wife and daughter in America and lodged in London with landlady Margaret Stevenson and her daughter Polly, who married the Anatomist William Hewson.

Eventually Franklin’s son William came to London and lived with his father. They had two slaves who also lived there. He didn’t see his wife and daughter for 16 years, although he wrote to them regularly. Originally he’d intended to stay in London for five months.

The house was derelict for 20 years and had squatters in the 70s and 80s. Amazingly they didn’t vandalise the house at all, so its original features except the marble fireplaces was preserved.

All the other houses in the street have been modernised, so number 36 is the only Grade 1 listed house. The others are Grade 2.

It’s not often you hear squatters being praised, is it?!

Benjamin Franklin House is an unusual Museum. It’s not filled with furniture and objects that are vaguely similar to what would have been in there. The rooms are empty and actors in costumes act out scenes.

When I arrived, the house was closed for a private meeting. I hadn’t got the message, so as I had an appointment, Caitlin the Operations Manager gave me a private tour, which I actually preferred.


We sat in the basement while she talked to me, which is a recent extension, done in the 1990s. It was originally the back garden, and when work started, over 1200 skeletons were discovered buried in the ground.

The police were called and autopsies were carried out to check that they were 18th Century bones. Half the skeletons are now in the Institute of Archaeology.

PThere were at least 15 dismembered bodies, six of them were children. There are probably more buried under the concreted floors. There were also animal bones discovered, including turtles.

What is the reason for bodies buried in the garden? There are two theories.

PPolly’s husband, William Hewson, purchased corpses to dissect and learn about the human body, which was a common practice with surgeons at the time. The bodies were bought from body dealers, who were unfortunately often body snatchers and grave robbers. He discovered the human lymphate system after experimenting on turtles.

Hewson died in April 1774 aged 34 when he cut himself while dissecting a rotting corpse. Septicemia quickly set in. He was buried in St Martin-in-the-Fields, opposite Trafalgar Square.

Benjamin Franklin was known to belong to several secret societies. Franklin was a notorious womaniser, and regularly drank large quantities of wine and rum.

Several times he attended the Hellfire Club with Sir Francis Dashwood and his friends.

It’s not known for certain exactly what they got up to, but it included excess drinking, prostitutes, Satanic acts, and possible human and animal sacrifice.

Were some of the victims buried in the garden at number 36 Craven Street?

I doubt if we’ll ever know.

Benjamin Franklin was a very talented man. On the top floor, known as Franklin’s Floor, are some of his inventions.

The room is in the original colours, which were discovered under 26 layers of paint!

PHe tied a key to a kite and launched it in a thunder storm so that a lightning bolt struck the key. From this he invented the lightning rod.

There is a stove in the room and he invented one of the first stoves, which made heat go round the whole room.

PWhat fascinated me was his glass Armonica. It’s a row of glasses joined together sideways.

It’s played like a table full of glasses with different levels of water in them. Someone wets their finger and runs it round the rims.

They’re still made. Beethoven and Mozart composed on it. And it was used in the Harry Potter theme.

Franz Mesmer used one in his Animal Magnetism act and it made people feel sick. But his did have lead paint on it.


Caitlin playing the armonica with a wet cloth

I always thought that Benjamin Franklin was an American President, and apparently a lot of us Brits think that. He wasn’t. He was the oldest Founding Father. He wrote the American Declaration of Independence.

Here are some of Franklin’s famous quotes. There are plenty more;

“Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults.”

“He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals.”

“There never was a good war or a bad peace.”
-Letter to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society of London, July 1783. Also cited in a letter to Quincy, Sr., American merchant, planter and politician, September 1783.

“He that lies down with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas.”

“Better slip with foot than tongue.”

“Look before, or you’ll find yourself behind.

“Don’t throw stones at your neighbors, if your own windows are glass

Well done is better than well said.”

“He that would live in peace & at ease, Must not speak all he knows or judge all he sees

“A right Heart exceeds all.”

“What you seem to be, be really.”

“A true Friend is the best Possession.”

“No gains without pains.”

“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander Time; for that’s the Stuff Life is made of.”

“Lost Time is never found again.”

“When you’re good to others, you’re best to yourself.”

“Pardoning the Bad, is injuring the Good.”

“Hide not your Talents, they for Use were made. What’s a Sun-Dial in the shade!”

“Glass, China, and Reputation, are easily crack’d, and never well mended.”

“What more valuable than Gold? Diamonds. Than Diamonds? Virtue.”

“Haste makes Waste.”

“Search others for their virtues, thy self for thy vices.”

By failing to prepare, you’re preparing to fail.

“It is better to take many Injuries than to give one.”

“Wish not so much to live long as to live well.”


My next article will be about the neighbouring Museum at number 42 Craven Street.