Ben Franklin’s Trips to London

Recent sighting of Ben in Philly

My wife and I recently spent a week in London. I had never been and had always wanted to go. It was amazing: a beautiful city with an incredible history. While we were there, we had a golden opportunity to visit the apartment on Craven Street in which Benjamin Franklin lived for many years while he negotiated for the colonies. So I decided to write a post about something … or someone … that interests me very much–Ben Franklin. Or more specifically, Franklin’s life in London. This subject does not directly involve Montgomery Township, but it interests me, it’s history, and Philadelphia is not that far away from our township, so you’ll allow me some discretion. Plus, who’s going to stop me?

I has planned to keep this brief, but with such a momentous, wearying, dramatic life, it was challenging.

First, a brief background. Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, one of 17 children. He served as an apprentice at the printing shop of his brother James. He was a voracious reader from his early days, and when he was denied a chance to write a letter to be published in his brother’s newspaper, he secretly wrote a series of letters to the paper under the pseudonym, Silence Dogood, a fictitious middle-aged widow. He fooled many people, including his brother who was understandably not very happy about it. At the age of 17, Franklin left Boston for Philadelphia, a fugitive having not finished his legally recognized apprenticeship.

In Philadelphia, Franklin set up his own print shop, and, in 1724 at the age of 17, went on his first trip to London to look for printing equipment. He lived and worked in London for two years and returned to Philadelphia in 1726.

Throughout his life, Ben Franklin was the ultimate marketer. He was extremely talented at self-promotion, one of many reasons he is so well known today. While running his print shop, he personally wheeled reams of papers and equipment through the streets of Philadelphia so people would see how industrious and hard working he was, even though he had apprentices who could do that for him. During these years in Philadelphia, he started the colony’s first postal services, volunteer fire services, a public library, one of the earliest medical facilities–the Pennsylvania Hospital, and in 1749 he set up an academy that became the University of Pennsylvania.

It was in 1752 that he conducted his famous kite experiment to prove that lighting is composed of electricity.

From my visit to London – Craven Street apt.

He also became more involved in politics. In 1757, Franklin was sent to London as a diplomat for the Pennsylvania Assembly. At this time, he lived in the residence on Craven Street for the first time. One issue he took up was the overbearing control of the Penn family who were exempt from taxes on their colony (not the first time taxes would be a divisive issue). He returned to Philadelphia in 1762, unsuccessful in his fight against the Penn family.

As tensions grew between the colonies and Britain, Franklin was sent back to London for the third and final time, now as a representative of the colony of Pennsylvania to negotiate for its colonists’ rights. He spent 11 years in London this time, again living at the apartment on Craven Street.

Now we come to one of the most interesting (to me) parts of the story–the Hutchinson letters. Remember, until this point, Franklin was a loyal British citizen fighting for the rights of his fellow colonists. Somehow, he got a hold of letters from Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts, to his secretary, in which he complained about the attitudes of the colonists and suggested abridging many of their rights. Franklin sent these to a friend asking him not to release them … which, of course he did. When the letters were published, they caused an uproar. In January 1774, Franklin, still in London, was called to the Privy Council and stood completely still and speechless for over an hour while Solicitor General Wedderburn lambasted him, accusing him of thievery and dishonor among other things.

Ben lived here.

Franklin had had enough. He resigned his post in London and in 1775 returned to Philadelphia to become a leading proponent of independence from Britain. Elected to the Second Continental Congress, he was placed on the committee drafted to write the Declaration of Independence. At this time, in response to a comment made by John Hancock that they must all hang together, Franklin was quoted as saying “Yes, we must indeed hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

During the Revolution, Franklin successfully lobbied France for financial and military support without which, we could not have defeated Britain. He was also actively involved in the creation of the Constitution in 1787. He then retired from politics, but, ever restless, in the last year of his life he invented bifocals. In 1790 at the age of 84 he died, a world- respected statesman, philosopher, inventor, and publisher.

One more interesting story: During restoration of Franklin’s London apartment in 1998, workers came upon a human thigh bone buried in the dirt. After further digging, the workers found over 1200 bones from 10 bodies, including 6 children. Rumors circulated that Franklin was a mass murderer. The truth is much less exciting.  William Hewson was married to Polly Stevenson, the daughter of the landlady, and Hewson was an anatomist who ran an anatomy lab in the basement of the house.

5 thoughts on “Ben Franklin’s Trips to London”

  1. Truly an amazing man with an amazing history of accomplishments. The history of our country would not be what it is without the accomplishments, and statesmanship, of Ben Franklin.
    I find it interesting how every place he lived have claimed him as their own, whether Boston, Philadelphia, France, or England. His influence on the events of the times are deep and long lasting.
    There are no comparable figures before or since. He is unique.

  2. Dina levin says:

    October 11, 2017 at 9:30 pm

    He was an amazing man- how could I have ever read a book without him?I don’t think there was anyone in history who’s done & invented so many of the things we take for granted. He was truly a man for the ages.

  3. Great article, David! Is the London house a museum, or still privately owned? I think the most surprising thing to me is that when he returned from his first trip to England to purchase printing equipment … he was still only 20 years old! When I was 20 years old, I was still wondering if my parents were going to let me go to Florida for spring break. How times (and maturity levels) have changed.

  4. The London house is a museum. And it’s well maintained. The tour is interesting – uses video, audio and a woman reenacting the role of Polly Stevenson, who he stayed with.

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