36 Craven Street
London WC2N 5NF
Monday September 1st 2014
As it was raining after the Banqueting Hall we scuttled along to Trafalgar Square, taking shelter in the arcade by the bookshops and found Craven Street surprisingly quiet given its location just off the Strand. There are some small old pubs tucked into the alleys but otherwise the street presents an almost unbroken terrace of Georgian town houses that run down to the Embankment. We have a Mr Craven, an 18th century architect / developer to thank for ‘gentrifying’ the street from its former incarnation of disreputable houses; he also literally raised the level of the street thus allowing for some ‘below stairs’ working and storage space – an area to keep the coal for example.
The house numbers have changed over the years and what was previously Number 7 is now Number 36, and as we approached a notice was flapping soggily on the door – ‘it’s shut’ we thought but ringing the bell brought one of the two house volunteers to invite us in and book us onto a 12.00 ‘architectural tour’. The website explains the different options but essentially you cannot explore the house unaccompanied and in fact it would not make much sense if you did. Much more popular than our kind of tour are the ‘Historical experiences’ which include actors and projections bringing Franklin’s words to life. As expected this attraction is very popular with Americans for whom Benjamin Franklin is not only a founding father but a great American hero – not for his deeds but his ideas.
As anyone who has been to the US, and especially to the East Coast, will know the Americans love to populate their historic sites (or even recreate them in the case of Williamsburg) with appropriately costumed and sometimes appropriately speaking actors either to portray tradespeople of the time or more famous residents. We gathered that the ‘story’ for the Benjamin Franklin House is told from the point of view of Polly Stevenson, the daughter of the landlady, a widow who maintained her family by letting rooms.
The tour begins in what we would call the basement, where are displayed a variety of objects found on different excavations. Prior to the Stevensons the former owner / tenant had been Hewson, a surgeon, who clearly, from the number of bones exhumed, practised on already dead corpses. He worked with the more famous Hunter. The display cases for the objects and the time-lines, like the shop are in a somewhat clumsy extension built out the back.
Back to Ben Franklin who arrived in England initially for 5 months, and stayed for 14 years, all of them in this house. Already the Postmaster General in the American states (still a colony) Benjamin Franklin was sent over to smooth relations between the ‘old and new countries’ though I think we all know how that story ended. The basement rooms are assumed to be where any cooking took place (though my suspicion is that much eating would have happened in chop houses and taverns of which there has never been a shortage in this part of London) so there is a later range . More interestingly there is also a cupboard in the wall, well off the floor, which is not typical of Georgian houses, and is thought to have been a proto-fridge or larder – on the cool wall of course. There are windows but well below street level.
The next, ground floor was the Stevensons’ domain and gave our guide, Samantha, a chance to tell us about their ‘relationship’ with Mr Franklin. ‘Reader – she married him.’ Well, no she didn’t, as he actually married neither long-term partner and mother of his children Deborah Read, who chose to stay ‘home’ in New England, nor Margaret Stevenson, his surrogate English ‘wife’. He was clearly very fond of young Polly too and she followed him back to America in time for the war of Independence. The wood panelled room of modest but very regular proportions is ‘set up’ with a tea-tray which would have been very much the female’s domain see entry for Twinings Tea Museum ).
The first floor (second to Americans who name their floors differently) was where Benjamin Franklin set up home – and it is the most handsome room with floor to ceiling windows and a small false but decorative balcony. Apparently the illustrious tenant was a great believer in the benefits of ‘fresh air’ and followed his own theory by having a bath and then standing naked by the open window. This was not a particularly good image and the ‘air bath’ has not gone down as one of his more successful inventions or experiments. He was clearly made of tough stuff as he also used to swim (having taught himself from a book no less) in the Thames, even more of a sewer then. Originally the front and back rooms were only divided by some columns which a later tenant removed, replacing them with a wall which proved to be less weight bearing than he thought. These alterations led to the upper floors sagging and distorting (I believe ‘architectural relaxing’ might be a kinder way of describing it) which is certainly noticeable as you go higher in the house.
The second floor (OK – I give up) has a display with a copy of Franklin’s glass harmonica (the original is in Philadelphia) of which we were given a demonstration. Apparently when out in the Irish drinking communities Franklin noticed how they played tunes on differently filled glasses by rubbing the rims, and sure enough the harmonica consists of a graded series of glass vessels. Mozart even composed some music for this rather ephemeral instrument – it never really caught on and once you’re not part of an orchestra you can easily fail…
This guy makes a really good job of it – all we could manage was a sound sort of like a noise that might have escaped from Dr.Who.
The tour finishes here – the servants of course would have been on the smallest, least glamorous and most inaccessible topmost floor. Apparently Franklin arrived with two slaves whom he freed on arrival; one took off into the bright lights of London whereas Peter stayed with ‘his master’.
For Americans this tour must be an absolute delight – it is the only home where Franklin lived still to be standing and they are much more familiar with the various stories of his inventions and experiments. For other visitors it is a good introduction to a fascinating man and an excellent opportunity to see a more modest London Georgian town house largely unaltered since its building in 1830.
PS Due to low level lighting and extensive wooden panelling photos of poor quality...