There are many things to discover at the Ben Franklin house in London. First, many people may not realize that one of the Founding Fathers lived in London for a more than decade-and-a-half. He also lived in a house where hundreds of human bones were found underneath the building. Yes, human bones, and you can see them for yourself.
Benjamin Franklin arrived in London 1757 to “negotiate colonial interests,” according to home’s brochure. He rented rooms from Mrs. Margaret Stevenson (a widow) at 36 Craven Street, which you will find near Trafalgar Square, the massive London landmark that, of course, did not exist when Franklin was there (Battle of Trafalgar was 1805, 15 years after Franklin’s death). I had trouble finding Craven Street, it was kind-of down an alley tucked behind the Boots pharmacy near Charing Cross Station.
Our tour guide said that Franklin was very close with Mrs. Stevenson and her daughter Polly, considering them like a second family – I would hope so since he lived with them for nearly 16 years. (Franklin’s wife Deborah remained in Philadelphia as she apparently feared the trip).
Polly Stevenson married a doctor, one William Hewson, and this is where we get into the bones.
Crews working on the house in 1998 uncovered nearly 1,200 bones, “remnants of the anatomy school that Mr. Hewson operated on the premises,” according to the display. I wonder what Franklin, himself a scientist, thought of the secret anatomy lab. Social mores of the era looked down on the study of anatomy, so much so, that body snatchers would rob graves to supply medical schools (and it happened on this side of the pond as well).
So we know the building had a decent basement and/or garden to bury body parts, and the Georgian-style house retains many original features from the Franklin era, including “14 fireplaces, ceilings, paneling, shutters, floors and a central staircase which Franklin claimed to use for daily exercise!” I loved the original floors and stairs – my notes say “super crooked.” Take a look:
A top attraction of the Franklin House is the “Historical Experience,” which turns “the museum into a theater,” with a live actress, projections on the walls and audio recordings featuring actor Peter Coyote as the voice of Franklin and Imelda Staunton (yes, Dolores Umbridge herself) as the voice of Margaret Stevenson. And, of course, technical problems meant it wasn’t available during our Nerd Trip in July 2013.
We had to have “history to come life” the old-fashioned way with a human guide (including a volunteer-in-training) and seven other Americans. To visit, you must first be fetched from the street (there’s a note on the door telling you what to do). A volunteer walked me through a dark, narrow hallway to a back courtyard (no signs of digging), back in through the gift shop (where I purchased my admission) then ushered me to the basement (yes, where the bodies probably were) where I joined the other tourists to view some Franklin artifacts and a video before starting on our abbreviated tour.
Along with bones in the basement, we saw the original historical placard on the house. It’s brown, not blue, like most of the markers around London (previous posts chronicle my scavenger hunts to find these signs). We also saw the kitchen, and that’s not a Franklin stove, but rather it’s a stove vintage to the Victorian era (post Franklin).
The London house is actually the only surviving Franklin residence (take that Philadelphia), and there is much more the learn about Franklin’s days in London, which we will talk about in our next post.