Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father in Finsbury

Benjamin Franklin is one of history’s most famous Americans. Lulu Martyn-David explains the Founding Father’s deep links to our patch of London. 

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin (after Joseph-Siffred Duplessis , WikiMedia Commons)

Born: Boston, Massachusetts 17 January 1706
Died: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 17 April 1790

What is a man who was born and died in America in the 18th century doing here on our latest Finsbury blog? Not just any man, but a famous scientist, inventor, publisher, diplomat and statesman – a Founding Father of the United States.

Well, you may know that Benjamin Franklin actually spent quite a few years away from his home country, both in France and in England representing America’s interests. We tend to think we live in an age of travel but back in the 1700s Benjamin Franklin crossed the Atlantic  to England on three occasions, staying for varying lengths of time adding up to almost a decade. He also twice visited France, also living there for several years. All this when each voyage might take more than two  months to complete. 

What was Franklin doing in London? 

In later years when Franklin came back to London as a man of substance and repute he was acting on behalf of the colonists, negotiating for them with the Crown for a better deal from the Penn family who owned Pennsylvania –  the London representative of the Pennsylvania Assembly. During his third visit he then worked for years trying to find a solution acceptable to both the colonists and the Crown so that Revolution could be avoided. 

The colonists complained bitterly about the successive taxes (on sugar, stamps, tea and many other goods and services) that had been imposed upon them from the 1760s without their having any representation in the British Parliament. Although initially a Royalist, Franklin finally went home in 1775 having done as much as he could. The American War of Independence, or as they would say The Revolutionary War, began in April that year and on 4 July 1776 the 13 American colonies declared themselves independent.

Benjamin Franklin continued to be a key person in all this, eventually backing independence and being not only a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, but also to the Constitution of the United States and the Treaty of Paris. 

Franklin had travelled to Paris 1776-78 to take part in a commission to France to gain French support for America’s fight for Independence. His fame, personality, diplomatic skills and a colonist battle victory won the French over and they became staunch allies of the 13 states. The Treaty of Paris, negotiated by Franklin, brought the War to an end and was signed in 1783. Franklin was effectively the first American diplomat and Ambassador presenting his credentials to the French court in 1779. He served until succeeded by Thomas Jefferson in 1785.

Franklin’s first time in London

But what of Franklin’s first visit to England in the 1720s?  We could think of this as an event that set him upon his life’s journey. Aged just 18, he has already been at work for six years and apprenticed to an older brother James, he is an experienced printer. Not satisfied with that, Benjamin wants to write and sets about reading and copying famous tracts to develop his skills. When not given a chance by James, he submits work to the printing shop under a pseudonym. He has only had two years of formal education, but he is a curious and talented lad and his regular submissions by a seemingly middle-aged lady called Silence Dogood are hugely popular.  He wants to be his own boss and encouraged by his success he leaves James and his home town of Boston and settles in Philadelphia where he continues in the printing trade. There he meets Governor William Keith who is impressed by the young man’s work ethic and recommends that he travels to London to buy the paper and printing equipment not available at home and establish a business network.

Governor Keith is going to supply him with letters of credit to make the purchases as well as those of recommendation. Sadly neither of these materialise and Franklin and a young friend arrive in London to find they are on their own. It’s a measure of his spirit of enterprise and tenacity that Franklin quickly finds work in Finsbury at the famous printing office of Samuel Palmer based on Bartholomew Close.  The shop was on the mezzanine of the Lady Chapel of the Church of St Bartholomew the Great where he worked as a compositor and pressman honing his skills. His lodgings on Little Britain were within walking distance. This was a wonderful street of learning, populated by booksellers, close to Smithfield and the famous annual St Bartholomew’s Fair, the City and the Lord Mayor’s Parade. Just the right kind of place for an aspiring and intelligent young man who wanted to improve himself and make the most of his time in the biggest city in Europe.After about a year he moved to the ‘even better ‘ printing house of John Watts on Wild Court and again lodged nearby. He was close to one of London’s first theatres to open after the reformation, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane as well as the rebuilt theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It’s quite probable that he would have taken the opportunity to see some of the entertainment on offer there, works by and adaptations of Shakespeare including music and dance.

The Lady Chapel in The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great where Benjamin Franklin once worked

Returning to America

These 18 months in London from January 1725 to July 1726 were to prove important for his future although Franklin may not have realised it at the time. He eventually borrowed the money for his passage home from the Quaker tradesman Thomas Denham and on his return to Philadelphia, worked for him to pay off the debt. By 1728 he was working for Samuel Keimer, the printer responsible for the Pennsylvania Gazette and a few years later not only did he have his own printing shop but also had bought the Pennsylvania Gazette. He started Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1733 and this together with great business sense, business connections and social skills eventually made him an extremely rich person. 

Benjamin Franklin never forgot his beginnings however and was proud to be a self-made man. He continued to work on self improvement and also put his energies into projects for the public benefit. He was a founding father of The University of Pennsylvania and of the Pennsylvania Hospital. He began the local militia, a local lending library and fire service together with fundraising to clean and pave the roads of Philadelphia. 

We of course know Benjamin Franklin for his advances in science. He proved that lightning was electricity by riskily flying a kite in a storm. The lightning rod was the outcome of this experiment and when he wrote up his findings and the practical use that could be made of it in Experiments and Observations on Electricity  in 1751, the paper found its way to London and was first published in the August 1752 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine, printed at St John’s Gate, just down the road. Actually the printer Edward Cave put his own lightning rod on the roof as a result and wrote about that too! 

Working for the public good

Eventually leaving his printing works for others to run, Franklin devoted himself to science and public office. He had always been an inventor – designing swimming fins while still a teenager (I believe he may have used these swimming in the Thames). He is also credited with improving on bifocal spectacles, a flexible urinary catheter (to help his brother John) and a more efficient and less smoky domestic stove.  His several trips across the Atlantic (then the ‘Western Ocean’) caused him to observe that the crossing from America to England was faster than the return and he subsequently named and charted the Gulf Stream. Benjamin Franklin never, by the way, took out a patent on any invention, believing that everyone should benefit .

When Franklin returned to London for the second and third times he lived in Westminster and lodged at Craven Street. It was a very different experience from his first visit as he was now rich and famous and he made acquaintances and friends with the well-known scientists in London at the time. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society being awarded the Copley medal for his work on electricity and he was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of St Andrews in 1759 and University of Oxford  in 1762 becoming Dr Franklin. (He had already been awarded honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale). 

A toast to printing!

Franklin the Printer (Charles Mills, c 1914. WikiMedia Commons)

Franklin did not forget his original experiences in Finsbury and Clerkenwell however and in 1768 went back to the printing works of John Watts and addressed some of the workers there: “Come my friends, we will drink together. It is now 40 years since I worked like you at this press as a journeyman and printer”. Franklin then ordered a gallon of porter and he drank with them: “Success to printing”. This press was later bought by John Murray, an American, who shipped it to the United States. It is now in the Smithsonian Museum and bears a commemorative plaque of Franklin’s visit. There is another printing press from John Watt’s shop in the Science Museum in Kensington.

It may seem that Benjamin Franklin, a polymath and a man who could converse with anyone was beyond reproach. Far from it. When he first came to Finsbury  he was engaged to be married but only wrote one letter to his fiancée in all that first time he was away.  He apparently was surprised to find that she had married someone else in the meantime! However her husband soon deserted her to escape his debts so in 1730 Franklin contracted a common-law marriage with her and together they had two children, their son Francis dying in childhood from smallpox. Benjamin Franklin however already had a son William who was part of the household, although Franklin never divulged the name of his mother.  Deborah, his wife, helped him in the business but was adverse to crossing the ocean and so they spent many years apart and she died while he was away in France. 

Benjamin Franklin’s father had been an Englishman from Northamptonshire, a tallow chandler who had emigrated to America with his first wife. When she died he married a young woman born on Nantucket and Benjamin was their youngest son. His father had 17 children altogether. From these artisan beginnings Franklin rose to become one of the most famous people of his age, a man technically born an Englishman, but who died an American and one who had a hand in shaping America’s destiny.

A timeline of Benjamin Franklin’s visits to England and France

1724-26: England, to continue training as a printer
1757-62: England, acting as London representative of the Pennsylvania Assembly, lives at Craven Street, Westminster
1764-75: England, returns to London working to represent Colonial interests before the Crown. Lives at Craven Street, Westminster. While living there he visits his old place of employment at John Watts
1775-76: Returns to  Philadelphia and elected to Second Continental Congress, signs Declaration of Independence
1776-85: France. Travels to Paris initially as the first American Commissioner and then from 1779 as the first American Ambassador.
1785: Returns to Philadelphia

To find out when tours by Lulu and other guides are taking place have a look at the Our Walks section of the website.