Franklin and Arnold, hero and villain - in London

The Benjamin Franklin House (right) on Craven Street, built in 1730. The inventor and statesman lived there 18 years, starting in 1757.
The Benjamin Franklin House (right) on Craven Street, built in 1730. The inventor and statesman lived there 18 years, starting in 1757. (MICHAEL MILNE)
Posted: September 23, 2013

LONDON - In 1757, Benjamin Franklin made a drastic career change. He left behind his businesses in Philadelphia for a move to England, where he represented the diplomatic interests of the colonies. The London home of the famous Philadelphian was renovated and opened to the public in 2006, coinciding with the 300th anniversary of his birth. It's the only Franklin house in the world that's still standing.

When Franklin moved into the brick townhome at 36 Craven Street, he thought he would be away for only a few months to mediate disputes between the English Parliament and the increasingly restive colonies. Those few months turned into the better part of 18 years; he did not return to Philadelphia until the onset of the American Revolution.

The structure, built in 1730, was part of a block-long, Georgian-era real estate development. Franklin rented one room from landlady Margaret Stevenson; she and her daughter, Polly, acted as Franklin's surrogate family during his long sojourn in the British capital.

Most of the woodwork, windows, and floors in the house are original and would have been here in Franklin's time. Visitors even use the same central staircase that Franklin climbed as part of his exercise routine. Prime Minister William Pitt regularly met Franklin there for consultations about the eroding relationship with the colonies. Thus, the 12-by-12-foot living room of the modest home was essentially the first American embassy in London.

As we stood in the foyer waiting for the tour to begin, someone observed that Franklin was 51 when he moved to London. "An old man," the visitor observed.

"Wait a second," my husband, Michael, piped up, "that's my age."

The small group of British tourists was intrigued when we told them we were from Philadelphia. We wondered what foreigners knew about one of America's most illustrious Founding Fathers. Their knowledge could be summed up by one incident in Franklin's life: "He's the bloke that flew the kite in a storm. We learned about it in school."

During the tour, we learned more about Franklin's achievements during his London stay.

One evening, as he was running a finger around the rim of a bowl, he got the idea to develop the glass armonica, a series of horizontal glass bowls rotating on a metal rod, becoming the first American to invent a musical instrument. The bowls are rubbed to create a baleful sound that would make a perfect soundtrack for a horror film.

It was originally believed that these sinister sounds drove many early armonica players mad. In reality, the lead in the glass caused this condition. An unleaded model can be played by visitors; the original is on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

In London, Franklin also developed the lightning rod. An original of his is still perched atop St. Paul's Cathedral.

During the home's renovation, 26 layers of paint were removed to expose the color that was there in the 1750s, now dubbed "Franklin's Green." This color seems appropriate. Always a trendsetter, Franklin was "green" before it was cool. In London, he fine-tuned the energy-saving Franklin stove - during winter, he was in bed by 4:30 p.m., the better to cut down on candle usage.

Franklin lived only a block from the Thames, not too far across the murky river from the tomb of the Revolution's most notorious villain: Benedict Arnold.

The American general plotted a handover of the fort at West Point to the British for a tidy sum of money, making his name synonymous with treachery. He moved to London after the war to evade capture, bringing along his young wife, Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia judge and granddaughter of the founder of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.

The Arnolds lie buried in the crypt below St. Mary's of Battersea, a Georgian-era stone church overlooking the Thames. Visitors can call the church to gain special access to the tomb.

Sunny, the parish administrator, led us into the lower recesses of the church. The word crypt conjured up images of a gloomy, spiderwebbed cave. What we saw surprised us. The space has the low, vaulted stone ceilings one would expect, but the brightly lit walls are painted a vivid white. Colorful accents are provided by a tropical fish tank and children's artwork adorning the walls. In fact, the plaque adorning their grave is almost obscured by the aquarium.

The Arnolds' burial tomb is now located in St. Mary's kindergarten.

Arnold's headstone is telling of his convoluted life. It states, "Benedict Arnold, 1741-1801, Sometime general in the army of George Washington. The two nations whom he served in turn in the years of their enmity have united in enduring friendship." The plaque is a recent addition, donated in 2004 by an American who felt Arnold's accomplishments as a hero of the Revolution, before he became a turncoat, had been overlooked.

Upstairs in the church sanctuary, an ornate stained-glass window is also dedicated to Arnold. British Union Jacks and American Stars and Stripes are crisscrossed in friendship. It was donated by yet another American during the Bicentennial in 1976. Arnold, who died a traitor to the Americans and in obscurity among the British, managed to garner a following 200 years after his death.

The Benjamin Franklin House and Benedict Arnold's tomb reveal the lives of two prominent Americans who had contrasting roles in the birth of the nation. Sometimes, we discover more about America by leaving its shores and witnessing its impact overseas.


Larissa and Michael Milne sold everything to travel around the world for a year, and are still on the road. See their blog at www.ChangesInLongitude.com.

To comment, e-mail traveltalk@phillynews.com.

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