Benjamin Franklin, politician, writer, scientist and statesman, always wrote after his signature – ‘printer’- his first occupation. He was one of the most influential Americans of his age and, when he came to work in London, took the opportunity to travel throughout the British Isles, including visiting Lancashire on a number of occasions.
During the late 1750s to the mid 1770s, Franklin was working in London as the main agent of the American colonies of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Georgia and New Jersey. The British Government seemed bent on introducing a whole raft of taxes upon their citizens in America, while at the same time denying them any voting rights in the British Parliament. Franklin continually pleaded the case of those living in America, but ultimately no reconciliation was to be made.
The First Tour of the North
His earliest trip to the north of England occurred in August 1759. He was travelling with his son William, and their ultimate destination was Edinburgh. In a letter he wrote to his wife, Deborah, he says “…we have been out now almost three weeks, having spent some time in Derbyshire among the gentry there to whom we were recommended, as also at Manchester and this place (Liverpool). We shall set out today for Lancaster. The journey agrees extremely well with me; and will probably be many ways of use to me….I am not certain whether we shall continue our route to Scotland or return thro’ Yorkshire and Lincolnshire to London but expect to meet letters at Lancaster that will determine me. I long much to hear from you and shall endeavour to return early next spring. My duty to Mother, and love to Sally and all friends. I am, as ever, my dear Debby, Your affectionate Husband” The Sally mentioned in the letter was his daughter, who would be the stimulus for later trips to Lancashire in the 1770s. There is little indication of who he met while in Lancashire on his first visit, but subsequent journeys were much better chronicled as he travelled with companions whose journals have survived.
While in Manchester, Franklin had been told about the salt mines of Northwich. Accordingly, he took a detour to see them, descending into the caverns. William took a stalactite of rock salt which he sent on to Franklin’s brother Peter in Newport, Rhode Island. They then turned back north to Liverpool. From there, they headed for Lancaster where they picked up their post. This was probably from contacts Franklin wanted to visit in Edinburgh, confirming the final details. From Lancaster he proceeded through Kendal, Carlisle, Hawick and Selkirk and then on to Edinburgh.
A Return to the North in 1771
A second tour occurred in in May 1771. One of his travelling companions was his grand nephew, Jonathan Williams Jr, who recorded the details in a journal. In Manchester, they visited “the school for poor boys and the old and well stocked library”. This was Chetham’s School, which contained Humphrey Chetham’s Library, the oldest free public library in Britain. (For more on this venerable institution which started life as a College of Priests see our page here).
In Salford, the party were taken on a tour of the Duke of Bridgewater’s Canal, the first industrial canal in the whole country. Williams wrote “On 21st we embarked in a luxurious horse-drawn boat on the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal and followed it to its end in the Duke’s coal mines… The last thousand yards to the first coal face were subterranean. The party observed the miners at work in cramped quarters, and watched the coal being brought out and loaded into a forty-ton canal boat, which a single horse then pulled to Manchester. There the canal again tunnelled under a large hole, running up to the surface, through which a water-driven crane unloaded the coal“. The entrance to the Duke’s coal mines was in Worsley Basin, and this historic site is preserved for visitors to view today. (See our page on it here).
They also visited Barton Aqueduct, another marvel of the age, described by Williams at the time: “The canal goes over a bridge and that bridge over a river navigable for boats of 30 tons which bring goods from several parts of the country to this bridge, and then by a crane they are hoisted into the canal and are carried about the county several ways. Under this bridge by the side of the river is a road so that when a boat is on the canal, another boat may be sailing and a carriage going at the same time under it”. A drawing of the aqueduct done one or two years later by the famous philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau can be seen here.
After they left Manchester they headed to Leeds. There they called on the scientist Joseph Priestly “..who made some very pretty electrical experiments, and some on the different properties of air”. This kind of travel is typical for Franklin – going to view some new technological wonder in one place, and then meeting someone doing cutting edge science experiments at the next.
Franklin Meets His In-laws in Preston
In November 1771 Benjamin Franklin returned to Lancashire, but this time on a social visit. Richard Bache, his son-in-law, had family who lived in Preston. Bache had left Preston to move to America and in Philadelphia he set up as a dry goods grocer. There he met Franklin’s daughter, Sally, and married her. Franklin had never met Bache in the four years since the marriage began. While he was staying in Edinburgh with the philosopher David Hume, he received a letter from his son-in-law informing him that Bache would be visiting his family in Preston. Accordingly, when Franklin left Scotland to return to London, he travelled via Preston.
Franklin took only three days to reach Preston from Edinburgh. With no regular coach services on offer, he booked a post-chaise. The last part of the journey, 72 miles from Carlisle to Preston, he managed in a single day and when the sixty-five year old arrived in the evening, he declared himself “not tired at all”. At the Bache household he met Mary Bache, two of her daughters, Nancy and Martha, and Richard. Mrs Bache was a widow of 25 years and had borne 20 children. She and Franklin got on very well, staying up until midnight talking. Richard had been worried about meeting his father-in-law, but soon after he wrote to his wife “I can with great satisfaction tell you that he received me with open arms and with a degree of affection I did not expect”.
Benjamin Franklin stayed for the weekend and would have stayed for longer, but Richard had sustained a leg injury on his voyage from America to Liverpool. He was keen to have the wound dressed in London, so he and Franklin left on the Monday morning.
In December, Mrs Bache wrote to Franklin, referring to him as her brother : “What extreme pleasure did my dear brother give me and mine to hear you had so agreeable a journey and that our dear son’s leg was so little the worse for his confinement in the chaise. We shall all rejoice to hear it is quite recovered. We are much pleased at the hopes you give us of enjoying your good and agreeable company again at my home. You likewise make us happy by naming a longer stay.”
Two months later, Franklin sent her a portrait of himself. In February 1772, she wrote again to him saying: “I received your kind and agreeable present which gave us all great pleasure. It is so like the original… My daughter Martha told Mr. Atherton that Doctor Franklin was come. The next morning he came down and asked whether the doctor was up and when you was produced it made us all merry. You are sometimes in the dining room and other times in the parlour where we view it with pleasure. It think it is now time to return my hearty thanks for it and the oysters”.
That same year, Franklin returned to Preston in the summer time, for a longer stay with the Bache household. He was travelling in the north again, this time with Sir John Pringle. His tour took him from Leeds to Cumberland, stopping off at Preston enroute. He then went on to Keswick, where he performed his famous experiment of pouring oil on the lake to see if it would calm the waves. (For more on his time in the Lakes, see this excellent presentation by Christopher Donaldson for the Manchester Lit and Phil Society here).
One story persists from Franklin’s visit to Preston. He was the inventor of the lightning conductor, and many local writers have claimed that he set up the first one in the whole country at nearby Walton-le-Dale. The building was called Coopers Hill, and was the home of John Burgoyne, the Member of Parliament for Preston. Burgoyne’s large home was on a high point in the terrain, close to the church of St Leonard, so may well have been at risk of a lightning strike. Whatever the truth, both Burgoyne’s and Franklin’s subsequent actions would have a huge impact on American and Britain’s relationship. Just three years after his second visit to Preston, Britain and America were at war with each other, and Franklin and Burgoyne were on the opposing sides.
Franklin is Attacked and Ridiculed before Parliament
In 1774, Benjamin Franklin appeared before the Privy Council in London, accused of conspiring to subvert the King’s rule in America and destroying the peace. Despite these wrongful charges, and being subjected to mocking by British politicians throughout the hearing, Franklin held his nerve. A contemporary description stated that he “was dressed in a full dress suit of spotted Manchester velvet, and stood conspicuously erect, without the smallest movement of any part of his body. The muscles of his face had been previously composed, so as to afford a placid tranquil expression of countenance, and he did not suffer the slightest alteration of it to appear during the continuance of the speech in which he was so harshly and improperly treated. In short, to quote the words which he employed concerning himself on another occasion, he kept his ‘countenance as immovable as if his features had been made of wood.’”
The accusations were unfair, as Franklin was at the time loyal to the British Crown. Two days later, the government sacked him from his position of Deputy Postmaster General of America. His dismissal, and treatment by the Privy Council, marked a turning point. This experience, coupled with the years of frustration at protesting over punitive taxes, and a continual unwillingness to allow the colonists a democratic voice, changed something within him. Franklin, the loyal subject, became Franklin the revolutionary rebel.
Franklin, General Burgoyne and the American War of Independence
He returned to America and was duly elected to the Continental Congress. This was the new self-appointed governing body of America, which saw itself as completely independent of Britain. As a result, King George III declared the colonies to be in rebellion. When the opening shots of the War of Independence were fired, Franklin’s acquaintance, John Burgoyne (the Preston MP), was one of three generals involved on the British side. He fought at the Siege of Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill.
In 1776, Franklin was one of five people elected to draw up the American Declaration of Independence. This formal document made clear that the thirteen colonies of America no longer considered themselves subject to British rule. He then left for Paris to seek support from the French court. His mission was twofold – to get France to recognise the American colonies as independent from Britain, and to bring France into the war on the Americans’ side. That same year, General Burgoyne attacked the American forces besieging Quebec and routed them.
Burgoyne’s next move was to devise a plan that he thought would bring the American rebellion to an end. He moved south from Quebec with an invasion force, in an attempt to split off New England off from its southern state allies. However, when reinforcements failed to materialise, he found himself surrounded by a much larger American force. He felt he had no option but to surrender with his 6000 men at Saratoga. This was the largest American victory in the war so far and marked a turning point for the colonists’ fortunes.
Benjamin Franklin heard about Burgoyne’s defeat in December 1777 and just two days later he was able to get King Louis XVI to enter into negotiations with him for a French-American alliance. While General Burgoyne’s troops were held as prisoners of war, Burgoyne himself was allowed to return on parole to Britain to explain his actions to the British Parliament. Once home, he sought a military trial to clear his name but this was repeatedly denied him. It began to look likely that he would be called back to America to be imprisoned with his soldiers. Edmund Burke wrote to Franklin to ask him to intercede on his behalf. Franklin replied:
“I received but a few days ago your very friendly letter… on the subject of General Burgoyne. Since the foolish part of mankind will make wars from time to time with each other, not having sense enough otherwise to settle their differences, it certainly becomes the wiser part, who cannot prevent those wars, to alleviate as much as possible the calamities attending them.
I do not think the Congress have any wish to persecute General Burgoyne. I never heard, till I receiv’d your letter, that they had recall’d him. If they have made such a resolution, it must be, I suppose, a conditional one, to take place in case their offer of exchanging him for Mr Laurens should not be accepted; a resolution intended to enforce that offer.
I have just received an authentic copy of the resolve containing that offer, and authorising me to make it. As I have no communication with your ministers, I send it enclos’d to you. If you can find any means of negotiating this business, I am sure that restoring another worthy man to his family and friends will be an addition to your pleasure.”
General Burgoyne passed his thanks on to Franklin for his intervention and did not have to return to America to be imprisoned.
Franklin remained in France to begin negotiating a peace treaty with Britain and this was finally signed four years later in 1783 as the ‘Treaty of Paris’. Britain had to relinquish all claims on the American colonies and recognise them as independent. A painting commissioned in London to commemorate the signing was left unfinished when the British delegation refused to be painted.
Franklin and the Manchester Lit and Phil
It is clear that, despite the two countries having been at war, Franklin still had many affectionate friends and acquaintances in Britain. The following year, after the peace treaty was signed, Franklin received a letter from his old friend, Dr Thomas Percival from Manchester. Percival wrote “How happy would it render your friends, to see you once more in England! But with respect to yourself, it is doubtful whether you might not feel more pain than pleasure, from such a visit...We have established a very useful Literary & Philosophical Society here, and shall soon publish a volume of memoirs.”
The Manchester Lit and Phil was the first literary and philosophical society in the world. Franklin was duly elected a member, and sent a paper for Dr Percival to read to them, which was subsequently published. It was titled Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures. Franklin began with his speculations on the formation of hailstones. He then moved on to discuss the recent long-lasting summer fog over Europe. He correctly guessed that this had been caused by an Icelandic volcano erupting. Finally, he speculated how the fog might lead to a cooling of the earth and prevent the early winter snows from melting as quickly as they normally did.
Franklin and Slavery
There is much that is admirable in the character of Benjamin Franklin, but one part which notably jars with our modern notions of justice and freedom is the fact that, early on in his life, he owned a slave family. His views on slavery were to change completely as he grew older. In his younger days, before he came to Britain, he owned and printed a newspaper in Philadelphia that would run adverts for the sale of slaves. He would have seen with his own eyes the wealth that the port of Liverpool generated, the biggest slaving town in Britain at the time of his visits.
When he first travelled to Lancashire back in 1759 with his son William, he was also accompanied by Peter, a slave. Franklin wrote to his wife Deborah “Billy presents his duty, and Peter”. In modern language, this meant his son William (Billy) and Peter sent their respects. The slave family consisted of Peter, who was married to Jemima, along with their sons named King, Othello and George. King had also accompanied them to England, but had made a break for freedom the previous year. He subsequently returned, but later ran away again. It is not known what happened to these individuals during the later 1760s, as they were no longer mentioned in his correspondence, but it is quite possible that they were freed by Franklin. Evidence for this comes from him writing his will, in 1757, which provided for their freedom if he died.
During the 1750s and 1760s, Franklin became involved with the ‘Associates of Dr Bray’ , a group which taught black children to read (as well as actively promoting the Christian religion). This progressed into setting up schools for them and Franklin acted as an advisor to the movement in this respect. During the 1770s, he was in frequent correspondence with abolitionists in England and America and in 1775, as a member of the American Continental Congress, he openly expressed his hostility to slavery. In his 80s, Franklin was very active as an abolitionist – he was elected president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and published four anti-slavery documents.
Chetham’s School and Library Chetham’s is situated close to Manchester Cathedral. Jonathan Scofield does regular weekend tours of both the school and the library here. To book a tour of Chetham’s Library only, see their webpage here
Worsley Delph, Salford Park at Worsley Court House Car Park (this is a public car park). There is a small parking charge. Cross over the road by the historical court house. Head right at the roundabout, passing the library. Walk across Worsley Road Bridge. Cross the road to The Delph and Tung Fung restaurants. Worsley Delph in on the left.
Preston Blue Plaque on the Cafe Nero building Park in any of the city centre car parks. This is the site of the Bache family residence. The building is on the corner of Friargate and Orchard Street. The plaque is high up above the ground floor on the Friargate side of the building.
General Burgoyne’s house at Coopers Hill, Walton-le-Dale The site of the first lightning conductor in Britain. Park in the free car park on Chapel Yard and walk up to Church Brow. Modern houses now sit on the original site at Coopers Hill Close. It is best viewed from Church Brow, close to the junction with Victoria Road. Then walk up Church Brow and turn right into Coopers Hill Drive. The site is on a promontory, as the land drops steeply away around this point on. Turn right again to go into Coopers Hill Close. The two houses on the end mark where General Burgoyne’s house once stood.
Benjamin Franklin in Scotland and Ireland, J. Bennett Nolan (1938) University of Pennsylvania Press
Correspondence of Benjamin Franklin and Timeline of his Movements
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson (2003) Simon & Schuster
Franklin in the Lake District
War of Independence
Lit and Phil Society
Franklin and Slavery
Benjamin Franklin’s View of the Negro and Slavery, William E. Juhnke (1974) Pennsylvania History Vol.41, no.4, October 1974