Frankly Speaking 2024

Literary Prize Winner & Runner-up announced!

2023 Winner and Runner-up

Each year a question or quote exploring Franklin’s relevance in our time is open for interpretation in 1000-1500 words. The competition is exclusively for young writers, aged 18-25, with a first prize of £750, and a second prize of £500.

In 2023, our quote for interpretation was;

“Government must depend for its Efficiency either on Force or Opinion.” From ‘The Colonist’s advocate’, VII. (Feb 1, 1770)

We received some excellent entries to our 2023 Prize and we are proud to announce the names of the two young writers that were voted as the winner and runner-up by our team of judges;

Winner – Ciara Griffiths

Ciara is a 21-year-old Philosophy graduate of Royal Holloway University of London. She is currently volunteering for Oxfam and works as a Social Media Ambassador for BucksVision, a local charity supporting visually impaired people living in Buckinghamshire.

Judges comments:

Wendy Moore: “A very stylish piece of fiction with lots of tension and echoes of A Tale of Two Cities.”

Rory Sutherland: “an ingenious link to the French Revolution.”

Runner-up – Angus Brown

Angus is 24 and currently a third year doctoral candidate in History at the University of Cambridge. 

Judges comments:

Lord Guy Black: “A compelling essay, expertly written.”

Huw David: “Well researched, brilliantly structured, and a thought-provoking conclusion.”


If you would like to read their entries for the 2023 Prize, please click on their names to view their work.

In May 2024, the winner, runner-up and other shortlisted writers were invited to Benjamin Franklin House for a special award ceremony to receive their prizes and meet the judging panel for the 2023 Prize.

We would like to congratulate those on our shortlist as well as everyone who entered this year’s Prize.

2023 Literary Prize Shortlist Announcement

Each year a question or quote exploring Franklin’s relevance in our time is open for interpretation in 1000-1500 words. The competition is exclusively for young writers, aged 18-25, with a first prize of £750, and a second prize of £500.

This year, our quote for interpretation was;

‘Government must depend for its Efficiency either on Force or Opinion.’ From ‘The Colonist’s Advocate’, Vol VII. (1 February, 1770).

We received some excellent entries to our 2023 Prize and today we are proud to announce the names of the five young writers that have made it to our 2023 Shortlist. In alphabetical order, these are;

Angus Brown

Ciara Griffiths

Freya Graham

Georgina Arnold

Sam MacKley

If you would like to read any of the shortlisted entries for the 2022 Prize, please click on the writer names to view their work.

The winner and runner-up of the 2023 Literary Prize will be announced on the Benjamin Franklin House website on February 1st 2024, exactly 254 years since Franklin wrote this year’s quote.

In May 2024, the winner, runner-up and other shortlisted writers will be invited to Benjamin Franklin House for a special award ceremony to receive their prizes and meet the judging panel for the 2023 Prize.

The 2023 Literary Prize Judges are;

  • Dr. Márcia Balisciano, Director of Benjamin Franklin House
  • Lord Guy Black, Executive Director of the Telegraph Media Group
  • Wendy Moore, English journalist, author, and historian
  • Dr. Huw David, Development Director at Wolfson College, University of Oxford
  • Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group and Board Member of Benjamin Franklin House

We would like to congratulate those on our shortlist as well as everyone who entered this year’s Prize.

If you are interested in participating in our 2024 Literary Prize, please look out for announcements on our website. The quote for next year’s competition will be announced at the 2023 award ceremony and posted shortly after.

Attending MLB London Series 2023? Add Benjamin Franklin House to your to-do list…

St. Louis Cardinals face Chicago Cubs at the London Stadium June 24 to 25. Extend the excitement of your MLB London Series trip with our top tips and 10 reasons to visit Benjamin Franklin House:


  1. A new way to learn the story behind the man on the C-Note

    With a visit to the Benjamin Franklin House, history comes alive! We offer an immersive experience that tells the rich story of Franklin in London through live interpretation, sound, lighting, and visual projection.

  2. Connect with London’s past and present

    Entering Craven Street from the hustle and bustle of a 21st century Strand, you are immediately transported to Franklin’s 18th century London. A true hidden gem!

  3. Learn

    Franklin was a huge advocate of education for all! Benjamin Franklin House offers an accessible and enjoyable way to refresh all you learnt about Ben in High School. Connect with us on social media to learn more about Franklin’s life through short and digestible content.

  4. Get answers to the age-old question…was Benjamin Franklin a serial killer?!

    Find out why 1200 human bones were discovered buried in our garden…

  5. Americana

    Looking for a home away from home? Indulge those American roots and find out why Franklin loved this city so much.

  6. The heart of London

    Located in Westminster in the centre of London, Benjamin Franklin House is perfect for an off-the-beaten-track attraction amongst local tourist hotspots like the London Eye, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace.

  7. Original 18th Century architecture

    Experience an authentic 18th century London home! Built in 1730, the House retains a lot of its original features that Ben himself would recognise. On Fridays, our Architecture Tours dive deep into its fascinating history.

  8. Franklin Trail

    The Benjamin Franklin House is one exciting spot along the Franklin Trail in London. Central to the trail, come and learn how he lived, conducted experiments for his scientific inventions and negotiated with key figures of the day.

  9. Welcoming and insightful staff

    The staff at the Benjamin Franklin House are all Franklin enthusiasts and willing to ask any questions you have!

  10. Understanding and appreciation

    Learning history helps one reflect on the present day and why certain traditions and
    customs exist. Additionally, appreciating history allows one better understand the current
    state of affairs and recognise patterns for the future.

Benjamin Franklin: Cub or Cardinal?

Designed to keep Benjamin Franklin’s history alive in the minds of Chicago’s youth, a monument to him stands in the city’s Lincoln Park!
With a big ego and no direct link to the city of St Louis, it’s only fair to assume that Franklin would therefore be rooting for the Cubs.. sorry not sorry.

Top tips to make the most of your MLB London Series!



The MLB London Series is held at London Stadium, June 24-25. Public transport in London is accessible and easy to use and payment can be made using contactless debit/credit cards and mobile devices.

Downloading the app CityMapper makes directions easy for all IOS and Android users. For more directions, see Transport for London’s tube map, bus map, or guidance on cycling in London.

Visiting Benjamin Franklin House? Here’s some handy advice for getting here!


For ballpark inspired food, MLB London Series has partnered up with some great London establishments!

Representing Chicago Cubs, there’s Yard Sale Pizza.

And for St Louis Cardinals fans, check out Patty & Bun.

More fun on Benjamin Franklin House’s doorstep!

MLB London Series Trafalgar Square Takeover is a three-day celebration of baseball culture in one of the most iconic spots in the city (and a 2 minute walk from us!)
Visit the Fan Festival page to find out more.

A visit to Benjamin Franklin House is a real home run…

Hallfield Primary School Outreach Workshop: Inside Benjamin Franklin’s House

Remembering William Hewson: The Story Behind the Bones in our Basement

Note: There are several people discussed in this piece who share names. To avoid confusion, whenever possible William Hewson will be referred to by his last name and the Hunter brothers will be called by their first names.


When you google “Benjamin Franklin” and ‘“bones” most of what you’ll get is tabloid headlines inquiring as to whether or not Franklin was a serial killer. The answer is no. Rather, the bones in the basement of 36 Craven Street were the result of an anatomy school run by William Hewson in what was once the garden.


Who’s Who 


William Hewson

William Hewson was born on November 14, 1739, and was one of 11 children, very few of whom survived to adulthood. 1 When he was 20 years old, he moved to London and began to study anatomy under William and John Hunter. 2 When they thought he had learned a great deal, the Hunter brothers allowed Hewson to teach some of the newer students. 3 Hewson worked with William Hunter for a time before the two had a disagreement. 4 The issue largely came down to the fact that Hewson, “…decided to live in a house of his own rather than Hunter’s house/lecture rooms/museum.” 5 Benjamin Franklin played a hand in mediating the dispute and the two were able to reach an amicable solution. 6 Hewson opened his own anatomy school in September 1772 at 36 Craven Street.  7

In 1769, Hewson was awarded the Copley Medal but he was not admitted into the Royal Society until March 8, 1770. 8 According to the Royal Society, “First awarded in 1731…it was initially awarded for the most important scientific discovery or for the greatest contribution made by experiment.” 9

On May 1, 1774, Hewson died tragically of septicaemia. 10 According to George Gulliver, Hewson’s wife, Polly, whom he married in 1770, wrote of him, “A better son and husband, or a fonder father than Mr. Hewson never existed…. Mr. Hewson’s manners were gentle and engaging; his ambition was free from ostentation, his prudence was without meanness, and he was more covetous of fame than of fortune.” 11

William Hunter

William Hunter was born on May 23, 1718. 12 He was the seventh of ten children and the older brother of John Hunter. 13 He began studying at Glasgow University in 1731 with the intention of joining the church but did not graduate. Instead, he studied under Alexander Monro for a year, followed by studying midwifery under William Smellie. 14 Because of his time under Smellie, Hunter, “began building a surgical and midwifery practice, investigating female reproductive anatomy using animals.” 15 He started teaching anatomy lessons featuring human corpses in 1746 and continued doing so until he died. 16

One of his main areas of study was the gravid uterus. 17 In 1750, “Hunter had his first opportunity to dissect a full-term gravid uterus…and was able to determine the relationship between the maternal and foetal blood system in the placenta. This work confirmed that maternal blood reached the placenta but did not pass to the foetus.” 18 His experience and research lead him to be inducted into the Royal Society on April 30, 1767. By that same year, he became physician extraordinary to the Queen. 19 Queen Charlotte was not his only high-status patient; according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “…possibly because of his growing midwifery practice among the aristocracy. Hunter certainly seems to have developed personal qualities which brought him patients such as the Pitts, Hertfords, Lady Ossory, the Fitzroys, the earl of Sandwich, Lord North, the Coutts, and the Hollands.” 20

William fully opened his own anatomy school on Great Windmill Street, and “…began lecturing in the new anatomy theatre in 1767, and lived on the site from 1768.” 21He taught there for many years until he died on March 30, 1783, possibly of renal failure. 22 Much of his work became disputed as he did not publish much of it and, “Pupils’ notes of his lectures are the only record of some of his discoveries.” 23

John Hunter 

John Hunter was born on February 13, 1728. 24 He attempted to find work in Scotland but ultimately moved to London at age 20 to work with his older brother, William Hunter. 25 John studied at a variety of schools but could not obtain his certification to practice so he took a break from working. He ended up becoming a staff surgeon in the English Army in 1760 and was able to gain a lot of field experience. 26 He wrote a paper called A Treatise on Blood, Inflammation, and Gun-shot Wounds, published posthumously, that detailed a better way to treat gunshot wounds. 27

John enjoyed collecting medical oddities for his personal collection, which totaled over 10,000 items. He made many contributions to science but never published many of his findings. 28 Despite this, he was awarded the Copley Medal in 1787. 29 Before he died in 1793, he requested that “…upon his death two specimens be preserved: his Achilles tendon, which ruptured in 1767 and healed through secondary ossification, and his heart.” 30 Neither of them were preserved. 31 He was originally buried in the Church of St Martin in the Field but was reburied in Westminster Abbey on March 28, 1859. 32


Anatomy Schools 


How an anatomy school worked

Many anatomy schools, including William Hunter’s operated through only the winter season as the bodies would decompose to quickly otherwise. 33 According to Roy Porter, “…near the top of the [specialization] list was midwifery, as surgeon-apothocaries discovered that obstetrics paid, for the baby you brought into the world became your patient for life.” 34 Many students went to schools in either London or Scotland but the schools in London were more flexible. 35 These schools led to a number of advancements in the medical field as lecturers demonstrated the techniques they had developed through dissections and practicing on cadavers. 

Comparative Anatomy

Comparative anatomy was a very common practice. As stated in an article from the Journal of Anatomy, “The animal dissections were noted to have saw cuts in very similar positions to those found in the human skeletons….” 36 Hewson was known to complete experiments utilizing comparative anatomy. A turtle spine and mercury were found within the pit of bones at Craven Street and Hewson was known to have conducted an experiment in 1770 at the Royal Society using the flow of mercury through a turtle to show the lymphatic system. 

The Hunterian Collection

John Hunter was known for collecting cadavers with medical abnormalities. Ruth Richardson writes of his collection containing, “monstrous births (animal and human) in bottles, the skeletons of physical freaks, a cast of the brain cavity of Dean Swift’s skull, death masks, murderers’ skeletons and relics, and all sorts and conditions of medical prodigies – feet, heads, internal organs – pickled or dyed to show their peculiarities to better effect.” 37 

One such example of this was the body of Charles Byrne. He had a tumor that caused him to be abnormally tall, measuring 8 ft. 4 in. by the time of his death. He was part of a traveling exhibition using the title of “The Irish Giant.” 38 When he died at age 22, he wanted to be buried at sea so anatomists would not be able to dissect him but, John Hunter was able to obtain his body for approximately £500. After he was dissected, his skeleton was placed on display. 39 According to the Royal College of Surgeons, when the Hunterian museum reopens,“…Charles Byrne’s skeleton will not be displayed…but will still be available for bona fide medical research into the condition of pituitary acromegaly and gigantism.” 40


Obtaining Cadavers

In 1752, the Murder Act was passed, “which allowed for the corpses of executed murderers to be taken to the Company of Surgeons in London for studying and teaching.” 41 Dissection was often viewed as an additional layer of punishment for those who were executed. 42 Sometimes prisoners would sell their bodies ahead of time to do things like pay debts but, “Riots at the gallows often sought to deny surgeons dissection rights over the dead, regardless of whether currency had changed hands.” 43

There were not nearly enough cadavers to supply all of the anatomy schools in London so many surgeons resorted to obtaining bodies from graverobbers, also known as resurrectionists. As Ruth Richardson writes, “…exhumation was not technically a crime of theft; for although dead human bodies were in face bought and sold, in the eyes of the law a dead body did not constitture real property and therefore could neither be owned nor stolen.” 44 Unless the grave robber was caught in possession of the effects of the deceased or had damaged the coffin in some way, they would not be punished by the law.  45

There were some, such as William Burke and William Hare, who took it upon themselves to “create” cadavers for medical schools. Hare ran a lodging house and after one of the lodgers passed away, they sold his body to Dr. Robert Knox for his dissections. After making a profit, they began to murder people by suffocating them. They continued to sell them to Dr. Knox. Their practice continued from November 1827 to October 31, 1828. 46 When they were caught, Hare gave evidence against Burke then left for Ireland. Burke was hung and dissected. Knox’s knowledge of the murders could not be verified so he was not punished.  47

Most of the bodies taken from graves for dissection were those of the poor as their graves were often in mass and their coffins were cheap, making them easy targets. There were often groups of people who would work together to rob graves. They operated with the goal of making it look as though the grave had never been disturbed. They often would not take the bodies of a person who had clearly had an infectious disease. 48 That said, according to Ruth Richardson, Astley Cooper was quoted as saying, “The law does not prevent our obtaining the body of an individual if we think proper; for there is no person, let his situation in life be what it may, whom if I were disposed to dissect, I could not obtain.”  49

The rules around the body trade changed after the Warburton Anatomy Act of 1832. Parliament writes, “…the Anatomy Act of 1832 gave surgeons and their students’ legal access to the bodies from workhouses, hospitals and prisons that were unclaimed 48 hours after death. It was also made possible for a person to donate a next of kin’s body for medical study.” 50



The bones found in the basement of 36 Craven Street show marks from surgical instruments. There is a femur bone that shows signs of having been amputated and a number of skulls with small circles drilled out, known as trepanning. Many other bones showed signs of having been amputated or cut away to be removed in a particular fashion. 51

When Hewson died, Benjamin Franklin wrote to Deborah of him, saying: 

“Our Family here is in great Distress. Poor Mrs. Hewson has lost her Husband, and Mrs. Stevenson her Son-in-law. He died last Sunday Morning of a Fever which baffled the Skill of our best Physicians. He was an excellent young Man, ingenious, industrious, useful, and belov’d by all that knew him. She is left with two young Children, and a third soon expected. He was just established in a profitable growing Business, with the best Prospects of bringing up his young family advantageously.” 52

Maintaining Independence: Widows as Landladies During the Georgian Era


Margaret Rooke Stevenson was born in 1706. She married Addinell Stevenson, a merchant, but he passed away around 1747. 1 Their only daughter, Mary “Polly” Stevenson was born on June 15, 1739. 2 After Addinell died, Margaret and Polly took up residence at 36 Craven Street in 1748. Very little is known about Margaret’s life until Benjamin Franklin began renting four rooms from her in 1757. He was Margaret’s most famous resident. Margaret took to Benjamin quite well, essentially serving as his society wife by attending functions with him and hosting dinners together. 3 Franklin praised her immensely in his letters, even calling her, “…a certain very great lady, the best woman in England….” 4 When Franklin returned to the United States, their relationship remained quite strong. 

When Margaret was widowed, she gained a status unlike any other. As is the case with much of history, women during the Georgian era had limited power on their own. Being a widow was the best-case scenario for many as it granted an unmatched level of independence. While what was available to widows was limited by what their husbands left to them, “Widowhood was, to all intents and purposes, the only period in the life of a woman when she was in control of her own destiny: no longer managed by either father or husband.”5 Many widows made money as landladies because “It allowed them to stay in the family home and provide a little company and social life.”6 Though it was not viewed as the most acceptable profession, it was seen as a somewhat respectable way for widows to make money. 

The main draw to becoming a landlady was that it allowed women to make a living in a respectable manner in a world that did not want them to have autonomy. According to Amanda Vickery, Mary Pendarves, who was widowed at age 24 said, “‘My fortune…was very mediocre but it was at my own command.’”7 If a woman could make money, she could support herself and be independent. Because widows had been married at one point, they had an additional advantage over spinster who were, “at best a curiosity, and at worst a problem.”8 The respectable independence that could be established by widows as landladies was unmatched.  

The independence that these women had caused many to be fearful. As a result, there were many stereotypes circulated throughout the media about landladies, one of which was that of landladies as brothel madams or prostitutes. This caricature is portrayed across several different types of media, including many illustrations.9 There is no solid backing to this claim as, “None of these [diaries and journals that belonged to landladies], nor any lodgers whose accounts I have researched to date, mentioned any association between their landladies and the sex trade – even when the landlady was a milliner, the occupation most associated with undercover brothels in novels.”10 A blanket statement cannot be made that there were no instances in which this stereotype was true however, it can be safely assumed that a fair amount of it can be chalked up to a dislike of a woman having autonomy. A common thread throughout history is society being scared of independent women. Having harmful stereotypes against them, such as labeling them objects of sexual desire, would tarnish their reputation and make people afraid of them. 

Another assumption made about landladies is that they were nosey. They had the keys to the house and could go about the space as they pleased. The landlady was often the only person with a key to the rooms so she would have been able to traverse the rooms as needed or as she pleased. There was a chance that a lodger would have access to a key for their rooms as well but it was not overly common.11 With the landlady generally being the only person to have the key, it is understandable that people might find them suspicious. In a society that thrived on a patriarchal hierarchy, having a woman in a position of power such as a business owner in the way that the landladies were, would have lead to some uneasiness about what they had the ability to do.

Despite these stereotypes, lodging houses were fairly nice places to live. A common theme across many pieces of research is the creation of a domestic community. Seeing as many landladies were single women, having lodgers to share a common space would have been given them social interaction and a sense of community within their own homes.12 For the lodgers, renting out rooms, “…was also carefree, avoiding responsibility for home maintenance and liability to serve in parish office or pay most taxes.”13 For the most part, rooms on the ground floor were used for visitors while the owner of the house would live on the middle floors. 14 At 36 Craven Street, this was very much the same. On the bottom floor, were Margaret Stevenson’s parlour and a cardroom in which she allowed Franklin to host guests. He rented four rooms within the house and was quite social with Margaret and her daughter Polly. 

Becoming a widow and making a living as a landlady was liberating for many women. Widowhood was one of the few ways a woman like Margaret Stevenson could be independent, still maintain some sort of social standing, and continue to be seen as respectable without a husband. Supporting themselves by renting rooms was a simple way to earn money and give themselves a place within society. 

By Charlotte Frick

Remembering David O. Brownwood

22 March 2023

All at Benjamin Franklin House were deeply saddened to learn of the death of our friend and supporter David O. Brownwood, the first Chair of the US Benjamin Franklin House Foundation.

David received his A.B. with distinction from Stanford University in 1956 and went on to serve in the U.S. Air Force as a fighter pilot in the Air Defense Command until 1961. Flying remained a passion for David, even after his active duty. He attended Harvard Law School, receiving his LL.B. magna cum laude in 1964. From 1966 to 1967, he taught law at the University of Khartoum in the Sudan and from 1967 to 1968 at the Kenya Institute of Administration. Upon returning to the United States, he joined the New York-based law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore LLP and became a partner in 1973, focusing his practice on corporate finance, becoming Senior Counsel in 2003.

David was always insightful, effective, warm, encouraging and kind.  He will be deeply missed.  We extend our sympathy to his wife Bo, his children and grandchildren.

A Quiet Revolution: Exploring 18th-Century Women’s Education through Sally Franklin and Polly Stevenson

The eighteenth century was a period of great change in many aspects, one of which was women’s education. The Enlightenment ignited the idea that men and women were created equal, though assigned to different responsibilities1. While women’s sphere of influence was still limited to mostly motherhood and domestic duties, there developed a greater sense of value of these roles, and the work women could do within these spheres expanded. The influence mothers had over their children, particularly sons, was seen as a powerful force, and so women began receiving a wider education to better train the next generation of leaders and statesmen2. Both Mary “Polly” Stevenson Hewson and Sarah “Sally” Franklin Bache carefully mastered challenging the status quo for women’s roles, all without ever causing a stir for leaving the female domain. Both women used their education to bring many traditionally-male duties into the feminine sphere and claim them as their own. 

The typical education for a middle-to-upper class girl of the eighteenth century would encompass several disciplines, almost always taught at home by their mothers to prepare them for a life centred around the family and domestic duties3. Included in this curriculum was the traditionally feminine needlework, which was a practical skill as well as a beautifying one–it provided a way to demonstrate their refined tastes, but also meant that clothes could be mended instead of purchased new and served also as a means of income4. Polly was evidently a skilled knitter, as Franklin thanked her in a 1759 letter for a pair of garters, which he called “the finest, neatest and prettiest that were ever made!”5. Franklin was less complimentary of Sally’s work, though he often encouraged her to “spin & knit your Family Stockings,”6 frequently hoping she would contribute to the Franklin home’s domestic economy. Another key component of typical female education was reading, especially religious materials to perfect their moral development7. This was one of Franklin’s main focuses for Sally’s early education, writing to his wife that “I hope she continues to love going to Church, and would have her read over and over again the whole Duty of Man and the Lady’s Library”8. The Whole Duty of Man was an Anglican devotional book, and The Lady’s Library was probably an anthology of moral readings9; both works were likely meant to produce a Christian and feminine disposition. Both women may have also read women’s periodicals, such as The Lady’s Magazine, which covered secular subjects like fashion, romance, and education10.

A portrait of Sally Franklin.

Sally (1743-1808) was Franklin’s daughter. She stayed behind in the American colonies with her mother, Deborah, while Franklin was abroad in London for 16 years.

While Franklin certainly advocated for the components of a traditional female education for Sally in her teens, it seems that her studies may have had more of a radical start. In 1751, when Sally was eight years old, Deborah wrote a letter to Margaret Strahan ordering a set of books requested by Franklin to begin his daughter’s education. The curriculum included “1 Doz of Fomiliar Formes [sic.] Latin and Eng,”  “1 Boyles Pliny,” and “6 Sets of Nature Displayd in 7 Volums [sic.],”11. These works prove that Sally was intended to learn Latin, philosophy, and some elements of biology, all of which were certainly not on the syllabus for the typical 18th-century girl, as these subjects were decidedly reserved for the male sphere. It does not seem, however, that the Franklins stuck to this revolutionary approach to Sally’s education, as by her early teens, there are no documented references to her study of any of these subjects. It seems instead that she diverted to the traditionally-female track of education, with studies of religion, French, and harpsichord12. It is unknown why her curriculum might have seen such a drastic shift, but it might have been due to Franklin’s frustrations with her progress. When Sally was thirteen years old, Franklin wrote to Deborah: “I should have read Sally’s French Letter with more Pleasure, but that I thought the French rather too good to be all her own Composing. I suppose her Master must have corrected it,”13. Franklin was evidently sceptical of his daughter’s abilities. Throughout Sally’s upbringing, Franklin seemed to be doubtful and critical towards her learning, often correcting her spelling or censuring her work ethic. He did, however, consistently encourage her to learn household accounting and arithmetic which, though intended for domestic use, were traditionally skills included in a male curriculum. It seemed that instead of an academic, Franklin saw Sally’s role as a future wife and mother, often reminding her to focus on these skills as “it is of the more Importance for you to think seriously of this, as you may have a Number of Children to educate”14.

While Sally embraced these domestic roles, marrying Richard Bache in 1767 and bearing eight children, she also used the practical skills acquired in her education to become a political activist. A patriot, Sally became a key member of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, raising funds to support the American Revolution and organising an effort to sew over two-thousand shirts for soldiers at Valley Forge15. While for most of her life Sally, like most eighteenth-century women, was designated training to become a mistress of domestic duties, she pulled her skills of needlework, organisation, and management out of the home and used them in the male-dominated political world. Utilising the arts that society permitted to women, Sally’s tactic was not inflammatory or blatantly disruptive to the gender norms, but it allowed her to lead a quiet revolution by expanding feminine skills out of the home and into a politically-fraught war.

Polly Stevenson’s educational background before her introduction to Franklin at age eighteen is relatively unknown. Due to her situation in life and proficiency at writing and needlework, as evidenced through her letters to Franklin, it can be assumed that she had at least a similar traditional home education to Sally. Polly, unlike Franklin’s daughter, had great interest in academic subjects like philosophy, engineering, and natural science; in 1760, at age twenty-one, Polly asked Franklin to tutor her in these subjects in their correspondence. Franklin agreed, but questioned her motivation, asking, “but why will you, by the Cultivation of your Mind, make yourself still more amiable, and a more desirable Companion for a Man of Understanding, when you are determin’d, as I hear, to live Single?”16 As he did with Sally, Franklin saw a woman’s education as a training for life as a wife or mother, fearing that this extensive course of study had no purpose if Polly did not use it as a means to catch an academically-inclined husband.

A portrait of Polly Stevenson.

Polly (1739-1795) was the daughter of Franklin’s landlady in London. She was like an adopted daughter to Franklin and corresponded with him for the rest of his life.

He later seemed to change his mind, admiring Polly’s scholastic aptitude and appreciation of learning: “After writing 6 Folio Pages of Philosophy to a young Girl, is it necessary to finish such a Letter with a Compliment? Is not such a Letter of itself a Compliment? Does it not say, she has a Mind thirsty after Knowledge, and capable of receiving it; and that the most agreable Things one can write to her are those that tend to the Improvement of her Understanding?”17 Polly led her course of study for the most part, with Franklin initiating only a brief survey of French philosophy18. Polly inquired about and studied entomology, geothermal heating, gravity, the tidal patterns of rivers, the distillation of salt water, the electrification of storm clouds, the polarisation of water molecules, and pathology.

Perhaps this final interest provided the connection with her later-husband, anatomist William Hewson. Polly wrote to Franklin, “I met with a very sensible Physician [Hewson] yesterday, who prescribes Abstinence for the Cure of Consumption. He must be clever because he thinks as we do”19. It is revealed in her second sentence that Polly views herself as a scientist of her own right, an equal to both Franklin and Hewson. Despite not being offered formal opportunities to train in science, by seeking out Franklin as a mentor, Polly created her own way of studying the subject in a way that would not upset the societal gender norms. Through her marriage to Hewson, she was able to bring the sciences into the household sphere; her husband opened a school of comparative and human anatomy at their 36 Craven Street home. While there exist no records proving Polly’s direct interaction with the school, it is difficult to believe that such an inquisitive and scientific mind would have never watched the operations or engaged with her husband’s theories on haematology when these many experiments took place under her own roof. Perhaps Polly used society’s prescription of marriage as a way to bring scientific study into her own sphere of access.

Franklin’s close involvement in supervising the education of both young women was highly unusual for the eighteenth-century, as the role was typically reserved for mothers to impart domestic skills on their daughters. While he still subscribed to the idea of Republican Motherhood–that their educations were a training only to be excellent wives and to educate their own sons one day–Franklin was a proponent of expanding the realm of education for women, as seen in his studying sciences with Polly and originally assigning Sally a curriculum of Latin and philosophy. Sally and Polly, however, were the opportunists who each saw a chance to challenge what they could do with their education. Sally brought her skills from the home into the male political sphere as an activist, and Polly brought the male scientific sphere into her home as the wife to a physician. Both women were able to cleverly subvert the societal prescriptions for women’s roles, by delicately merging the education of a homemaker with traditionally-male spheres.

By Emily Anne Harris