Benjamin Franklin An American Visitor - 1758
It is late on a sunny evening in July 1758. Three men cast long shadows as they walk through the village into the churchyard in Ecton. They have called first at a decayed old stone building still known by their family name. The father, grandfather and great-grandfather of one of the men had all been born in the village and it was a niece who had showed them to the churchyard. They pause to look at the church registers before exploring the churchyard, near the north porch. Soon one of the men, a servant called Peter, will wash the moss and lichen from two of the gravestones while a younger man, William will take down the inscriptions. The third man, a portly figure in his 50s, the father of William, will watch anxiously. He has come a long way for this moment.
Slowly the moss is cleared from one of the gravestones and reveals
Here lyeth the body of Thomas Franklin who departed this life January the 6 Anno Domini 1702 in the sixty fifth yeare of his age
and on another gravestone nearby,
Here lyeth the body of Eleanor Franklin the wife of Thomas Franklin who departed this life the 14th of March 1711 in the 77 yeare of her age.
The portly man, Benjamin, has found what he came to Ecton to seek - evidence of his roots. Now many Americans visit the village of Ecton for the same purpose, to search for the roots of one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America - Benjamin Franklin.
The records of the Franklin family give little indication that it was likely to sport a man of such note -but it was nonetheless a family of some considerable talent.
Benjamin Franklin learned that the Franklin family had lived on a freehold of about thirty acres since at least 1555 (the earliest date in the parish registers). His grandparents were Thomas, who was born in 1598, and Mary Franklin. Thomas and Mary had four sons, Thomas (1638-1702), John, Benjamin and the youngest, Josiah (1655-1744).
Grandfather Thomas, and presumably his family, had lived in Ecton all his life until he was too old to carry on the business, when he went to live with his son, Franklins Uncle,
John, a dyer in Banbury, the older brother with whom Franklins father, Josiah had served his apprenticeship. Grandfather Thomas Franklin died and is buried in Banbury.
Josiah, who was commonly called Josias, sailed to America in 1683. It would be easy to assume Josiass motives for doing so were religious (the Franklin family were strong Protestants and were perhaps uncomfortable with the easy morality and high church leanings of Restoration England) but it is more likely that economics was the prime reason. Josias Franklin had barely been keeping his head above water in England and probably hoped to do better elsewhere. He had been working with his brother John as a wool-dyer in Banbury but after arriving in New England with his wife and three children he became a tallow chandler and soap maker - a small but significant step down the economic-social hierarchy but a start in the New World.
Josiass first wife, and the mother of seven children, died within a few years of their arrival in America and he then married Abiah Folger, a second generation New Englander. There were another ten children by this marriage, the youngest, born in Boston in 1706, being christened Benjamin after his Uncle Benjamin for whom Josias had a strong affection. Uncle Benjamin, like two of his brothers was a dyer, and came to the house in Boston and lived with them for several years while Franklin was a boy.
John, Benjamin and Josias were trained as dyers. Thomas, the eldest of the four brothers, Franklins third uncle, and the stories of whom most attracted Franklins attention, was born in 1638. Young Thomas was always intended to work in the familys smithy business in Ecton, following the established pattern for all eldest sons. But Thomas was a bright child, mainly self-taught and Franklin describes his Uncle Thomas in his autobiography as bred a smith under his father; but being ingenious and encouraged in learning (as all my brothers were) by an esquire Palmer; then the principal inhabitant of that parish, he qualified himself for the bar, and became a considerable man in the county; as chief mover of all public spirited enterprises for the county or town of Northampton, as well as of his own village, of which many instances were related of him; and he as much taken notice of and patronised by Lord Halifax (2) As a consequence, he had little time for smithying.
Thomas had a keen interest in music. He had built himself an organ to play at home, and connected the bells to the church clock mechanism (St Marys Magdalene, Ecton not having a clock), so that they chimed automatically four times a day at four-hour intervals. He was a one time a clerk to the Commissioner of Taxes, and at another the village schoolteacher. His casting and smithying skills were not entirely forgotten or neglected, since with his partner Henry Bagley, who had moved to Manor Farm, Ecton in 1680, he cast many bells (most notably those for Lichfield Cathedral). Any spare time was probably absorbed by the responsibilities that go with being a churchwarden (and his pages of accounts can still be seen in the parish records).
Uncle Thomas died in 1702, and his wife, Eleanor, in 1711. Their only child, a daughter, Mary had married a Richard Fisher of Wellingborough in about 1708. The house, with their other land in Ecton (through the success of Marys father, Thomas, and his Uncle Nicholas, the Franklin family had come to own considerable areas of land around the village) was left to Mary on Thomass death and sold in 1719 to Mr Thomas Isted, who had bought Ecton Hall in 1712 and who had plans to develop his estate. Thomas and Eleanor are buried in the churchyard in Ecton and it was these graves, in particular, that Benjamin Franklin and his son had come to find in July 1758. The niece that had acted as a guide to Franklin may have been the daughter, or grand-daughter of Mary.
Young Franklin, like his uncles before him, was largely self-taught. He was sent to a grammar school at eight years of age but within a year switched to a school for writing and mathematics when his father changed his mind about Benjamin having a grammar school education. After barely two years of schooling he went to work for his father in the tallow business, cutting wicks for candles, filling the dipping moulds etc and at 12 began an apprenticeship in his brother James printing shop in Boston. However 5 years later he fell out with James and ran away to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In 1724 when he was 18 he moved to London and continued his training as a printer, moving back to Philadelphia and opening his own printing office in 1728. A year later he became the sole owner and publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette.
During his time in Philadelphia and before he left for London he had resided at the lodgings of a family called Read. Even after he moved away he often returned to the house, the attraction being the daughter Deborah whom Benjamin had courted with a view to marriage before he went away to London. Deborahs mother, however, suggested they wait until he returned to America..
Benjamins autobiography describes his future wifes disposition as generally dejected, seldom cheerful and avoided company. These personality traits do not appear to have been too much of a stumbling block as he married her on September 1st 1730. He described his marriage as:
none of the inconveniences happened that we had apprehended; she proved a good and faithful helpmate, assisted me much by attending in the shop; we throve together, and ever mutually endeavoured to make each other happy.
The inconveniences referred to centred around the fact that Deborah had married, during Benjamins absence in London, a man called Rogers who disappeared soon after the marriage. One of the reasons put forward for this was that Rogers had a wife at the time of his marriage to Deborah. The marriage to Benjamin was therefore conducted by common law and without a ceremony since there remained the embarrassing possibility that a nonbigamous Rogers might turn up and claim his due!
Benjamin admired frugality. The family kept no idle servants and for a long time he ate his breakfast out of a twopenny earthen porringer, with a pewter spoon. Deborah, however, began to have other ideas as their business thrived and Benjamin recalls being called one morning to breakfast, I found it in a China bowl, with a spoon of silver! This had been bought for me without my knowledge by my wife, and had cost her the enormous sum of three-and-twenty shillings, for which she had no other excuse of apology to make, but that she thought her husband deserved a silver spoon and China bowl as well any of his neighbors.
Franklin and Deborah had three children during the period 1731 to 1743, William, Francis and Sarah (known as Sally). Sadly Francis died at the age of four from smallpox, Benjamin and Deborah having decided against inoculation for their children. The marriage lasted for 44 years until Deborahs death in 1774. However for ten of these years Benjamin was abroad, mainly in London.
Franklin was a womaniser and Williams birth in 1730 was the result of one such encounter. Franklin had some interesting plans for William. I dont want him to be what is commonly called a gentleman ... I want to put him to some business by which he may, with care and industry, get a temperate and reasonable living.
In the event William became Royal Governor of New Jersey and father and son found themselves on opposite sides of the Revolutionary War, the American War of Independence. This forever strained their relationship, so much so that Benjamin left little of his wealth to William claiming that if Williams England had won the war, he (Benjamin) would never have had any wealth to leave.
During these early years, Franklin founded the first Circulating Library (i.e. the first lending library) in Philadelphia, and wrote and published the Almanac Poor Richard which proved to be an annual universal best-seller - indeed, such an indispensable part of almost every American household that it was for 25 years the countrys second best-selling publication.
The Almanac was peppered with coarse maxims such as The greatest monarch on the proudest throne is obliged to sit upon his own arse, but it must be remembered that he was writing in the eighteenth century, which was an earthy and free-spirited age!
Franklin helped to found the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia, was appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia and proposed the idea for the University of Pennsylvania. By dint of hard work he became wealthy, so much so that in 1748 at the age of 42 he sold the printing office and retired from business to devote himself to science, writing and politics.
For many people the name Benjamin Franklin is synonymous with scientific experiments, in particular flying a kite in a thunderstorm. He was one of the most celebrated scientists of his day (although as the word scientist was not coined until 1840 he was known as a natural philosopher). He has added many words to the English vocabulary: battery, positive, negative, condenser among others. He was an inventor and gave the world bifocals, the lightning rod, extendible grippers for taking items off high shelves, possibly the rocking chair and certainly the Franklin stove (an efficient kitchen stove, known for many years as the Pennsylvania fireplace).
He was obsessed with language and corresponded with the leading minds of Europe and America. He wrote endless essays including how to select a mistress, how to avoid flatulence (drink perfume) and drew up the first list of American slang terms for drunkenness (228 of them). Not everything he turned his considerable intellect to was successful. For instance he tinkered with English spelling and devised an alternative alphabet with six additional letters. This was supposed to simplify spelling but in fact resulted in spellings far longer and more complex than those they were intended to replace!
Between 1748 and 1767 he travelled extensively to London and France, for five of these years as a representative of the Pennsylvania Assembly. It was during this five-year period in 1758 that he resolved to trace his roots in England As well as visiting Ecton he visited Banbury where he found his grandfathers grave and also his Uncle Johns. He had an insatiable interest in his past and on having discovered that the Franklin family had two suits of armour, one belonging to the Franklins of the north and one to the Franklins of the west he adopted the designs for a coat of arms. He let his brother use the design as a bookplate but apparently drew the line at his sisters plans to put it on cakes of soap!
In 1774 while on his travels again to London he received news of Deborahs death but did not return to Philadelphia until the next year when he was elected to the Continental Congress.
During the summer of 1776, when Franklin was 70, he was one of five men chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence. He was undoubtedly a brave man as by drafting the Declaration he was guilty of treason, an offence punishable by the most awful death. The step he and his colleagues were taking was radical and irreversible and resulted in them penning some of the most beautiful, enduring and significant lines in the English language. For example:-
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Between 1776 and 1787, Franklin was extremely active in politics including negotiating and signing The Treaty of Alliance with France, serving as Minister to France, negotiating The Treaty of Peace with Great Britain (thereby establishing the United States independence) and negotiating treaties with Prussia and other European countries.
In 1790, in Philadelphia, on April 17, Benjamin Franklin died. He was 84. He was descended from long-lived parents - his father died at 89 and his mother at 87.
Franklins endeavours helped define and secure the Constitution and independence of what was to become the greatest democracy and most powerful nation in the history of the World.
How might the course of history have been different if Benjamin Franklin, so taken by his visit to Ecton in 1758 had acted on the thought expressed in a letter to his sister Jane Mecom:
of re-purchasing the little (estate) in Northamptonshire that was our Grandfathers.
Authors note: Franklins Ecton 1758
The Ecton that Franklin visited in 1758 is in some parts today easily recognisable, in others maybe, we cannot tell, and in yet others quite unrecognisable. The Great Road at the top of the village, and the one that Franklin would have most likely travelled as he made his way to and from Ecton exists as the A4500 between Northampton and Wellingborough. A public house, the Globe, first mentioned in 1678 would have been as prominent a landmark, and possible temptation, at the entrance to Ecton as the Worlds End is today even though it was set further back from the road beside an old walnut tree which grew there until recent times. (And each autumn Ecton children still gather by a walnut tree in the grounds of the Worlds End to pick and forage for the nuts.)
The High Street winds southward today as it did in 1758 with houses hugging the street. Were Franklin to walk down High Street into what is now Church Way he would likely recognise his surroundings: The Grange, built by John Baker, who died in in 1712, would be on his left and what is now Peatree Cottage a little further along on his right and just before he got to the churchyard. Franklin would likely have been impressed with the rectory, Ecton House, a sound, matter-of-fact design that shows a happy combination of usefulness, orderliness and elegance. Qualities that endure. The church of St Mary Magdalene would have looked much as it does now, fewer trees around the churchyard perhaps, and a small wooden lantern tower, covered with a sheet of lead and topped by a tall cross and weather cock extending the church tower skywards.
Franklin would have been interested to hear that it was Thomas Franklin, his uncle, and the last of the Franklin family to live in Ecton, who had attached the chimes to a clock mechanism that rang out the rousing popular tune ...four times a day on weekdays and a metrical version of the Fourth Psalm on Sundays. Franklin may have reflected on their effect on the residents of Peartree Cottage, thinking that they may have come to be less than enthusiastic about either of those tunes.
Franklin would have noticed the entrance to Ecton Hall, home of Ambrose Isted, an honest and capable landowner. The Rector, Eyre Whalley, may well have explained that as part of the general, and very substantial improvements that Ambrose Isted had undertaken to Ecton Hall, was the new front and Gothic porch. Church Street had, as part of the enclosures and re-modelling of the village, been closed off as a public road just east of the church. The way to get to Middle Street, East Street and The Green was via a new road that Isted had had built off the High Street to the south and which now ran past the front of The Hall.
Much of Franklins interest in such changes would have stemmed from his desire to know where his relatives and ancestors had lived and worked.
Leaving the churchyard by the High Street pathway Franklin may have noticed the open land on the other side of the wall to the south, noted the early preparations of building, and reflected on its desirability as a site for a house, indeed preparations for the building of one may well have been in hand for The Cot was completed in 1760. Rectory Farm would have caught his eye as he and his party walked out into the High Street; it would have been a comparatively new building having been completed in 1741, but the great barn was yet to be built, and his eye could have strayed to the open country towards Northampton. Turning south it is likely that the party would have paused to look at Manor Farm, looking then much as it does now. Franklins interest in the house may well
have been heightened by the knowledge that it had been rebuilt sixty or so years earlier by Henry Bagley, his uncle Thomas Franklins partner in the bell foundry. The bell foundry had been destroyed by fire and we know only that it was close to Manor Farm.
And - given Franklins commitment to education, learning and self-improvement, and the knowledge that his Uncle Thomas had once been the village teacher - as the party made their way back up the High Street towards the Rectory they would likely have admired John Palmers School for Poor Children, which had been established there six years before.
Zara and Trevor Hunwicks
Ecton 31st December 1996
(* Some researchers maintain this is the Old School House just off the High Street, others that it was situated in the lower part of the village.