Mary Stevenson, later Hewson, was born in London in 1739. Better known as Polly, she was the daughter of Margaret Stevenson who was notably landlady to the American politician Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin first came to London in 1725 and is known not just for his politics and his role as a statesman, but also as a scientist and inventor, a theorist and author. He continued travelling to London until the 1770s but it is the period from 1757 when he met the Stevenson family that is most relevant to Polly’s place in the history of the London Borough of Sutton and Cheam specifically. Mary’s mother, Mrs Stevenson of Craven Street, was Franklin’s landlady from 1757 until 1762 and then again from 1764-1775.
The first time he stayed with Mrs Stevenson, Franklin arrived with his son William and two servants and they all moved into Craven Street. Franklin was taken ill almost as soon as he arrived and Mrs Stevenson wrote to Mrs Franklin in the States to get advice about his care. The two families quickly establish a friendship with Mrs Franklin sending gifts to the Stevensons from the States and at one point it was even suggested that Polly and William should marry. Certainly Benjamin Franklin held Polly in high regard and in 1758 wrote:
'I snatch a Moment from Company, and write this Line to let you know that we are well, and that you will hear from us both by Tuesday’s Post. ’Till then I shall only say, that I find my self, with greater Esteem and Regard than ever, Dear Child, Your sincerely affectionate Friend and Servant'
Polly asked Benjamin Franklin if he would guide her learning and he was happy to oblige and the two kept up a correspondence when he was not in London, many of the letters containing scientific questions from Polly and explanations from Franklin. The letters are fascinating and full of warmth and can be read on a website set up by the American Philosophical Society at: www.franklinpapers.org.
In 1762 William Franklin became engaged to Elizabeth Downes and returned to the States for good. At this point the two families consider moving together but Mrs Stevenson was not well enough to make the trip. In 1764 Benjamin Franklin was again in London and the 1765 Stamp Duty Act resulted in him staying here much longer than intended as he became involved in trying to reconcile Britain and America.
On holiday at Margate with her aunt, Polly met and fell in love with a young doctor called William Hewson. They were married and Benjamin Franklin gave Polly away on her wedding day. Polly and William then made the Craven Street house their home and Mrs Stevenson and Franklin moved into another house a little further down the road. When Polly had a son, William, Benjamin Franklin became his godfather. A second son Thomas was born in 1773.
But tragedy struck in 1774 when William Hewson died from an infection caught while dissecting. Six months later Polly’s last child, a daughter called Elizabeth was born. This left Polly a young widow with three very young children. A few months later her aunt died and after a period of difficulty with trustees, Polly was left with a comfortable income.
'I shall be rich enough to indulge myself and my children in any occasional expences that will essentially gratify me or benefit them.'
A year later, in the spring of 1775 Benjamin Franklin returned to America and the American Wars of Independence started. This meant that Franklin could no longer travel freely in the UK. In 1777 Franklin he was living in Paris, working to secure support for the American colonies.
On 16th April 1777 an advertisement appeared in the Daily Advertiser:
'To be let, a neat house, fit for a small family, or a single gentleman, the house has a coach house, stable and an orchard. Enquire of Mr Sanxay, opposite to Craven Street, Strand, or of Mr Killick at Cheam who will show the premises.'
It is believed Polly took the lease of Cheam Cottage from Robert Sanxay and from 1779 her eldest son William attended Cheam School as a boarder followed by his brother Thomas.
Polly was not afraid to go against convention. She lived closely to where her boys were boarding even though some people thought it was a disadvantage and potentially distressing for the boys. She gave them extra tuition during the holidays and dressed her young daughter without the usual stays and restrictive garments:
“Contrary to fashion, and consequently to the opinion of most people (you know in some points I am very obstinate) I keep her without stays, by which means her shape retains its natural grace; being unconfined, and her motions free, her health too is preserved”
In 1782/3 Polly spent less time at Cheam and took a house in Kensington because her mother “found Cheam so extremely dull that it lowered her spirits”
Following the death of her mother the following year Polly returned full time to Cheam. Throughout the whole period Polly kept up a correspondence with Franklin and William Gilpin assisted by carrying some letters and parcels to and from Paris. Unfortunately the letters say very little about her life here or the people of the village.
In 1786 Mary and her children emigrated to America to be close to the Franklin family and four years later when Benjamin Franklin died in 1790, Polly was at his bedside with Franklin’s own daughter.
On 14th October 1795 Polly herself died at the age of 56. Polly's eldest son, William, settled in America and become a farmer. He died aged 31 in Vera Cruz, Mexico. Thomas returned to London to study medicine in 1794 and spent 6 years as a house surgeon at Barts and in Edinburgh, he then returned to the States where he married and had a family. He ended his career as president of the College of Physicians in Pennsylvania. It is believed Elizabeth died in Pensylvania aged 77 – one family historian has her married and with a family but the evidence isn’t conclusive.
Wecter, Dixon, (1940) Burke, Franklin and Samuel Petrie, Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol3, No3, Apr 1940, pp315-338.
Whitfield, J. Bell, (1956) All Clear Sunshine: new letters of Franklin and Mary Stevenson Hewson, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol.100, No6, Dec 17 1956, pp521-536.
See also PEEL Cheam School pg96-98