A Preston blue plaque dating error?

The plaque in Friargate. Image: Lancashire Past

I have been contacted by Chris Donaldson, a lecturer at Lancashire University, seeking information about the Preston historian Peter Whittle. Chris believes that Whittle might have been the source for a mistaken dating on the blue plaque above Cafe Nero on Friargate. The plaque, commissioned by Preston & South Ribble Civic Trust, commemorates Benjamin Franklin’s visit to the town and his stay at a house that stood on the site. It gives the year of his stay as 1775, and this is the date that Chris believes to be mistaken.

See also:
Searching for Benjamin Franklin in Lancashire on the Lancashire Past website.
Chris’s YouTube video: Benjamin Franklin’s Tours of Northern England.

Franklin was in Preston in November 1771 on his way back from a visit to the philosopher David Hume in Edinburgh. His son-in-law Richard Bache was staying with his family who lived in Preston, and Franklin’s visit allowed him to meet his son-in-law for the first time. It was the Bache family who lived at the house on Friargate. In the following summer, Franklin was again staying with the Bache family.

The plaque above Cafe Nero. Image: Lancashire Past

Those two visits are supported by evidence: the 1775 date on the blue plaque isn’t.

Whittle’s description of a 1775 visit in his History of Preston is the earliest source for that date that Chris has found (and is probably the source for the date given for the second visit in the histories of the town by Hardwick and Hewitson). It appears on page 47 of the first edition of Whittle’s history:

It may not be deemed totally irrelevant to remark here, that in the beginning of November, 1771, the celebrated transatlantic philosopher, Benjamin Franklin, L.L.D. and F.R.S. paid a visit to this town, at the house of Mrs. Beche, a lady well known amongst the higher circles of society.
This great statesman was in this country on behalf of the American Provinces, and probably when he was under some apprehensions for his personal safety, a short time before the war broke out.
Whilst on this visit, that illustrious genius and elegant writer amused his leisure hours by forming, with his own hands, one of those simple instruments of music now common as a toy, composed of rude pieces of wood, of various lengths, linked upon a string, and kept apart by the intervention of small corks. With this instrument, which was recently presented to Mr. Taylor, of this town, the individual who was destined to become one of the founders of a mighty state, amused the infant mind of Mrs. Hodson, a niece to the lady we have just mentioned. It will be known to those who are thus versed with the philosophical researches of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, that his attention was directed to this apparently trifling toy before he entered upon that series of experiments with glasses, which finally led him to complete the sweet toned musical instrument he so appropriately called the harmonica.
He also paid a second visit in the year 1775. It is proper to observe that Mr. Richard Beche married Dr. Benjamin Franklin’s only daughter. The will which he (Dr. Franklin) made previous to his death, in April, 1790, states his leaving both books, and shares in the Library Company of Philadelphia, to his grandsons, viz. Benjamin Franklin Beche, and William Beche; confiding that these two would permit their other brothers and sisters to share in the use of them.

It is clear that Franklin made only two visits to Preston. The question is whether the second visit was in 1772 or in 1775 as asserted by Whittle, and copied on the blue plaque. A simple explanation would seem to be that the 1775 date in the above extract is a misprint. It would be very easy for the printer to misread Whittle’s handwritten ‘2’ as a ‘5’. I wonder if the mistake is repeated in the second edition of Whittle’s history?

Any suggestions?

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