Our lady in London: The countess who saved Franklin’s last house

Memories of Philadelphia’s countess

2 minute read
Drexel blood flowed through her delicate but determined veins.
Drexel blood flowed through her delicate but determined veins.
Mary Ponsonby, the Dowager Countess of Bessborough, died on April 13 at the age of 98. To this expatriate Philadelphian— the former Mary Munn, great-granddaughter of the great 19th-Century Philadelphia banker Anthony Drexel— goes the credit for preserving the only existing home in which Benjamin Franklin lived. That home, I hasten to note, stands not in Philadelphia but in London.

"Lady B," as she was affectionately known to those of us who knew and worked with her in London, was married to the late Eric Ponsonby, the Tenth Earl of Bessborough.

As she told the story of her involvement in saving 36 Craven Street, around the corner from Trafalgar Square, Lady B. and her husband were attending a function just down the street, and he suggested to her that "If you want a challenge, see if you can preserve Ben Franklin's house." The home had been damaged during World War II and had fallen into disrepair and was destined to be demolished.

Lady B. rose to the challenge. She set up a trust and prevailed on British Rail, which owned the house— Charing Cross Station is just around the other corner— to donate the house to the trust.

Then the work began.

It was a dream for a PR man like me. When Ben Franklin was postmaster of the Colonies, his "boss" was the Second Earl of Bessborough, who was postmaster general of the United Kingdom. So, here we had the Philadelphia-born wife of the Tenth Earl working to preserve the Philadelphian Ben Franklin's London home.

Contributions (funds and in-kind services) and Frankliniana were solicited, and one valuable item that was donated was Franklin's coin purse.

Unfortunately, our attempts to induce Philadelphia's Convention & Visitors Bureau to exploit the site for its promotions on promotional visits to London proved unsuccessful, except for one brief program on one visit. But we did induce Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister, to use Franklin's home for a cocktail reception for 59 European leaders.

Lady B's husband died in 1993, when she was 78. Still, she soldiered on for her cause. Once the bulk of the preservation effort was finished, she turned its leadership over to others. In 2002, at the age of 87, and having spent more than 60 years abroad, this British aristocrat reclaimed her roots by moving back to Philadelphia for the final chapter of her life. She possessed a sense of history in the best meaning of the word.♦

To read another recollection of Mary Bessborough by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

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