Ponsonby, Sarah (‘Sally’) (1755–1831), diarist, was born in Dublin in 1755, the only and orphaned daughter of Chambré Brabazon Ponsonby (d. 1762), a landowner, of Ashgrove, Co. Kilkenny, and the second of his three wives, Louisa Ponsonby (née Lyons), the daughter of a clerk of the Irish privy council. She was the paternal granddaughter of Henry Ponsonby (d. 1745), commander of troops in Flanders and later at Dettingen (1743), who was killed at Fontenoy. After the death of her remarried stepmother, Mary Staples (née Barker), she was sent to live with her father's cousin, Lady Betty Fownes, and her husband, Sir William, at Woodstock, Co. Kilkenny. She attended Miss Parke's boarding school in Kilkenny city, where she endeavoured ‘to learn all she could’.
In 1768, at the age of thirteen, Sarah met the person, sixteen years older than herself, who was to become her life partner and fellow diarist. Referring to Lady Eleanor Butler (qv), youngest daughter of Walter Butler and his wife, Ellen Butler (née Morres), she proclaimed in 1778 that she intended ‘to live and die with Miss Butler’. In March of that year, during their initial foiled attempt to elope, Sarah reputedly leapt out of a window, in male attire, armed with a pistol and her small dog, Frisk. A more successful venture followed in May, when they travelled via Waterford to Wales, where they embarked upon a grand tour. Thus Sarah also escaped the unwelcome advances of her uncle, Sir William, who was casting amorous glances her way.
In 1780 the two women took up residence in a small cottage, Pen-y-mart, which they renovated in a Gothic fashion and renamed Plas Newydd. There they spent their lives and became famous as the cultured and refined, yet financially insecure, ‘Ladies of Llangollen’. Their lesbianism was not widely recognised. Instead they were described as ‘romantic friends’, and Prince Puckler-Mukau applauded them as ‘certainly the most celebrated [virgins] in Europe’. However, Hester Thrale, the friend of Dr Johnson, savaged them as ‘damned Sapphists’, and some female visitors were reportedly reluctant to spend the night alone in their company without a male escort.
Incorrectly cited as one of a pair of ‘female hermits’ in 1790 by the General Evening Post, Sarah was a prolific writer of letters, often together with Eleanor, and took a keen interest in the 1798 rebellion, corresponding with a friend in Ireland, Caroline Tighe. Her home was a site of pilgrimage for many famous figures, including William Wordsworth, Charles Darwin, Robert Southey, Edmund Burke (qv), Anna Seward, Arthur Wellesley (qv), later duke of Wellington, and Lady Caroline Lamb. Indeed the traffic of callers was so great that Eleanor lamented in her journal: ‘when shall we ever be alone together?’ News of, and visits to, their home inspired colourful entries in visitors’ diaries, poems by Wordsworth and Seward, cottage paintings, posthumous portraits, and representations in novels.
Eleanor died 2 June 1829 at the cottage. Her ‘beloved’ and ‘sweet love’ Sarah joined her on 9 December 1831 in the grave in Llangollen, where they remain buried alongside their faithful friend and maid, Mary Carryll (d. 1809).