The Ladies of Llangollen

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Background in Ireland

The Ladies of Llangollen were Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Miss Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1832). Their story is of two women who decided to escape from Ireland because of their families' unhappiness with their close relationship.

Lady Eleanor Butler belonged to one of Ireland's most important families, the Butler family, Earls of Ormond, later Dukes of Ormond. She was the youngest of the family, and though her sisters and brother married, Eleanor was still single at 39 years of age. She was an intelligent woman, and well-read, and because of this was called strange. The family decided to get rid of her by sending her to a convent.

Sarah Ponsonby was 16 years younger than Eleanor, and lived with a family in Woodstock in Ireland as she was an orphan. Sarah was tormented by the unwanted attention of her middle-aged adopter, Sir William Fownes. His wife was very ill, and he hoped that when his wife died, that Sarah would marry him.

Trying to escape

The pair were in an intolerable situation, and letters between the two increased. They decided to escape to England. The two dressed as men and carried pistols and Frisk, Sarah's dog, and rode through the night to catch the ferry at Waterford. But the ferry didn't sail, and they were forced to hide in a barn. They were caught, and sent home immediately.

As Eleanor was facing being sent to a convent in France, the pair decided to escape once again. As Sarah was very ill, Eleanor hid in her room, and was fed with food smuggled in by the kind maid, Mary Carryll. When the whereabouts of Eleanor were discovered, her family refused to come to fetch her, and ten days later Sarah was allowed to leave the Fownes family's home. The pair were free to leave.

The Ladies

In 1778 the pair sailed with the kind maid, Mary Carryll, from Ireland to Milford Haven, and travelled north. In 1780 they bought a cottage, Pen-y-maes, outside Llangollen. The house was renamed Plas Newydd, and they began to redecorate it in the Gothic style.

But why did the pair receive so much attention in the eighteenth century? To begin with, it was unusual for an unmarried woman to live independently, and cohabiting was even more unusual. They were known locally as “The Ladies”.

A romantic relationship?

One question which has not been answered is what exactly was their relationship. Were they a lesbian couple or close friends? Whatever their relationship, they behaved as a married couple, calling themselves man and wife, “my better half”, “my sweet love” and “beloved”. But talking like this about a friend, or even friends sharing the same bed, was not uncommon in the 18th century.

Eleanor wrote a diary of the pair's life together, though they lived a relatively quiet life. Time was spent reading and decorating the cottage, but they became famous throughout Britain because of their unusual relationship. Many famous people came to visit, amongst them the poets Byron and Wordsworth, the novelist Sir Walter Scott, and the Duke of Wellington!

Whatever their relationship, lovers or not, they lived together for fifty years. Eleanor died on 2 June 1829, leaving Sarah on her own in Plas Newydd until her death in December 1832.