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The Ladies of Llangollen

Phil Carradice

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Many of us may have heard about the Ladies of Llangollen. Maybe some of us will own a print or even one of the early Victorian fairings that depict the redoubtable pair. But not many of us will know the actual story of Lady Eleanor Charlotte Butler and the Honourable Sarah Ponsonby, the two ladies in question.

These two upper class women lived together for many years outside Llangollen and, despite their desire only for a peaceful and untroubled existence became, by the early years of the 19th century, something of a tourist attraction for the little north Wales town.

They fascinated the public and intrigued the imagination of many who wondered, in public and in private, about their relationship - was it sexual? Nobody, either then or now, has been able to find out.

Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were both born in Ireland, to aristocratic and well-off families, and met in 1768 when they immediately became great friends.

In 1778, rather than be forced into arranged marriages that they did not want, Eleanor and Sarah scandalised polite society and ran away together.

They had tried to run away before and had been prevented by their families. This second attempt was more successful. For many weeks their "elopement" was the talk of both Dublin and London coffee shops and salons. The two women did not care. They were happy in each other's company.

Together, they sailed from Ireland to Milford Haven and then journeyed north, eventually arriving in the Vale of Llangollen, an area they considered to be one of the most beautiful pieces of countryside they had ever seen. Just outside Llangollen they found and, in 1780, bought a small house called Pen-y-Maes and settled down to life together.

They were, in the main, unsociable, took no notice of current fashions and wore basic, dark clothing at all times. The people of Llangollen accepted them and called them, simply, "The Ladies."

Despite the injunctions of their families Eleanor and Sarah refused to return to Ireland. They began to redesign their cottage in the Gothic style and renamed it Plas Newydd. They spent the next 50 years studying literature, learning languages and piecing together a huge collection of woodcarvings.

Eleanor kept a diary of their life together - a life that was, really, quite mundane and often boring.

However, for some reason, their story and their lifestyle caught the public imagination. Soon visitors, unknown and famous, were besieging Plas Newydd. People such as the poets Byron, Wordsworth and Shelley all came to talk and stare, as did the novelist Sir Walter Scott.

Lady Caroline Lamb, friend of Byron and, by strange coincidence, a distant relative of Sarah Ponsonby, also found time to visit, as did the formidable Duke of Wellington. Visitors often brought with them pieces of wood carving which the ladies promptly added to their collection.

The exact relationship between the two women will never be known. At the end of the day it hardly matters. They were the greatest of friends and that friendship helped to sustain them through many years of what were, at times, quite gruelling problems.

Finances were never easy for them. Despite having an annual income of under £300, their aristocratic backgrounds never quite disappeared and they insisted on maintaining a household that consisted of gardener, footman and several maids.

One of the maids was Mary Caryll, a woman who had served them before, in Ireland. This insistence on servants and standards led to not inconsiderable debts, something with which they battled all their lives.

The Ladies of Llangollen were, eventually, reconciled with their families but continued to live in north Wales. And the public continued to come. Eleanor died on 2 June 1829 while Sarah, 16 years younger than her friend, lived on, alone at Plas Newydd, until December 1832.

The house at Llangollen is now a museum. It is run by Denbighshire County Council and is one of the main tourist locations in the town.

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