Ladies of Llangollen

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The Ladies of Llangollen

The "Ladies of Llangollen", Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, were two upper-class Irish women whose relationship scandalized and fascinated their contemporaries.[1]

Early lives[edit]

Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler in their library
Carved oak porch of Plas Newydd

Eleanor Charlotte Butler (11 May 1739 – 2 June 1829) was a member of the Butlers, the Earls (and later Dukes) of Ormond. Butler was considered an over-educated bookworm by her family, who resided at the Butler family seat Kilkenny Castle. She spoke French and was educated in a convent in France. Her mother tried to make her join a convent because she was remaining a spinster.

Sarah Ponsonby (1755 – 9 December 1831) lived with relatives in Woodstock, County Kilkenny, Ireland. She was a second cousin of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough, and thus a second cousin once removed of his daughter Lady Caroline Lamb.[note 1]

Their families lived two miles (3 km) from each other. They met in 1768, and quickly became close. Over the years they formulated a plan for a private rural retreat. It was their dream to live an unconventional life together.

New home[edit]

Plas Newydd, near Llangollen, 1840

Rather than face the possibility of being forced into unwanted marriages, they left County Kilkenny together in April 1778. Their families hunted them down and forcefully tried to make them give up their plans—but in vain.[3]

Putting their plan into motion, they undertook a picturesque tour of the Welsh countryside, eventually settling in North Wales. Living first in a rented home in the village of Llangollen, they moved in 1780 to a small cottage just outside the village they called Plas Newydd or "new mansion".[4] They proceeded to live according to their self-devised system, though they could rely on only a modest income from intolerant relatives, and eventually a civil list pension. They 'improved' Plas Newydd in the Gothic style with Welsh oak panelling, pointed arches, stained glass windows, and an extensive library, in which they received their many guests.[5] They hired a gardener, a footman and two maids. This led to significant debt, and they had to rely on the generosity of friends.[3]

They devoted their time to hosting a range of friends and curious visitors, extensive correspondence, private studies of literature and languages, and improving their estate. Over the years they added a circular stone dairy and created a sumptuous garden. Eleanor kept a diary of their activities. Llangollen people simply referred to them as "the ladies".[3]

After a couple of years, their life attracted the interest of the outside world. Their house became a haven for visitors travelling between Dublin and London, including writers such as Anne Lister, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley[citation needed], Lord Byron[citation needed] and Sir Walter Scott, but also the military leader the Duke of Wellington and the industrialist Josiah Wedgwood; aristocratic novelist Caroline Lamb, who was born a Ponsonby, came to visit too. Anne Lister from Yorkshire visited the couple, and was possibly inspired by their relationship to informally "marry" her own close female friend.[6] Even travellers from continental Europe had heard of the couple and came to visit them, for instance Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, the German nobleman and landscape designer, who wrote admiringly about them.[3]

The ladies were known throughout Britain, but have been said to have led "a rather unexciting life".[7] Queen Charlotte wanted to see their cottage and persuaded King George III to grant them a pension. Eventually their families came to tolerate them.

Personal lives[edit]

Butler and Ponsonby lived together for the rest of their lives, over 50 years. Their books and glassware carried both sets of initials and their letters were jointly signed. Some consider Butler and Ponsonby's relationship to be a Boston marriage, or a romantic relationship between two women who chose to live together and have "marriage-like relationships".[6] However, contemporary sources clearly show that many were aware that theirs was a same-sex relationship, which today would be referred to as lesbian. Modern criteria, designed to distinguish same-sex relationships from ‘romantic friendships’ confirms this. [8]


Memorial in St Collen's Graveyard

Eleanor Butler died in 1829. Sarah Ponsonby died two years later. They are both buried at St Collen's Church in Llangollen.[7]


The ladies' house, Plas Newydd is now a museum run by Denbighshire County Council. Butler's Hill, near Plas Newydd, is named in honour of Eleanor Butler. The Ponsonby Arms public house, a Grade II listed building on Mill Street in Llangollen,[9] claims to take its name from Sarah Ponsonby.[10]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The Ladies appeared in a "thinly-veiled biographical novel", Chase of the Wild Goose by pioneering female physician and author, Mary Gordon, originally published in 1936 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press. The book was reprinted and retitled The Llangollen Ladies: The Story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, Known as the Ladies of Llangollen. In the late 1800s, Gordon is said to have seen the Ladies' apparitions at Plas Newydd, which inspired her to learn about their lives.[11] As Gordon recounts in the final section of the book, "The Ladies Meet Me," she believed herself to be Butler and Ponsonby's "spiritual descendant," [12] and hailed them as the feminist progenitors of the modernist female scholars, professionals, and "friends who prefer to live together."
  • The ladies' story (along with their ghost story) is told in a chapter of the 2009 book, Queer Hauntings: True Tales of Gay and Lesbian Ghosts by Ken Summers.[13]
  • In April 2011, the same month in which the first Irish civil partnerships took place under the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010, Irish state broadcaster RTÉ broadcast a 45-minute radio documentary about the lives of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby entitled An Extraordinary Affair. It asked whether they were Ireland's first openly lesbian couple, but offered no evidence that their relationship was sexual.[7]
  • In February 2016, the Ladies of Llangollen were featured on a series 3 episode of Mysteries at the Castle broadcast in the United States on the Travel Channel.[14]
  • In 2014, Llangollen, the Ladies and Plas Newydd were featured in the introductory sequence of the BBC property buying series Escape to the Country, series 22, episode 21, North Wales (available for online viewing in the U.S. via Netflix).[15]


  1. ^ Shows extracts from other sources, see in particular, Gentleman's Magazine, 1829.[2]


  1. ^ Mavor, Elizabeth (1971). The Ladies of Llangollen. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books. 
  2. ^ "Miss Sarah Ponsonby". The Ladies of Llangollen. 
  3. ^ a b c d Dixon, Anne Campbell (4 May 2002). "Wales: A tale of two ladies ahead of their time". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 9 April 2016. 
  4. ^ "Llangollen". Google Maps. Retrieved 29 July 2017. 
  5. ^ "Fiona Brideoake, The Ladies of Llangollen: Desire, Indeterminacy, and the Legacies of Criticism, Bucknell University Press, 2017". 
  6. ^ a b Taylor, Verta; Whittier, Nancy; Rupp, Leila J. (2008). Feminist Frontiers (8th ed.). Boston, USA: McGraw Hill. p. 391. ISBN 978-0-07340-430-1. 
  7. ^ a b c O'Donnell, Leeanne (30 April 2011). "Documentary on One: An Extraordinary Affair". RTÉ Radio 1. 
  8. ^ Shopland, Norena 'Extraordinary Female Affection' from Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales Seren Books (2017)
  9. ^ "The Ponsonby Arms PH, Llangollen, Denbighshire". Retrieved 29 July 2017. 
  10. ^ "The Ponsonby Arms". Archived from the original on 28 April 2012. 
  11. ^ Gordon, Mary (29 July 2017). "The Llangollen Ladies: The Story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, Known as the Ladies of Llangollen". John Jones. Retrieved 29 July 2017 – via Google Books. 
  12. ^ Brideoake, Fiona. "The Ladies of Llangollen: Desire, Indeterminacy, and the Legacies of Criticism". Retrieved 21 September 2017. 
  13. ^ Summers, Ken (18 September 2009). "Queer Hauntings: True Tales of Gay & Lesbian Ghosts". Lethe Press. Retrieved 29 July 2017 – via Amazon. 
  14. ^ "Mysteries at the Castle - Prince's Plight, Mad King Ludwig, Falling for Love". Travel Channel. Retrieved 29 July 2017. 
  15. ^ "Escape to the Country Collection". Netflix. Retrieved 26 June 2017. 

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