Among the less likely celebrities to attend the ceremonial opening of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct in November 1805 were the Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and her companion Miss Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1832), of Plas Newydd, legends within their own lifetimes as the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’.
This famous and eccentric pair of friends were both of Irish ancestry but from contrasting backgrounds: Lady Eleanor’s family had lost the title Marquess of Ormonde because of their Catholic faith; Sarah Ponsonby’s family were members of the Protestant Ascendancy.
Neither woman had a particularly happy youth. When Lady Eleanor reached the age of 39 without showing any inclination to marry, her mother tried to pack her away in a French convent. It seems likely that Sarah Ponsonby was propositioned by a married relative, Sir William Fownes.
Despite a sixteen-year gap in their respective ages, the two formed an intense friendship and resolved to elope. Though at first they were brought back to their respective families, the ructions were such that they were eventually allowed to leave together, with an uncertain income of £300, and after touring Wales and the Marches for nearly two years they settled in Llangollen where they rented a cottage that they renamed Plas Newydd (‘New Hall’).
Tended by a housekeeper, Mary Caryll, they took up a life of intended seclusion which was interrupted at regular intervals by such illuminati as the poet Anna Seward, Harriet Bowdler, editor of the expurgated Shakespeare, the great potter Josiah Wedgwood, the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an Opium-Eater, and Sir Arthur Wellesley who in later life became the Duke of Wellington.
Not all visitors were made welcome – the ladies were not beyond hiding from unwanted guests – but they were partial to gifts of antique carved oak, and Plas Newydd to this day is encrusted with weird woodwork.
Even in those pre-Freudian times tongues wagged periodically, and the General Evening Post of July 24th 1790 carried an article entitled ‘Extraordinary Female Affection’ loaded with the innuendo of a modern red-top. Harriet Bowdler, writing after their deaths in 1836, probably defined the relationship as it was lived:
True friendship is a divine and spiritual relation of minds, a union of souls, a marriage of hearts, a harmony of designs and affections, which being entered into by mutual consent, groweth up into the purest kindness and most endearing love, maintaining itself by the openest freedom, the warmest sympathy, and the closest secrecy.
Elizabeth Mavor wrote a delightful account of the Ladies’ lives, The Ladies of Llangollen: a study in romantic friendship (Penguin 1973): https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-ladies-of-llangollen/elizabeth-mavor/9780953956173.
Plas Newydd is a short walk out of Llangollen town centre: it is administered by Denbighshire County Council [Plas Newydd, Llangollen | Denbighshire County Council].
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture, please click here.