• Facts & Fiction

A brave old world

With the introduction of civil partnerships in the United Kingdom we've now come to a time when even government recognises, for some at least, gender has little to do with the vagaries of the heart. Remembering the 'Ladies of Llangollen'.

This recognition may be a big change for society as a whole, there are of course lots of legal shenanigans but in fact, we all know same sex marriages of a sort have been with us for years and indeed legal acknowledgement was hinted at a very long time ago. As we will see, even George the 3rd gave tacit approval to the Ladies of Llangollen.

They claimed they were seeking a better way of life, devotion to an ideal but with hindsight we can see Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were probably just devoted to each other. This 18th century couple found each other in Ireland where they lived in the comfort and privilege provided by their wealthy families.

Miss Butler was particularly well read for the day

She could speak numerous languages. Nearly forty years old and still unwed she had the prospect of a life in the convent hanging over her, as her mother wished. At this time of course the correct ambition for a 'proper' lady was a good marriage and children. Sarah was in her mid twenties but could already see Eleanor's woes as a portent of things to come for her too. To add to her distress, Sarah lived with an uncle, his 'busy hands' being the final straw. The two women planned an escape and in Spring 1778 they eloped.

The families quickly discovered their disappearance was more than met the eye and set about tracking them down, no doubt in utter secrecy. It's thought the two women tried to hide-out in a hunting lodge or retreat. Whatever, they didn't get far and were brought back to face the music. Remember, they were only going against their families' wishes, even by the standards of the 1700's they had not actually broken any laws, they hadn't done anything illegal at all.

Now with their intentions known to all, both families did their best to persuade the women to leave well alone, to get on with life in a 'proper' manner. In retrospect, Eleanor's family were more than capable of bundling her away to some distant shore but they didn't. Perhaps in the end they took some pity on her or feared the scandal would go public, don't underestimate the fear of shame! Whatever, eventually Eleanor and Sarah were allowed, begrudgingly, to go their own way.

The women left Ireland in search of the perfect place to settle in England but on a tour of Wales come to Llangollen and there found their dream. Built of local stone, rough hewn walls and roof a delightful cottage hidden in the beautiful Welsh countryside, "Plas Newydd" lay waiting for them. Here they stayed, renting the cottage along with four acres surrounding for the princely sum of £22 per year, or there about. Probably quite expensive for the day since to the locals 'The Ladies' must have seemed well to-do. In fact, we know they were not, Eleanor kept an excellent record of their accounts. Both women had a little money from their families but not enough to keep them in the style to which they were accustomed. Friends and well wishers provided for them too. They struggled to get by on many occasions but still kept a household of a gardener, footman and a maid each! For high born ladies this must have been the minimum, below which lay poverty!

Over the years they improved their home and created a way of life peculiarly their own. They became more and more reclusive, hiding from strangers when the fancy took them. Avid readers, their library improved to become one of the best in the area and their home was fitted in good taste throughout.

The two women planned each day in minuscule detail to make real the perfect life they'd dreamed of years earlier, in Ireland.

The locals dubbed them "The Ladies". Eventually their notoriety spread far beyond Llangollen. We can only imagine how unusual this must have seemed to Georgian society.

When word of their idyllic lifestyle spread many could hardly believe it, wishing to see for themselves they were prepared to travel across the country to Llangollen. Amongst this number were some impressive personalities of the day including the Duke of Wellington and William Wordsworth! Newspapers carried reports of the women further widening their notoriety until eventually they came to the attention of Queen Charlotte. She was so impressed with their achievement they were granted a pension, remaining on the civil list the rest of their lives.

"The Ladies of Llangollen" are long gone now but the cottage is still there even though its past seems to have been largely forgotten. Eleanor's home in Ireland is a preserved site but for other historical reasons, you can see more of Kilkenny Castle by searching any of the main search engines. Eleanor and Sarah ended their lives in Wales, contented and happy. The families they ran from in Ireland eventually came to terms with the 'wayward' daughters and acknowledged their achievement.