Notable Irishwomen/The Ladies of Llangollen


The Ladies of Llangollen.

Lady Eleanor Butler, 1739-1829.

Miss Sarah Ponsonby, 1755-1831.

VISITORS to the beautiful little village of Llangollen, in North Wales, cannot fail to be struck by the numerous photographs in the shop windows of two extraordinary figures with short-cropped hair, high hats, starched neckcloths and riding habits. These represent the celebrated Ladies of Llangollen, and their picturesque old house, Plas Newydd, with its treasures of oak carving on porch and staircase, is just above the village. Most people are aware that these two friends, who elected to run away from their respective homes and to spend their lives together, were Irishwomen by birth and education. Lady Eleanor Butler, the elder of the two by sixteen years, was the daughter of Walter, sixteenth Earl of Ormonde, while Miss Sarah Ponsonby was the daughter of Chambre Ponsonby, and niece of Lady Betty Fownes, by whom she was adopted. It has often been said that there is no real friendship between women, but the life-long friendship between these two ladies, who actually eloped with one another, is a striking proof to the contrary. A short account of their lives may be interesting.

Lady Eleanor Butler, though born at Kilkenny in 1739, was partly educated in France, and she is supposed to have had some love affair there.

She always preserved a pleasant recollection of France, and when she was on her death-bed, at the age of ninety, she insisted upon making Miss Ponsonby, then seventy-four, sit on her bed, and quaver forth the favourite French air, "Malbrook s' en va t' en guerre."

Her home at Kilkenny, where she lived with her mother and sisters, was not congenial to her. She was a strong-minded young woman, born before her time, who liked to have her own way, and here she was kept under discipline after the fashion of that day. For thirty-nine years she endured her fate, and then she formed the idea of retiring to some secluded spot with her friend, Miss Sarah Ponsonby, and living for each other according to their own ideas of happiness. Miss Ponsonby resided in the house of her adopted parents, Sir William and Lady Betty Fownes, at Woodstock, Kilkenny, and during the Parliamentary Session, at 40 Dominick Street, Dublin. She was a tall, graceful girl; she spoke and understood French and Italian, and sketched well from nature. But there was a skeleton in her closet, for Sir William Fownes, her guardian, persecuted her with his unwelcome attentions, and she was afraid to tell his wife, her aunt, about them. This, however, was kept a profound secret, and was not publicly known till twenty years afterwards by the publication of the diary of a Mrs. Goddard. The two friends consulted together, and resolved on flight. Their first attempt ended in failure, for Miss Ponsonby broke her leg in trying to get over a park wall at an early hour in the morning. She had an appointment to meet Lady Eleanor (then Miss Butler) at a ruined abbey near Thomastown. Here, it is said, they spent the night, and were brought back in disgrace next morning. They made a second attempt to escape in March, 1778, and this time they got as far as the quay at Waterford, when they were again captured. Miss Ponsonby was brought back to Woodstock by Lady Betty Fownes, and Lady Eleanor was sent to her sister, Mrs. Kavanagh, of Borris. In a letter from Mrs. Tighe, Lady Betty Fownes' only daughter, which is given in E. Owens Blackburne's "Illustrious Irishwomen," she says:

"The runaways are caught, and we shall soon see our amiable friend (Miss Ponsonby) again, whose conduct, though it has an appearance of imprudence, is, I am sure, devoid of serious impropriety. There were no gentlemen concerned, nor does it appear to be anything more than a scheme of romantic friendship. My mother is gone to Waterford for Miss Butler and her, and we expect to see them to-night."

The principal odium of this strange elopement fell on Lady Eleanor, who was the moving spirit throughout. Lady Betty Fownes, in a letter to Mrs. Goddard, says—"We hear the Butlers are never to forgive their daughter, and that she is to be sent to France to a convent. I wish she had been safe in one long ago; she would have made us happy. Many an unhappy hour she has cost me, and, I am convinced, years to Sally" (Sarah Ponsonby).

This young lady herself adds in a postscript—"They propose great terms to Miss B. (Lady Eleanor) if she will reside in a convent some years, and give me up for ever. I am not heroic enough to wish she should accept them. Worn out by misfortunes, I have still the comfort of self-approbation. Were it to do again, I would act as I have done."

Old Sir William Fownes still went on making love to his adopted daughter, to her dismay and misery. One entry in Mrs. Goddard's diary is as follows:—

"I talked again to Miss Pons., not only to dissuade her from her purpose, but to discharge my conscience of the duty I owed her as a friend by letting her know my opinion of Miss Butler, and the certainty I had that they would never enjoy living together. I spoke of her with harshness and freedom … Sir William joined us, kneel'd, implored, swore twice on the Bible how much he loved her, would never more offend, was sorry for his past folly, that was not meant as she understood it, offer'd to double her allowance of £30 a year, or add what more she pleas'd to it, even tho' she did go. She thanked him for his past kindness, but nothing could hurt her more, or would she be under other obligation to him; said if the whole world was kneeling at her feet it should not make her forsake her purpose. She would live and die with Miss B.; was her own mistress, and if any force was used to detain her she knew her own temper so well, it would provoke her to an act that would give her friends more trouble than anything she had yet done."

Sir William Fownes died of paralysis, and was buried at Innistiogue.

Soon afterwards, the two friends wrung a reluctant consent from their relatives to their project of living and dying together. They set out from Waterford, and arrived at Milford Haven on the 16th May, 1778, accompanied by their faithful servant, Mary Carryl. They wandered about Wales for some months, and finally they came to Pen-y-Maes, Llangollen, a small cottage, with kitchen, sitting-room, and two bed-rooms; they took a lease of this cottage, and added to it from time to time, changing its name to Plas Newydd.

The valley of the River Dee somewhat resembles the scenery of the County Wicklow in its combination of rushing water and waving woods. But the house in which the ladies lived for fifty years is quite unique—nothing like it can be seen anywhere. The porch is supported by two carved oak bed-posts of Charles I.'s time, black with age. The whole staircase is a mass of carved oak, the banisters being decorated with a squirrel, lion, and mermaid design. Every room was literally crammed with paintings, prints, and carvings; and though the former have been mostly removed, enough are left to show the taste and refinement of the ladies.

They kept a sort of mimic court for visitors, who came to see them from all parts of the world. From Ireland there was a constant stream. A formal letter had to be addressed to the ladies beforehand; this gave time for perfuming the rooms, which was done by pastilles kept in bronze censers. Madame de Genlis and Pamela came to Llangollen in 1791, and slept at Plas Newydd. Madame de Genlis describes her visit, and the sound of an Æolian harp which was placed on the balcony of her bedroom window. The ill-fated Lord Edward Fitzgerald was a great favourite with the ladies. The carved apes over the mantelpiece in Lady Eleanor's bedroom are supposed to have been his gift, as an ape, with the motto "Crom a Boo," is the crest of the House of Leinster.

The last visit Lord Edward paid to Plas Newydd was early in '98, when he walked over the hills from Brynkinalt (Lord Dungannon's place near Chirk) to see the ladies, who were quite unconscious that a reward of £1,000 was offered by the Crown for his arrest. He had a foreboding that he was watched while at Pias Newydd. He fancied that he saw a shadow pass the front window of the library, and he escaped by the garden window, which is now canopied with rich carved oak, the roof being supported by bed-posts of Charles I.'s time.

When the ladies first went to Llangollen they were not very well off, and Miss Ponsonby's application for money to her kinsman, the Earl of Bessborough, was received with coldness. He sent her £50, and requested her not to send him any presents. Through the influence of the Duke of Wellington, who was their staunch friend, and had been a frequent visitor to Plas Newydd, they got a pension of £200 a year, which made them comfortable for life, as their expenses were few, and presents from wealthy friends frequent. The Duke of York gave them a magnificent oak chest, and the Duchess of St. Albans contributed various valuable curiosities to their museum. Their Irish servant, Mary Carryl, was a great curiosity; she wore high heels and a stiff dress, using a profusion of hair powder and pomatum. At her death the ladies came in for a legacy of £500, which Mary Carryl left them out of her savings. With this sum the freehold of their cottage was purchased. They planted an avenue of beech and lime trees in pious memory of their loss, and called it Cathedral Walk. If any schoolboys visited them they filled their pockets with apples, saying "when they were schoolboys they were fond of apples."

The comical appearance of the ladies called forth the following description from Charles Mathews, the well-known actor, who was acting at Oswestry, in September, 1823:—

"The dear inseparable inimitables," he writes, "Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, were in the boxes here on Friday. They came twelve miles from Llangollen and returned, as they never sleep from home. Oh, such curiosities! I was nearly convulsed. I could scarcely get on with my part for the first ten minutes my eye caught them. Though I had never seen them I instantly knew them. As they are seated, there is not one point to distinguish them from men, the dressing and powdering of the hair, their well-starched neckcloths; the upper part of their habits, which they always wear, even at a dinner party, made precisely like men's coats, and black beaver men's hats. They looked exactly like two respectable, superannuated old clergymen. I was highly flattered, as they were never in the theatre before. I have to-day received an invitation to call, if I have time as I pass, at Llangollen, to receive in due form from the dear old gentlemen, Lady E. Butler and Miss Ponsonby, their thanks for the entertainment I afforded them at the theatre."

Charles Mathews could not accept this invitation, but more than a month later he paid his respects to "the ladies" at Porkington. He thus describes his interview:—

"Well, I have seen them, heard them, touched them! The pets—'the ladies' as they are called—dined here yesterday. I mentioned in a former letter the effect they produced upon me in public, but never shall I forget the first burst yesterday upon entering the drawingroom, to find the dear antediluvian darlings, attired for dinner in the same mummified dress, with the Croix de St. Louis, and other orders, and myriads of large brooches, with stones large enough for snuff-boxes, stuck in their starched neckcloths. … They returned home last night, 14 miles, after 12 o'clock! They have not slept one night from home for 40 years. I longed to put Lady Eleanor under a bell-glass. … "

The orders worn by Lady Eleanor were chiefly presented to her through the Duke of Orleans, but one (which she prized most) was the Harp and Crown of Ireland, her native country, a loyal badge presented to her by a Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. This order, attached by a light blue ribbon, formed a striking feature in fat little Lady Eleanor's appearance. When she lost her sight, the glory of her orders became somewhat dimmed by a coating of melted butter and hair-powder. Among the Irish visitors to "the ladies" was no less a personage than Edmund Burke. In a stately letter to them, he alludes "to the polite and hospitable reception you gave us in your elegant retirement at Llangollen."

William Wilberforce, too, was among their guests, and Wordsworth not only visited them, but wrote a sonnet in their honour, which was composed in the grounds of Plas Newydd. It is as follows:

"A stream to mingle with your favourite Dee,
 Along the "Vale of Meditation," flows;
So styled by those fierce Britons, pleased to see
 On Nature's face th' expression of repose;

Or, haply, there some pious Hermit chose
 To live and die—the peace of heaven his aim,
To whom the wild sequestered region owes
 At this last day its sanctifying name.

"Glyn Cyfaillgarwch, in the Cambrian tongue
 In ours the Vale of Friendship, let this spot
 Be named, where faithful to a low-roofed cot,
On Deva's banks, ye have abode so long;
 Sisters in love—a love allowed to climb
 Ev'n on this earth, above the reach of time!"

The ladies, who sometimes indulged in writing verses, did not at all approve of this sonnet; they did not like their pretty house to be called "a low-roofed cot," and they said they could write better poetry than this themselves. A curious letter, from Mr. Canning, thanking them for their offer of a quarter of Welsh mutton, ends thus:—

"Mr. Canning's address is 'Foreign Office,' for mutton as well as letters."

After a long and useful life, beloved by the poor, to whom she was a kind and thoughtful benefactress, Lady Eleanor died in her ninetieth year, and two years afterwards Miss Ponsonby followed her to the grave. They are buried in the same tomb at Llangollen churchyard, and long epitaphs record their various perfections. The virtues of their faithful Irish servant, Mary Carryl, who is buried with them, are also recorded. She is said to have been—"Industrious, patient, faithful, generous, kind"—a goodly roll of qualities. which few servants of the present day can claim.

Such a friendship as existed between Lady Eleanor and Miss Ponsonby would be difficult to find. Their relations predicted that their going away together would end in failure, but these predictions were all falsified—never was a union more perfect, never did two people live in greater harmony. All Lady Eleanor's angularities seem to have been smoothed away, nothing but benevolence and kindness remained. The experiment of living her own life, in her own way, with her own chosen companion, turned out a complete success. And Sarah Ponsonby, who had passed such a troubled youth, found the truest peace and harmony for the rest of her days.