How the Ladies of Llangollen came to live at Llangollen for over 50 years was something of an accident. There had never been an intention to do so until it actually happened. Yet, their arrival at Plas Newydd in Llangollen brought the little town quite a considerable amount of attention, and visits from the great and the good, and sometimes the notorious.
Lady Eleanor Charlotte Butler (1739 – 1829) and Miss Sarah Ponsonby (1755 – 1831) were members of two of Ireland’s most illustrious Anglo-Irish families. The former was of the daughter of Walter Butler, head of the Roman Catholic Ormondes, and sister to John Butler, 17th Earl of Ormonde. The latter was the granddaughter of General Henry Ponsonby and, as it happens, the second cousin to the Earl of Besborough.
They lived a few miles apart, Eleanor in Kilkenney Castle, Sarah in Woodstock, County Kilkenny and first met in 1768, quickly becoming close friends. Neither were happy at home. Eleanor, at the age of 29 was given the stark choice of an advantageous marriage or a convent, neither of which seemed palatable to her. Sarah, at the age of 13 was attempting to fend of the particularly unwelcome attentions of her guardian, Sir William Fownes.
Their first attempt at flight occurred in March 1778 when, dressed as men they made it as far as Waterford before being intercepted and returned to their homes. They were more successful in the May of 1778, when they managed to evade capture and sailed to Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire. They decided to travel, arriving in Llangollen on 26th May 1778. They visited Valle Crucis Abbey, Trevor Rocks, Castell Dinas Bran and Chirk Castle. They did not stop at Llangollen for long however, moving onto Conwy, Caernarvon before returning to Oswestry at the end of June. Though they had intended to settle in England, it seems they were happy to look for winter accommodation in Llangollen, and after lodging at Blaen Bache and at the local Post Office, they managed to secure the tenancy of Pen y Maes, a small cottage overlooking the town. Whether they intended to move on in the spring or not, Pen y Maes became their home until their deaths some 50 years later.
They took on a long term lease for Pen y Maes and began a series of improvements. The rather plain Pen y Maes had a library, a state bedroom, ornamented gardens added, and lots and lots of carved oak decoration lavished upon it, becoming before long Plas Newydd. After the death of their landlord, Edward Edwards of Pengwern Vale, the Ladies bought the property and continued their extensions and decorations.
As for their reputation in the town, it would seem that they were regarded as eccentric at worst. They were known for wearing dark riding clothes, with neck cloths and cropped and powdered hair. Their clothes made them seem quite masculine, a look they seemed happy to convey to all who saw them. They also had a habit of wearing tall, black beaver hats. They refused to have their portraits taken, although miniatures exist of Sarah as a young girl. In fact, the only reliable means by which we know what they looked like, other than written descriptions, is through the deceit of Mary Parker who, with the Honourable Mrs Kenyon successfully distracting the Ladies, managed to make some swift sketches of Sarah and Eleanor, producing a painting of the two a little later. It seems all subsequent ‘portraits’ of the Ladies were fanciful reproductions of this original, the features of the Ladies copied into different backdrops.
They rarely left Plas Newydd for more than a night, travelling far and wide, but not so far that they could not be home to sleep in their own bed. They were happier for people to visit them, and many did so as their reputation for eccentricity spread far and wide.
The gardens are a delight, a smudge of light and dark, and the rather wonderful grotto, incorporating the font from Valle Crucis Abbey and a charming summerhouse are a highlight.
The list of visitors was extraordinary, and one should remember that Llangollen lay on the main road between London and Holyhead. It was often the case that travellers would drop in to see the Ladies of Llangollen, the name that they had become known as not long after settling at Plas Newydd, on their way to or from Ireland. The Ladies were happy to receive these visitors, unless they weren’t, in which case, spying the undesirables wandering down the path towards their home, they would send their devoted servant, Mary Caryll (otherwise known as Molly the Bruiser), to explain that, ‘sorry, the Ladies are not at home’.
The Duke of Wellington was a favourite, and visited several times. Irish born, he first arrived at Plas Newydd as the up-and-coming officer, Arthur Wellesley, and one can imagine the conversations of three Irish friends in a ‘strange land full of foreigners.' But the Iron Duke was not the only visitor of repute. Plas Newydd became the destination for a number of romantic poets and writers; Percy Shelly, Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth all came to take tea and walk the gardens of Plas Newydd. It would seem that generally speaking all those that made it through the front door were welcome to return, although Wordsworth, after describing life at Plas Newydd, as far as the Ladies were concerned, in less than flattering terms, did not return.
‘A stream to mingle with your favorite Dee
Along the Vale of Meditation flows;
So styled by those fierce Britons, pleased to see
In Nature’s face the expression of repose,
Or, haply there some pious Hermit chose
To live and die — the peace of Heaven his aim,
To whome the wild sequestered region owes
At this late day, its sanctifying name.
Glyn Cafaillgaroch, in the Cambrian tongue,
In ours the Vale of Friendship, let this spot
Be nam’d, where faithful to a low roof’d 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.’
A Poem to the Ladies of Llangollen, William Wordsworth 1824
Other visitors included Prince Paul III Anton Esterhazy, the Austrian Ambassador to Great Britain, and the Duke of Gloucester also paid visits. The Ladies seem to have accepted the attention of these great and good in their stride, but clearly enjoyed the attention.
Their families, which had initially attempted to bring them back to Ireland, ignored them for a while, before relenting and providing them with a reasonable allowance which barely covered the costs of refurbishments and renovations of their beloved Plas Newydd. They did not, however, allow their lifestyles to be affected by the inconvenience of not having sufficient capital.
Eleanor died in 1829 at the great age of 90, and Sarah, though considerably younger, followed in 1831, aged 76. Their faithful servant, Mary Carryl had died some years earlier, after leaving the Ladies a considerable amount of land. All three are buried in the churchyard of St Collen’s in Llangollen, beneath a rather wonderful memorial to them, a large triangular affair, each face devoted to one of the three inseparable companions.
The library is astonishing, with a jumble jamble of stained glass, apparently from Valle Crucis Abbey incorporated into the windows, creating a startling lighting effect, much admired by the Ladies guests.
Plas Newydd was quickly bought by two local spinsters, Amelia Lolley and Charlotte Andrew who one imagines were eager to continue the reputation of eccentricity at Plas Newydd. The Ladies knew of them, and had little love for them, coining them the, ‘Lollies and Trollies’. Their time at Plas Newydd was not known for its taste – they added curious ornaments to the grounds, and a stuffed bear, if you please, to the porch. It passed through the hands of a Mrs Robina Augusta Couran and a Mr Lloyd Williams before ending up in the ownership of General John Yorke, a member of the Erddig Yorke’s.
General Yorke devoted considerable time and monies to Plas Newydd, building a west extension and doing much to improve the gardens, opening the home to the public on occasion and popular it was too. On Yorke’s death in 1890, Plas Newydd passed to his heir, Colonel Reynoldson who sold it to the Robertson brothers of Liverpool. One of the brothers, G.H.F. Robertson lived at the house and laid out formal gardens.
The Robertson’s sold the property to a Henry Robertson (not he of Llantysilio Hall), who sold it on a Mrs G.M. Wilson of Lincoln and thus to a Mr Harrison of Bryntysilio. From Harrison to Lord Duveen, from Duveen to the Right Honourable George Montague and in 1933, the contents of the home were being sold by public auction and the home was sold to Llangollen Urban District Council.
One of Plas Newydd’s most interesting periods of history is its use in the 1930s as the home of the Welsh National Theatre under the guardianship of Howard de Walden who, at this time was the tenant of nearby Chirk Castle. Unfortunately, despite the tremendous energies put into the creative undertaking, and two or three successful plays, the company ultimately failed to attract any great enthusiasm and foundered on the outbreak of World War Two. However, it was at Plas Newydd that Richard Llewelyn wrote, ‘How Green Was My Valley’. He had arrived in order to audition young actors at the home of the Ladies in 1934 and stayed for several months, taking up residence at the house.
In 1963, Plas Newydd was returned to the condition it was lived in by the Ladies of Llangollen, with the Yorke west and east wings demolished. Today, Plas Newydd is in the ownership of Denbighshire County Council and is a popular tourist attraction, drawn by the ever interesting eccentricities of the Ladies of Llangollen.
At St Collen’s on the south wall is a monument to the Ladies of Llangollen, paid for by a Dr Mary Gordon, a psychologist and disciple of Carl Jung. While visiting Llangollen in the 1930s, on the basis of a dream she had of Valle Crucis, she paid a visit to Plas Newydd and claimed to have felt the presence of the Ladies of Llangollen. On a further visit to Plas Newydd some months later, she felt nothing, but on a walk up the Bache, a favourite of the Ladies, she came across two elderly ladies sitting by the path, dressed quite as the Ladies had dressed at the beginning of the 19th century.
Despite her unease, Gordon made conversation with these ‘Ladies’ and agreed to meet them again that night at Plas Newydd. Gordon explains that she was required to break into the property that evening, but met the Ladies in one of the reception rooms were they talked through the night. The meeting only came to an end with the rise of the sun. Mary Gordon went on to write a semi-fictional account of the Ladies of Llangollen in a book, ‘The Flight of the Wild Goose’, which she claims was based on the conversation she had enjoyed with Eleanor and Sarah.
There have been other curious hauntings at Plas Newydd, in which the Ladies have made appearances to the unsuspecting, but it seems, only men. Make of that what you will.