|WARNING! This is an archived copy of the North Wales Lesbian Line website. The information contained may not be up to date.|
North Wales Lesbian Line
Llinell Lesbiaid Gogledd Cymru
Before Freud expounded
his theories on homosexuality in the early twentieth century, nothing
immoral or unnatural was thought about the relationships which sprung
up between women - in fact it was often considered to be good practice
for the life-long commitment expected by a husband. (!) It was
not until 1929 that women were recognised legally as 'persons in their
own right', before that women were a man's responsibility and passed from
father, to brother, to husband. Consequently, the concept of 'being a
lesbian' was a long way down the tracks for
the eight women, whose stories we touch on here. They would probably have
described their lives as remarkable because of their ability to survive
without a male protector and master, than as lesbians.
The relationship between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby was always referred to as a 'romantic friendship' as was the attempt to emulate them by the Lollies and the Trollies.
Mary Lloyd and Frances Power Cobbe, and Mary Gordon and Violet Labouchere probably felt more comfortable with the words suffragette and feminist respectively.
But however it is named these eight lives are evidence of female same-sex love across the centuries in North Wales.
Although both Lady Eleanor and Sarah came from Irish aristocracy, their shocking failure to comply to the family marriage plans and run away together caused them to retreat from the attentions of society, preferring to live a reclusive life. Eleanor wrote in her Journal Monday July 14th 1787:
'What Tenderness - what attention - what anxiety did I not experience from the beloved of my Soul - She never quitted My bed Side for a Single instant reading to me to Soothe the pain Till it was abated - with difficulty I co'ld prevail with her to to breakfast or dine, - when she did eat Still it was by my bed side... so soft so delicious, so tender a day.'
Their closeness led them to become the objects of local curiosity and speculation, as illustrated by this extract from the General Evening Post, 24th July 1790:
'Miss Butler is tall and masculine, she wears always a riding habit, hangs her hat with the air of a sportsman in the hall, and appears in all respects as a young man, if we except the petticoats which she still retains. Miss Ponsonby, on the contrary, is polite and effeminate, fair and beautiful. They live in neatness, elegance and taste. Two females are their only servants. Miss Ponsonby does the duties and honours of the house, while Miss Butler superintends the gardens and the rest of the grounds.'
Lady Eleanor was mortified by this intrusion on their life and wrote to seek advise from a friend, Edmund Burke, asking how their reputations could be cleared, and could the wretched writer be brought to book. Burke doubted whether redress could be had by an appeal to the law saying:
'Your consolation must be that you suffer only by the baseness of the age you live in and that you suffer along with everything that is excellent in the world.' (!!)
Llangollen is on the old coach road between London and Ireland, and this maybe the reason why they became renowned for their quiet devotion for each other, and lives of cultured retirement, the road certainly brought them many visitors. Over the years they developed friendships with the Duke of Wellington, Charles Darwin, Sir Walter Scott, Sheridan and Lady Caroline Lamb. Wordsworth wrote of their rustic retirement, and Prince Puckler Muskau penned the phrase 'The two most celebrated virgins in Europe'.
After Sarah's death
Plas Newydd, Llangollen, was bought for £1,400 by two ladies long resident
in the village, but who had come from Manchester. One of them was Miss
Lolly, and Lady Eleanor Butler had wickedly nick-named them the Lollies
and the Trollies. For the next twenty years Miss Charlotte Andrew and
Miss Amelia Lolly lived in the 'Shrine of Friendship' emulating the lives
of the Ladies.
Eleanor Butler makes mentions of a visit by 'the Lloyds of Rhagallt Hall' in her journals, and so it is highly likely that Mary Lloyd, whose family lived at Rhagallt Hall, met the Ladies as a little girl.
Mary became one of the Victorian sculptors and artists studying Neoclassic Art in Rome as a pupil of John Gibson RA. John was also from North Wales, and became famous for his tinted sculptures of polychromed marble which were displayed at the International Exhibition of 1862 in London. A fellow pupil, Hariett Hosmer the American sculptress living with Isa Blagdon, introduced Mary to the wide circle of lesbian friends living in Rome, including the actress Charlotte Cushman who lived with Matilda Hayes and later Emma Stebbins.
Frances Power Cobbe met Mary when she visited Rome between 1858-60, and by 1862 Mary and Frances had left to set up home together in London. Mary, a woman of inherited means, gave up her artistic pursuits and supported Frances in all her political activities. But although she gave up sculpture, Mary remained very friendly with John Gibson, and both her and Harriet Hosmer were with him when he died in 1866.
Mary died in 1898, but Frances lived on in their North Wales cottage until she died in 1904.
Friend of my life! Whene'er my eyes
Rest with sudden glad surprise
On Nature's scenes of earth and air
Sublimely grand, or sweetly fair,
I want you, Mary
And when the winters nights come round
to our 'ain fireside' cheerly bound
With our dear Rembrandt Girl, so brown
Smiling serenely on us down
I want you, Mary.
I Want You Mary by Frances Power Cobbe 1873
An energetic Irish woman, by the 1870s Frances was an executive member of the London National Society for Women's Suffrage and an adamant anti-vivisectionist writing 320 books and pamphlets on the subject. It was her anti-vivisectionist views that led to her forming the Victoria Street Society for the Protection of Animals in 1875 and her falling out with many friends. She saw many links between the struggles for women's and animals rights. In her view, women and animals were both subject to the brutality of doctors, scientists and other men.
After Mary's death in 1898, Frances was the victim of a malicious charge of 'cruelly overdriving an old horse'. Although the charge was found to be groundless, you can imagine the upset she must have felt at being accused by her neighbours of the very thing she had so ardently fought against.
Frances left very specific instructions on her death that the doctor should sever off her head 'to render any revival in the grave absolutely impossible' and that her coffin be made of 'the lightest and most perishable materials merely sufficient to carry my body decently to the grave'.
Dr. Mary Gordon was a feminist and one of the first women doctors in England, she had a distinguished career working as medical officer at Holloway, and had written a treatise on prison discipline.In the early 1930s, aged 73 years, Mary returned to Plas Newydd, Llangollen, fifty-six years after a childhood visit. It had taken a dream, while staying at Carl Jung's house in Switzerland, to bring her back to visit Plas Newydd.
In the book she wrote about her experiences, Mary describes an immediate overpowering feeling of the presence of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby as soon as she entered the cottage. Her book The Chase of the Wild Goose was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at Hogarth Press in 1936 receiving a better review in the Times Literary Supplement than a contemporary book, The Well of Loneliness.
Her walks in the footsteps of the Ladies across the Llangollen hillside, conversing with their spirits, left her with a determination to celebrate their lives and in 1937 Dr. Mary Gordon donated a relief sculpture to the local church St Collen, dedicated to the memory of the Ladies of Llangollen. This sculpture portrayed Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby but was modelled by Mary Gordon herself and her partner Violet Labouchere, the sculptress.
Not a Passing Phase, Reclaiming Lesbians in history 1840-1985, Lesbian History Group, Womens Press Ltd, London,1989
Surpassing the Love of Men, Lillian Faderman, Womens Press Ltd, London, 1981
The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study of Romantic Friendship, Elizabeth Mavor, Penguin, London, 1971
Life with the Ladies of Llangollen, compiled and edited by Elizabeth Mavor, Penguin, London 1984
The Hamwood Papers of the Ladies of Llangollen and Caroline Hamilton, edited by Mrs.GH Bell, Macmillan & Co, London 1930
Victorian Feminists, Barbara Caine, Oxford University Press, 1992
Portraits to the Wall, Rose Collis, Cassell, London 1994
Life of Frances Power Cobbe, B. Atkinson, Swan, London 1904
The Chase of the Wild Goose Mary Louise Gordon, Hogarth Press, London, 1936
The Chase of the Wild Goose was republished as Llangollen Ladies by John Jones Publishing Ltd in 2000