“How sweet a preparation of the medium of life is a kind friend’s letter” Ellen Hutchins
Ellen Hutchins family recently found a bundle of 50 letters written by her to other members of her family. These letters and the many hundreds of others written by her to her mentors and fellow plant enthusiasts, bring to life her passion for all things natural. Letters were important to Ellen Hutchins, as her own ill-health and the duties of caring for her elderly mother and disabled brother meant that she rarely travelled outside of Bantry Bay. Despite this confinement, it could be said that she took “the road less travelled” because she was a pioneer and Ireland’s first female botanist.
Ellen Hutchins was born on St Patrick’s Day, 1785 at Ballylickey House near Bantry Bay. Her mother gave birth to 21 children, 6 of whom survived beyond their early years. Ellen, the second youngest, was 2 years old when her father died. She went to school in Dublin but ill-health forced her to leave. While recovering she lived for a time with Dr Whitley Stokes and his family in Dublin. He encouraged her to take an interest in natural history, as a way of getting fresh air and staying healthy. When she had to return home to West Cork to care for her mother and brother, she developed this interest and spent much of her short life on the shores and in the mountains around her home.
Along with her ability to find and record undiscovered specimens, Ellen Hutchins also had the artistic talent (self-taught) to record them accurately to scale, sometimes using a brush with one squirrel hair for the finer details.
A small but beautifully presented exhibition at The Boole Library in University College Cork tells us that “between 1805 and 1813” she applied herself to “the serious study of a ‘curious and difficult’ branch of botany – the cryptograms or non-flowering plants – seaweeds, lichens, mosses and liverworts”. She even had a small boat to help her in her studies.
Initially reluctant to allow her name to be published in association with her discoveries, she did receive the credit she deserved from many leading botanists of the time. A rather poignant letter in the exhibition shows her asking her older brother, Emanuel for advice about this. “I address you once more to ask a little advice as I have no other friend to consult”
Some of Ellen Hutchins’ seaweed specimens
The area around Bantry Bay where Ellen lived was very remote. Few other botanists travelled there so she made many fascinating discoveries on the seashore and in the mountains. James Mackey, a Botanist at Trinity College was one of a few people to visit Ellen in West Cork. He encouraged her to specialise in seaweeds and showed her how to preserve them. She sent many specimens to him which he in turn forwarded to botanists in England.
One of the recipients of these specimens in England was Dawson Turner. In 1807, delighted to receive them, he sent a parcel of drawings and plants to her as a thank you. This led to a 7 year correspondence between them. They never met but the warmth in the letters shows that they developed a deep friendship. He even named one of his children after her and made her godmother. Her letters to Dawson Turner are in Trinity College, Cambridge and Dawson Turner’s letters to her are in the Kew Gardens’ library archives.
Ellen Hutchins recorded hundreds of species and many of her rare finds are named after her. James Mackay’s book “Flora Hibernica” (1836) contains many rare species recorded by her. Some of her specimens are held at the National Botanic Gardens and Trinity College in Dublin. The majority are in The Natural History Museum, London. Over 200 of her drawings are held in the Archives at Kew.
Ellen Hutchins was also a keen gardener and she cultivated a field near her home which was called simply “Miss Ellen’s Garden”.
She finally succumbed to her ill-health in February 1815 at the age of 29. Her good friend Dawson Turner wrote “that botany had lost a votary as indefatigable as she was acute, and as successful as she was indefatigable.”
Now her memory is being kept alive in no small part by her great, great, grand-niece, Madeline Hutchins who continues to highlight Ellen Hutchins’ ability to find and record, both botanically and artistically, many of the plants of West Cork
The exhibition, called “Ellen Hutchins. Ireland’s First Female Botanist” continues at the Boole Library at UCC until December 21st. Information on the many other events and talks in conjunction with the exhibition can be found on http://www.ellenhutchins.com
Photo of Irish Spurge c. Robbie Murphy (from website http://www.ellenhutchins.com)
Images of the exhibition c. fotaframeyardblog.com
Other images courtesy of http://www.ellehnutchins.com
Mitchell, Michael (1999). Early Observations on the Flora of South West Ireland:selected letters of Ellen Hutchins and Dawson Turner, 1807–1814. Dublin: National Botanic Gardens Glasnevin