1 February 1807

Ellen’s letters to fellow botanists are one of the most important sources of information about her life and her botanising. A handful of letters from Ellen to James Mackay of Trinity College Dublin have been found and transcribed, and feature in the exhibition open now to 28th April.

1807 was a very significant year in Ellen’s study of seaweeds and other cryptogams. On 1st February 1807, 210 years ago, Ellen wrote to James Mackay sending him specimens. She begins the letter:

Dear Sir
You will no doubt be surprised to see a parcel from me so soon again but as your pleasure in plants equals mine, I could not delay writing with the enclosed minute species of Conferva.

Later in the letter we learn that her last letter to Mackay had been sent just the day before.

I shall be glad to hear (as soon as you can conveniently write) what you think of the enclosed. Is not it an elegant little plant? How full of fruit. I am sorry I had not it to send in my letter yesterday morn but it was after my letter was gone that I found it.

Letter: Ellen Hutchins to James Mackay, 1st February 1807, second side. Image courtesy of the Herbarium, Botany Department, Trinity College Dublin.

Letter: Ellen Hutchins to James Mackay, 1st February 1807, second side. Image courtesy of the Herbarium, Botany Department, Trinity College Dublin.

The photograph above of the letter has this piece at the bottom, up to “but it was after” and then the piece at the top starts with the words “my letter was gone that I found it”. It continues:

I should go out again today to get more only the spring tides are past.
Last night as I was going to sleep I got Turner’s ‘Synopsis’. I have sat up reading it and find I have done wrong by not sending you all the varieties I could of Fucus ??? and what I take for ceranoides of ??? And what I take for F. ??? I believe I have been quite wrong in these plants. I enclose a large variety of ceranoides as I think. I hope Mr T’s work will be in English that I may be able to read it. Fucus esculentus is plenty here.

The ??? indicate a word that has not yet been transcribed. Can anyone help? Can you read what Ellen has written here? Please leave a comment below.

Update on 6th March 2017

Thanks to Dr Anne Secord of Cambridge University for filling the blanks in the transcription above and giving an explanation of an abbreviation. The paragraph should read:

I should go out again today to get more only the spring tides are past.
Last night as I was going to sleep I got Turner’s ‘Synopsis’. I have sat up reading it and find I have done wrong by not sending you all the varieties I could of Fucus Stellatus and what I take for ceranoides of With. And what I take for F. Crispus I believe I have been quite wrong in these plants. I enclose a large variety of ceranoides as I think. I hope Mr T’s work will be in English that I may be able to read it. Fucus esculentus is plenty here.

The explanation of Fucus ceranoides of With.
[‘With.’ stands for William Withering, and I expect the most likely edition of his work that Ellen might have had is William Withering, Arrangement of British Plants, 3rd edition, 4 vols (1796).]