Monthly Archives: July 2015

An amazingly strong friendship through plants and letters

Dawson Turner, in Yarmouth, England, was preparing a book on seaweeds. He received some of Ellen’s specimens from James Mackay, assistant curator at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin. Turner was delighted and in April 1807 he sent a parcel of plants to Ellen as a thank you. This was the beginning of a seven year correspondence, lasting right up to Ellen’s early death aged twenty nine.

Dawson Turner

Their early letters were full of descriptions of plants. Often the letters had specimens identified by numbers, pinned to the pages. Ellen and Turner offered to fill in each other’s collections and asked each other to help with identification. Ellen gave substantive detail; where she had found each seaweed, moss and lichen, their appearance. In the case of seaweeds, she wrote which season they fruited in, and which others they resembled. She described the colour changes as they dried, and talked of what she hoped to be able to find next season. Turner wrote about plants too, initially mostly providing Ellen with answers to her questions relating to her specimens. He also told her about other botanists he was in contact with, their tours and publications, meetings he was attending in London and he sent her botanical books.

Dawson Turner invited Ellen to stay with his family in Yarmouth; Ellen explained that her caring duties prevented her from leaving home. She, in turn, suggested that the Turners would be welcome at Ballylickey. Turner explained that a visit to Ireland is as improbable as Ellen coming to Yarmouth.

Gradually the topics covered in the letters extended past plants and botanists. His letters start to cover ‘domestic concerns’ of the Turner family, and the illness and death of friends and botanists, and Ellen wrote of her mother’s ill health and her own. Ellen described how much she enjoyed the stillness and solitude of the night by the riverside, and clambering over rocks and up mountains in search of plants. Turner quoted poetry. They conferred on literature they had enjoyed and he recommended books to Ellen.

Thus an incredibly strong and supportive friendship developed through the correspondence. Ellen had periods of illness that prevented her doing any botanizing, and she alluded to family troubles but didn’t give any detail. Ellen found the letters and the friendship a wonderful source of comfort when she was immersed in dealing with her own and her mother’s illness. Dawson Turner and his wife faced great sadness when a child of theirs died. Turner named one of his daughters after Ellen and asked her to be the child’s godmother. He said that Ellen of all women in the world is the one he would be most pleased for his daughter to emulate. Ellen collected and sent sea shells to Tuener’s eldest daughter, Maria. Ellen and Turner showed real concern for each other in times of stress and illness, and sought to console and encourage the other.

By 1813, Ellen’s health was poor and she and her mother moved to Bandon for better medical care. When Ellen’s health deteriorated further in 1814, and she was bed-bound and under doctor’s orders not to exert herself by letter writing, She disobeyed and sendt Turner a letter to reassure him that she was still alive. He was extremely relieved and wrote back immediately. She replied that she read his letters ‘with tears of gratitude and affection for such kindness.’ In this, her last letter to him before her death, she ended with ‘Send me a moss – anything just to look at.’

Ellen died on 9th February 1815 at Ardnagashel, just along the coast of Bantry Bay from Ballylickey, her lifetime home, at the house of her brother Arthur and his wife Matilda who had nursed her for the last nine months of her life.

 

 

Ellen Hutchins: Significant Scientist

In her short life (she died just before her thirtieth birthday) Ellen Hutchins of Ballylickey discovered a significant number of new species of non flowering plants (mosses, seaweeds and lichens) and was a serious scientist before the word ‘scientist’ was even invented in 1833.

British Flora. William Jackson Hooker 1842. Hooker ( First Director of Royal Botanic Gardens,Kew ) describing the Rock Hutchinsia, one of several plants named after Ellen and commenting on her contribution to the science of botany.

British Flora. William Jackson Hooker 1842.
Hooker ( First Director of Royal Botanic Gardens,Kew ) describing the Rock Hutchinsia, one of several plants named after Ellen and commenting on her contribution to the science of botany.

Ellen was active as a botanist between 1805 and 1812, based at home in Ballylickey, on the shores of Bantry Bay, and fitting her studies around caring for her elderly and frail mother and a disabled brother. Ellen searched seashore, woodland, peat bog, mountainside, islands, riverbanks, and her own garden for specimens, and back home she matched them to those already known to botanists and sent those that she considered new to fellow botanists for confirmation and publication.

Her scientific skills in identifying, preserving, and describing the plants were added to by her incredible artistic skill in drawing them. Leading botanists of the day, including James Mackay in Dublin, Lewis Dillwyn in Wales, Dawson Turner and William Hooker in England, were keen to receive her materials. Engravings of her drawings and her descriptions appeared in the notable botanical publications of her day, and the authors such as William Hooker, first Director of The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London were full of praise for Ellen, recognising the significant contribution that she had made to the understanding of these branches of botany, and honouring her by naming plants after her. JW Hooker Flora Britannica

Her reputation continued through the next generations of those studying the non flowering plants, known as cryptogamists, and within that grouping, bryologists who study mosses and liverworts, algologists who study seaweed (marine algae), and lichenologists who study lichens. In these specialist fields today, her name is still known and her status as a significant scientist recognised. She appears on published lists of Irish Scientists and Irish Women Scientists, and is widely regarded as Ireland’s First Woman Botanist.

Delightful Book

The Wild Plants of Bere, Dursey & Whiddy

The Wild Plants of Bere, Dursey & Whiddy

This delightful book, The Wild Plants of Bere, Dursey, Whiddy and other Islands in Bantry Bay, published by Sherkin Island Marine Station in 2013, puts on record the variety of wild plants found in this part of Ireland famed for its dramatic scenery, mild climate and sub-tropical gardens. The book examines the history, geography, geology, vegetation and land use of this beautiful corner of Ireland, as well as giving an illustrated catalogue of its wild plants. Ellen Hutchins features strongly, as the first botanist to record the plants of Whiddy Island and produce a list from the Bantry Bay area. Ellen’s story is retold in the section on the History of Botanical Exploration. This book represents the first comprehensive plant listing for Whiddy Island since Ellen’s work in 1807 to 1811.

Right Person, Right Place, Right Time

Ellen Hutchins of Ballylickey was botanizing in the Bantry Bay area of West Cork, Ireland, long before collecting seaweeds became a fashionable hobby for Victorian ladies.

Oil painting c1850 by  Louisa Shore Nightingale.

Water Colour of Bantry Bay  by Louisa Shore Nightingale (nee. Hutchins)

Between 1805 and 1812 Ellen was discovering new seaweeds, mosses and lichens, and sending her specimens and drawings to the leading botanists of the day who published her finds and were highly appreciative of her skills and achievements.

She was very much the right person, in the right place, at the right time. She was short sighted which is probably one reason why she chose to concentrate on the small non flowering plants known as cryptogams (seaweeds, mosses and liverworts, and lichens) and it helped her in distinguishing tiny differences between similar species. She was determined and curious, and put in the hard work needed to collect and preserve the specimens, then with her microscope she would puzzle over their features and fathom out whether they were already known or new. Her descriptions are detailed and precise. Her specimens are painstakingly and carefully spread out.

West Cork including the Bantry Bay area had been neglected by the botanical community, largely because it was remote, unknown, and travel to it and around it was difficult. Not until the beginning of the nineteenth century, in Ellen Hutchins’ time, did botanists start to realise what a rich and diverse flora the area possessed. This realisation came both from the specimens sent by Ellen, as well as visits that a few of them made to the area, often visiting Ellen at Ballylickey to pore over her sizeable collections of specimens.

The rich array of plants growing there and the neglect that has been given to the area meant that it was relatively easy for Ellen, with her short sightedness, determination, and knowledge of the non flowering plants to find new species. She also knew the Bantry Bay area very well indeed, and was careful in discerning different habitats, so knew where to look to find specific plants.

Her glowing descriptions of the seashore at Ballylickey and the woods at Glengarriff show a young woman in love with her environment. Later in the nineteenth century the landscape and natural delights of Bantry Bay and West Cork were to draw tourists to the area and many appreciated the same scenes as Ellen, as indeed they still do today.