Monthly Archives: April 2017

24th April 1807: Name or no name?

Much has been made in many accounts of Ellen’s life and botanical achievements of her reluctance to have her name mentioned as the finder of plants. From the research I have done and the letters to her brothers that surfaced in 2012, I think that Ellen’s reluctance and therefore assumed modesty about being named is over-stated.

This post is one of a series in which I am making available the letters (or extracts from them) written by Ellen and James Townsend Mackay in 1807 about Ellen’s study of botany, and Ellen’s letters to her brothers about her botanizing. They are being posted here on the date they were written.

The letters provide a fascinating account of Ellen’s botanizing and details of life at the time, and will also provide material to reassess her modesty and reluntance about having her name published.

On 24th April 1807, 210 years ago today, James Mackay, botanist of Trinity College Dublin writes to Dawson Turner, botanist specialising in seaweed, based in Yarmouth, England:

Miss Hutchins is as yet rather averse to her name being mentioned in any publication as the finder of any plant – so that in case you should describe any of the discoveries you can say they were found by a lady near Bantry – but I hope to be able to prevail with her to allow her name to be mentioned.

Mackay to Dawson Turner 24th April 1807

16th April 1807 Ellen to Emanuel: botany and use of her name

Ellen wrote to her eldest brother, Emanuel (known in the family as Manny) on April 16th 1807, 210 years ago today. Ellen’s father, Thomas, had died when Ellen was two years old, and Emanuel (who was 17 years older than Elln) was the head of the family. He had studied law at Trinity College Dublin and lived and worked in London. This appears to be the first time that Elln has told him about her botany studies.

Dear Manny
I address you once more to ask a little advice as I have no other friend [relative] to consult. For some time past I have amused myself learning botany. I am told by those who are good judges that I have made very great progress for the time I have been learning, in a curious and difficult branch, that of marine plants. I have been very successful and have discovered a great number of kinds unknown before. Of these new plants, plates [engraved drawings] and descriptions will be given by botanists now publishing their works, and it is usual to mention the place where the plant was found and the name of the person who was the discoverer. I desired that my name should not be published & I have since been asked to allow it to be mentioned as Ladies who have found plants always do so. I am doubtful whether I ought to do so or not & beg you to tell me what I shall do.

If you have any dislike to writing to me will you tell Sam whatever answer you wish to give, as I wish to give a decisive answer. Mrs Taylor and Phyllis wish my name to be mentioned for the plants I have found, but I would not suffer it to be done until I knew if you thought it right.

I send my plants to Mr Mackay, a very good botanist who was sent by the college [Trinity College Dublin] to this and many other parts of Ireland and has made great discoveries in botany. He has now the care of the new college botanic garden. He gives me all the information that I want & sends the plants to those who describe and publish. I also send a great number of Dr Stokes & have made him a very fine collection. He says he is quite astonished at the progress I have made.

I hope you will excuse my troubling you on this subject & that you will tell me what is right for me to do.’                     Ellen to Emanuel 16th April 1807

The people mentioned in the letter include her youngest brother, Sam, who was living with Emanuel in London at this time, and Mrs Taylor who lived near Ballylickey, at Inchilough. She was a relative of Ellen’s and mother of Thomas Taylor, Ellen’s third cousin and another botanist. Phyllis was a member of the Taylor household but we have not identified her further. James Townsend Mackay and Dr Whitley Stokes were both of Trinity College Dublin. Dr Stokes was a family friend and he ‘prescribed’ botany for Ellen when she was returning to Ballylickey after living in his household in Dublin.

3rd April 1807

This is a continuation of the series of posts giving the correspondence between Ellen and her brothers, and Ellen and James Townsend Mackay in 1807, with extracts of the letters posted here on the day on which they were written.

On 3rd April 1807 Ellen wrote to her youngest brother, Samuel, telling him about her study of botany and asking for his help to find out about Lewis Dillwyn’s book, British Confervae. This letter is also one stage in the story of Ellen not wanting her name to be given as the finder of plants.

My dear Sam,
Tom has sent £80 for you in cash. Let him know when you have received it. You never gave any accurate description about the nightshirts you wish for. Write exactly what you wish to have done about them and Tom will have it done. What number do you want? You must describe the size as well as you are able and the quality of the linen. [??] Tom desires you to tell Manny [Emanuel] that there is no chance at present of doing any thing with Thinn in the business I mentioned in my last. He is not now disposed to sell.

I wish that you may be as successful in Law as I have been in botany. I have made some discoveries in sea plants of some kinds entirely new, others new to Britain but known to botanists of other countries, and I have also found many rare, curious and beautiful plants.

Now I want to ask you to give me a little assistance will you call on Mr Sowerby, No 2 Mead Place, Lambeth and enquire whether “Dillwyn’s British Confervae” is to be had, how many numbers of it there are published, and the price of each number. Let me know as soon as you can what you have learned about this work. I can get it sent from Cork as soon as I know whence it is to be had. Mr Dillwyn is describing and giving plates of Confervae, a beautiful genus of sea and fresh water plants. His work will contain some of the plants I have found here which have been sent to him from Dublin. My name will not be mentioned as the finder. I have desired that it should not.

I enclose you a specimen of one of them. A very elegant little plant. Most of the others I have got are too large to put in a letter. I have a very fine collection of marine plants and have sent Doctor Stokes a vast many specimens – I should learn a great deal of botany if I had good assistance but all the fine works on that subject are very expensive.

My Mother is tolerably well, tho she is often ill of late. Tom is the same way – I am but middling. I am very subject to a troublesome complaint in my stomach but tho I am some times very ill with it, I am generally pretty strong and able to walk a great deal.’

The letter continues with news of family and neighbours, and ends:

‘My mother desires her love to you and hopes you will soon write. 

My dear Sam I am affectionately yours
E Hutchins’

Ellen had four brothers, the eldest was Emanuel (Manny) who was seventeen years older than her, and he had studied law at Trinity College Dublin, and now lived and worked in London. Arthur was sixteen years older than Ellen and he had bought land at Ardnagashel, just round the coast of Bantry Bay from Ballylickey where Ellen lived, and was married to Matilda and had young children. Next was Thomas (Tom) seven years older than Ellen, and he had lost the use of his limbs, one account says through an accident falling on ice at school, and had to be carried from room to room. Ellen cared for Tom and her widowed mother. When Lewis Dillwyn (author of British Confervae) visited Ballylickey in 1809, he described Tom as the head of the household at Ballylickey. Ellen’s youngest brother was Samuel (Sam) who was eighteen months younger than Ellen. Sam had been to school in England and was staying with Emanuel in London prior to going to college to study law.

While a large number of letters written by Ellen to Emanuel and Sam have survived, so far none have been found written by either brother to Ellen.

The next letter will be posted on 16th April, when Ellen writes to he eldest brother Emanuel about her botanizing and whether to allow her name to be given in publications as the finder of plants.