210 years ago today

Ellen Hutchins, botanist, aged twenty one, living in Ballylickey, West Cork, wrote another letter to James Mackay of Trinity College Dublin, her third in just over two weeks.

She seems to have had more to say than she had paper to write it on. Having filled the sheet completely on the front, she turned it sideways and wrote over what she had already written. This is called cross hatching. Maybe she had literally run out of paper, or maybe she was economising because she did not have enough to say to fill a whole second sheet, and maybe she was acutely aware that James Mackay would have to pay twice the amount to receive a two sheet letter rather than a one sheet letter. In the early nineteenth century, the person receiving the letter paid, not the person sending it.

Ellen letter to Mackay, 15th February 1807 with cross hatching. (Image courtesy of the Herbarium, Trinity College Dublin)

Ellen letter to Mackay, 15th February 1807 with cross hatching. (Image courtesy of the Herbarium, Trinity College Dublin)

Ellen says that she is enclosing six new plants that she has found since her last letter on 1st February. Of one she says

‘I could not think of any safe way of sending it but inside of two little plates belonging to my little microscope. I am afraid to put it on paper. If you put a drop of water on it and then place it in a microscope you will immediately see it plainly. Its manner of growth seems entirely new to me, perhaps it is a plant of some kind you are acquainted with. I found but very little of it.’

Ellen writes:

Fucus viridis I believe grows some where in this bay. I have got one small ……. bit of a plant which I think agrees with Mr Turner’s description.’

Later in the letter, Ellen writes

‘I am determined to pursue the sea plants this year with all my might and wish to know the kinds you wish to have either dry or fresh. I am much obliged to you for your last letter. I fear it was some inconvenience to you to waste so long. How very eager my curiosity may be to hear of the plants. I should be sorry its fructification was inconvenient to you.’

And:
‘I hope to do a great deal this summer and to add largely to our collections. My mother and brother are quite delighted with the beauty of the sea plants. I wish indeed that you could visit some of the rocks with me. I am very glad you liked the last parcel. As soon as I have any good quality specimens for you I shall send these and let you know.’

She ends with:

‘Should the summer be a favourable one, I hope to go to many rocks on either side of the bay. I shall make every exertion in my power to collect plants. I expect to have a great many for Dr Stokes and for you.
I am Sir with many good wishes yours etc etc
E Hutchins’

She is planning ahead in talking about summer, as it was 15th February, when summer still feels a long way away.

The shore of Bantry Bay, at Ardnagashel, one February day, 2013.

The shore of Bantry Bay, at Ardnagashel, one February day, 2013.

Her determination to pursue the sea plants with all her might seems to pay off earlier than the summer. Two of the wonderful specimens in the display cabinet in the exhibition currently running in Trinity College Dublin are from 1807, and one of them is Fucus viridis (now called Desmarestia viridis), dated April 23rd 1807. She found it on Bocarna Point, which is in Glengarriff harbour. It is the one on the left in the photograph below.

Display of seaweed specimens collected by Ellen Hutchins in Bantry Bay 1807-1809

Display of seaweed specimens collected by Ellen Hutchins in Bantry Bay 1807-1809

Display of Ellen's letters to James Mackay with specimens

Display of Ellen’s letters to James Mackay with specimens

A transcription of the letter is available here.

The exhibition has public access sessions on the last Thursday of each month: 23rd February, 30th March and 27th April, 5pm – 6:30pm.