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 and drawings 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 are full of descriptions of plants. Often the letters have specimens identified by numbers, pinned to the pages. Ellen and Turner offer to fill in each other’s collections and ask each other to help with identification. Ellen gives substantive detail; where she has found each seaweed, moss and lichen, their appearance. In the case of seaweeds, she says which season they fruit in, and which others they resemble. She describes the colour changes as they dry, and talks of what she hopes to be able to find next season. Turner writes about plants too, initially mostly providing Ellen with answers to her questions relating to her specimens. He also tells her about other botanists he is in contact with, their tours and publications, meetings he is attending in London and sends her botanical books.

Dawson Turner invites Ellen to stay with them in Yarmouth; Ellen explains that her caring duties prevent her from leaving home. She, in turn, suggests the Turners would be welcome at Ballylickey. Turner explains that a visit to Ireland is as improbable as Ellen coming to Yarmouth.

Gradually the topics covered in the letters extend 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 writes of her mother’s ill health and her own. Ellen describes how much she enjoys the stillness and solitude of the night by the riverside, and clambering over rocks and up mountains in search of plants. Turner quotes poetry. They confer on literature they have enjoyed and he recommends books to Ellen.

Thus an incredibly strong and supportive friendship develops through the correspondence. Ellen has periods of illness that prevent her doing any botanizing, and she alludes to family troubles but doesn’t gives any detail. Ellen finds the letters and the friendship a wonderful source of comfort when she is immersed in dealing with her own and her mother’s illness. Dawson Turner and his wife face great sadness when a child of theirs dies. He names one of his daughters after Ellen and asks her to be the child’s godmother. He says that Ellen of all women in the world is the one he would be most pleased for his daughter to emulate. Ellen collects and sends sea shells to his eldest daughter, Maria. Ellen and Turner show real concern for each other in times of stress and illness, and seek to console and encourage the other.

By 1813, Ellen’s health is poor and she and her mother move to Bandon for better medical care. When Ellen’s health deteriorates further in 1814, and she is bed-bound and under doctor’s orders not to exert herself by letter writing. She disobeys and sends Turner a letter to reassure him that she is still alive. He is extremely relieved and writes back immediately. She replies that she reads his letters ‘with tears of gratitude and affection for such kindness.’ In this, her last letter to him before her death, she ends with ‘Send me a moss -anything just to look at.’

Ellen dies 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 nursed her for the last nine months of her life.