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.