Author Archives: Madeline Hutchins

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 I desired that my name should not be published & I have since been asked to allow it to be mentioned as Ladies who have found plants always do so.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.

26 March 1807

210 years ago today, the Botanist in charge of the Botanic Gardens at Trinity College Dublin, James Townsend Mackay, wrote to Ellen Hutchins of Ballylickey, with whom he had been corresponding since September 1805 about plants she was finding in the Bantry Bay area of West Cork.

He answers questions Ellen has asked about books, comments on her wish not to have her name published as the finder of plants, tells her of a present of sea plants on its way to her from Dawson Turner, and sends her some seeds of a native plant for her garden.

James Mackay: letter to Ellen Hutchins 26 March 1807 Image by kind permission of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. 

Dublin, 26 March 1807


I have to thank you for your kind letter of the 16th inst. and also for another of the 15th of last month the contents of which I have not yet had sufficient time to examine. I thank you for your kind invitation of sending more and shall be glad of more specimens of the Conferva you sent me last if the parcel is not gone before this reaches you. I think it seems different from any you sent before but am not as yet certain about its name. I cannot as yet tell you exactly the price of Mr Dillwyn’s work on Conferva but it is published in Numbers at about 2/6 or 5/- each I think each No if 5/- will contain 10 or 12 plates with descriptions. Any of your friends in London that will take the trouble to call at Mr Sowerby No 2 Mead Place, Lambeth, London will get the necessary information where to be got and also know the price and quantity of it published. Mr Turner’s work on Mosses is in Latin. It is entitled Muscologiae Hibernica. The title of Mr Dillwyn’s work is Dillwyn’s British Conferva.

I will attend to what you say of not wishing to have your name mentioned in print – I hope I have not erred in mentioning it to Mr Turner. I should think it were a pity that two persons who have paid so much attention to the same branch of botany should not know one another’s names!

I believe I mentioned in my last letter that he was about to send me for you, specimens of rare British sea plants. I wrote him word I was sure they would be acceptable – I expect them here about the middle or latter end of next month – I will soon have his opinion of some of your rare species which I have sent him. Your Fucus No 6 (?) is certainly Fucus edulis of Turner’s Synopsis and which was considered by some authors as only a variety of Fucus palmatus, although I think it very different from in many respects, as you also justly observe it to be.

I shall mention to Mr Turner, what you say of Fucus membranacens, perhaps he may not have seen it in a recent state.

I understand Mr Taylor will be going to your part of the country next month when I will send you some plants, or may perhaps send them before he comes.

I have found since publishing my list that the plant I took for Turritis glabra is not that plant but Turritis alpina, new to Britain. It will soon appear in English Botany together with my new British Arcnasia. So that instead of a Turritis glabra ?? H Br. you can mark in the list Turritis alpina Linnaeus Systema Vegetabilium page 600. It is a biennial plant. I enclose you a few seeds of it which you can immediately in your garden on a light soil. It grows on a sandy common near the sea side in Connemara perhaps you may find it on your coast next summer.
I remain
yours respectfully
J T Mackay

The original of the letter was given to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew by the Hutchins family and is in the archives at Kew Gardens, along with the letters from Dawson Turner to Ellen. The transcription is by Madeline Hutchins, one of Ellen’s great great grand nieces, researcher on Ellen and an organiser of the Ellen Hutchins Festival.

The other half of the correspondence, letters from Ellen to Mackay, are held in the Herbarium, Trinity College Dublin, and are on display at present, for the frst time ever, in the exhibition, Celebrating Ellen Hutchins, in Trinity, alongside specimens of plants Ellen found 210 years ago and sent to Mackay at Trinity. There are two free public open sessions, this Thursday, 30th March and Thursday 27th April, 5pm to 6:30pm, in the Old Anatomy Building.

See here

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.’

‘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.

1 February 1807

Ellen’s letters to fellow botanists are one of the most important sources of information about her life and her botanising. A handful of letters from Ellen to James Mackay of Trinity College Dublin have been found and transcribed, and feature in the exhibition open now to 28th April.

1807 was a very significant year in Ellen’s study of seaweeds and other cryptogams. On 1st February 1807, 210 years ago, Ellen wrote to James Mackay sending him specimens. She begins the letter:

Dear Sir
You will no doubt be surprised to see a parcel from me so soon again but as your pleasure in plants equals mine, I could not delay writing with the enclosed minute species of Conferva.

Later in the letter we learn that her last letter to Mackay had been sent just the day before.

I shall be glad to hear (as soon as you can conveniently write) what you think of the enclosed. Is not it an elegant little plant? How full of fruit. I am sorry I had not it to send in my letter yesterday morn but it was after my letter was gone that I found it.

Letter: Ellen Hutchins to James Mackay, 1st February 1807, second side. Image courtesy of the Herbarium, Botany Department, Trinity College Dublin.

Letter: Ellen Hutchins to James Mackay, 1st February 1807, second side. Image courtesy of the Herbarium, Botany Department, Trinity College Dublin.

The photograph above of the letter has this piece at the bottom, up to “but it was after” and then the piece at the top starts with the words “my letter was gone that I found it”. It continues:

I should go out again today to get more only the spring tides are past.
Last night as I was going to sleep I got Turner’s ‘Synopsis’. I have sat up reading it and find I have done wrong by not sending you all the varieties I could of Fucus ??? and what I take for ceranoides of ??? And what I take for F. ??? I believe I have been quite wrong in these plants. I enclose a large variety of ceranoides as I think. I hope Mr T’s work will be in English that I may be able to read it. Fucus esculentus is plenty here.

The ??? indicate a word that has not yet been transcribed. Can anyone help? Can you read what Ellen has written here? Please leave a comment below.

Update on 6th March 2017

Thanks to Dr Anne Secord of Cambridge University for filling the blanks in the transcription above and giving an explanation of an abbreviation. The paragraph should read:

I should go out again today to get more only the spring tides are past.
Last night as I was going to sleep I got Turner’s ‘Synopsis’. I have sat up reading it and find I have done wrong by not sending you all the varieties I could of Fucus Stellatus and what I take for ceranoides of With. And what I take for F. Crispus I believe I have been quite wrong in these plants. I enclose a large variety of ceranoides as I think. I hope Mr T’s work will be in English that I may be able to read it. Fucus esculentus is plenty here.

The explanation of Fucus ceranoides of With.
[‘With.’ stands for William Withering, and I expect the most likely edition of his work that Ellen might have had is William Withering, Arrangement of British Plants, 3rd edition, 4 vols (1796).]


Ellen in Dublin: exhibition in the Botany Department, Trinity College

Celebrating Ellen Hutchins: Trinity College Dublin

This Thursday, 27th April, 5pm to 6:30pm, is the last public open session of the Ellen Hutchins exhibition in Trinity College Dublin. On display are some wonderful specimens of seaweed that Ellen collected in Bantry Bay over two hundred years ago. These are held in the Herbarium at Trinity, and are on display here for the first time ever. Alongside the specimens are letters Ellen wrote to botanist James Mackay at Trinity and ones written by her to her brothers, telling them of her success in botany. There are prints of Ellen’s drawings of seaweed and panels telling her story in words and pictures.

The big draw for Thursday is the added delight of being able to join award-winning botanical artist Shevaun Doherty as she demonstrates the beauty of botanical painting. Shevaun will be drawing one of Ellen’s specimens. This promises to be a very special end to the exhibition Celebrating Ellen Hutchins.

The exhibition is held in the old Anatomy Building at Trinity, and mounted by the Herbarium, Botany Department, Trinity and the Ellen Hutchins Festival. Members of both organisations will be present at the public open session to answer any questions, and to tell you about the next stages of research into Ellen’s life story, and this year’s Ellen Hutchins Festival in Bantry, West Cork.

If you are interested in the history of women in science, botany or botanical art, and can get along to Trinity on Thursday, then we look forward to seeing you there.
On display is Part Two of the exhibition with different specimens, letters and drawings from those shown in Part One. However, if you missed Part One, then highlights of it are still available by going round the back of the display panels and seeing them on the other side!

See here for more information and images.


Festival now annual

The 2016 Ellen Hutchins Festival in and around Bantry was as successful as the 2015 award winning Festival, and the decision has been made to make the Festival an annual event. This decision was made with the support of the Bantry Development and Tourism Association.

Eileen O’Shea of the Association says that “Bantry Development & Tourism welcome this now annual festival. We are pleased to be associated with the Hutchins family in recognising the first Irish female botanist Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815) remember her achievements, and walk in her footsteps. The festival takes place during Heritage Week in late August. This event is growing and is now part of the Calendar of Events for West Cork.” Eileen added “We look forward to working with the Bantry Historical Society, the National Parks & Wildlife Service and the Hutchins family in promoting and taking part in this wonderful event to commemorate Ellen’s work in natural science.” Plans for the Festival in 2017 (19 to 27 August) will be posted here.

Some members of the Hutchins family still live near Bantry, and others visit regularly from the UK and Australia. Four great great grand nieces and nephews of Ellen gathered in the Bantry Credit Union to view the Ellen Hutchins exhibition, and met with Finbarr O’Shea, manager of the Bantry Credit Union, and Eileen O’Shea, Chairman of the Bantry Development and Tourism Association, to thank them for their support of the Festival.


Julian Haskard, Bill Hutchins, Madeline Hutchins, and Arethusa Greacen, all relatives of Ellen Hutchins, with Eileen O’Shea and Finbarr O’Shea in the Bantry Credit Union.

Festival underway in Bantry

Part of the exhibition in Bantry Credit Union

Part of the Ellen Exhibition in Bantry Credit Union

Botany is in focus in Bantry, West Cork until Sunday 28th August (Heritage Week) with walks, talks and exhibitions as part of the Ellen Hutchins Festival. Ellen was Ireland’s first female botanist and the young woman who put Bantry Bay firmly on the map as far as botany is concerned, and seaweeds in particular.

Seaweeds feature prominently in the exhibition of prints of Ellen’s drawings of seaweed and photographs of her specimens (dried plants on paper) which opened on Saturday 20th August. Unlike normal exhibitions, this one takes to the streets, and is in shop windows across Bantry town centre and in Bantry Credit Union, Bantry Library and the Tourist Office. There are also sites in Ballylickey and Glengarriff. See here for more information.

In the evening on Thursday 25th, at the Westlodge Hotel, Bantry, there is a talk and panel discussion on Ellen: her story, her botany and her art, and before this a Pop Up exhibition with some of Ellen’s letters and books, and materials relating to rediscovering her story. Click here for more.

If you fancy picking up a paint brush and being given expert guidance on how to draw plants, there is a one day botanical art workshop, run by award winning artist, Shevaun Doherty, in the gardens and stables at Bantry House on Friday 26th. Shevaun welcomes all levels of experience and none, and says that the day will be relaxing, enjoyable and above all fun.

On Saturday 27th, upstairs in Organico Cafe in Bantry, you can drop by and see Shevaun in action, in a demonstration of her botanical art. The demo runs from 10am to 12 noon. Members of the Hutchins family will be there with prints of Ellen’s drawings.

A few places are still available for the botanical art workshop, see here for booking details, and information on the other events within the Festival.

Winners of Hidden Heritage Award

Angela O'Donovan (Bantry Historical Society), Clare Heardman (National Parks and Wildlife Service), Conor Newman (National Heritage Council) and Madeline Hutchins (Ellen researcher and Ellen's great great grandneice)

Angela O’Donovan (Bantry Historical Society), Clare Heardman (National Parks and Wildlife Service), Conor Newman (National Heritage Council) and Madeline Hutchins (Ellen researcher and Ellen’s great great grandniece)

The organisers of the Ellen Hutchins Festival collected the Heritage Council’s Hidden Heritage Award, in a ceremony in Kilkenny in June. In the Heritage Council’s words: ‘This award shines a light on Ireland’s hidden heritage and was open to event organisers who successfully explored lesser known aspects of Ireland’s heritage during National Heritage Week.’

The Festival organisers were given a lovely looking handmade glass vase with engraving on it, and a certificate.

Ellen Hutchins- National Heritage Awards Heritage-47

See the full programme for this year’s Walking in the Footsteps of Ellen Hutchins Festival here.

2016 Festival programme released


Team Ellen Fest 16 has been busy over the last couple of months, putting together a lovely programme of events for this year’s Ellen Hutchins Festival in Heritage Week – 20 to 28 August 2016 in the Bantry area and the full programme is now available for Walking in the Footsteps of Ellen Hutchins.

We are delighted to have a seaweed event on Whiddy Island on Sunday 21st August, a two day Lichen Foray at Ballylickey and Ardnagashel on Wednesday 24th and Thursday 25th, and on Thursday evening a talk and panel discussion on Ellen Hutchins: her story, her botany and her art, with a pop up exhibition before and after. On Friday 26th August, Bantry House is hosting the pop up exhibition, a botanical art workshop and a children’s nature art workshop, and on Saturday 27th there is a botanical art demonstration in the morning in Organico Café in Bantry and in the afternoon, a botany walk in Glengarriff Woods.

Throughout Heritage Week, from Saturday 20th to Sunday 28th August, there will also be an Ellen Hutchins Exhibition Trail in various venues in Bantry, Ballylickey and Glengarriff, with information panels about The Young Woman, her Work and her World, (seen last year in Banty Library) and prints of her drawings of seaweeds. See the full listings over on the events page and on the Heritage Week website, and put the dates in your diary!

The Heritage Week logo this year, a green tree-like human figure with spreading roots, and the wording ‘people and place’ fits very well for the Ellen Fest events. ‘She was the right person, in the right place, at the right time’ said botanist Donal Synnott at last year’s Festival, a theme picked up in the exhibition material about Ellen’s life and work.

Ellen knew the Bantry Bay area well, and as she lived there, could revisit the same location to see the plants at different times of year. She had a knowledge of the weather conditions and how they affected access to the location and the growth of the plants.

Seaweeds, lichen and mosses were little understood in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Ellen made a significant contribution to scientific knowledge through her perseverance in collecting specimens, her care in preserving them to show their form and colour, and her written observations on where she found them and how they behaved, and what she thought might be going on in terms of fruiting etc. When she became frustrated at the difficulty of capturing in words the nature of ones that changed their form and colour when preserved, she turned to watercolour drawings as a way of showing fellow botanists the details of the plants. She was generous in sharing her knowledge and her specimens, making many friends among fellow botanists.

Her correspondence is the main source of information about her story, and botany publications, of her time and in the two centuries since, show the usefulness of her botany studies to increasing human scientific knowledge and the high esteem in which she was and still is held in her specialist branches of botany and by historians of science. Hers is a wonderful story of person and place, and we encourage you to come to Bantry to hear about it and to walk in her footsteps this August.