Ellen Hutchins was a field botanist who was plant hunting in the Bantry Bay area of West Cork, Ireland in the early 1800s. She specialised in seaweeds, lichens, mosses and liverworts. She discovered a great many plants ‘new to science’ and ‘new to Ireland’ and helped develop our understanding of seaweeds and the other non flowering plants. Contemporary botanists described her “zeal and knowledge in these plants”, “her extraordinary talents and no less extraordinary industry” and praised her for her determination and for being “indefatigable”. Many named plants after her, which is a great honour in botany. She was Ireland’s First Female Botanist, and part of a specialist community of botanists studying the non flowering plants (cryptogams) that included some of the leading names of the day, such as William Jackson Hooker, Dawson Turner and Lewis Dillwyn. She made beautiful and accurate drawings of seaweeds and other plants, some of which were used by botanists in their publications.
Ellen Hutchins was from Ballylickey, where her family had a small estate at the head of Bantry Bay, County Cork, Ireland. Her father, Thomas, who was a magistrate, died when Ellen
was two years old, leaving a widow and six children. Ellen was sent to school near Dublin, and while there, her health deteriorated. Dr Whitley Stokes, a family friend was consulted and took her under his and his wife’s care in his house in Harcourt Street, Dublin. Here Ellen regained her health, and Dr Stokes advised her to take up the study of a branch of natural history, as a healthy hobby, and recommended botany, his own specialism. His logic was that this would encourage her to spend much time out of doors and give her an interesting occupation indoors, identifying, recording and drawing the plants she collected.
Ellen returned home to Ballylickey, living with and caring for her now elderly mother and a disabled brother, and spending any free time she had in the study of plants, particularly mosses, liverworts, lichen, and seaweeds. She learnt quickly and clearly had a gift for plant
identification, and also produced very detailed watercolour drawings, and meticulously prepared specimens. She sent specimens to Dr Stokes which he passed onto other botanists. Through Dr Stokes she had become acquainted with James Townsend Mackay (1775–1862), a curator at the Botanic Garden of Trinity College. He helped her in the classification of plants she was collecting. Much later, when writing his Flora Hibernica (1836) he would include many of Ellen’s finds. On a visit to Ballylickey in the summer of 1805, Mackay suggested to Ellen that she study seaweeds, an under researched branch of botany at that time. In 1807, Mackay sent specimens of seaweeds Ellen had collected to Dawson Turner (1875 – 1858) botanist in Great Yarmouth, for his publication on seaweeds, “Historium Fuci” and when he sent a thank you note to Ellen, this was the beginning of a
seven year correspondence between them and exchange of specimens. He sent her books, on botany, and literature too. She sent him drawings of seaweeds, and he was delighted with their quality, requested more and used them in later parts of his ‘Historium Fuci’. A selection of the Ellen Hutchins and Dawson Turner letters, edited by Professor Michael Mitchell, was published as an Occasional Paper, by the National Botanic Gardens Glasnevin, Dublin in 1999. This publication also reprinted the list of nearly 1100 plants that Ellen prepared at the request of Dawson Turner for “a complete catalogue of plants of all kinds that you have found in your neighbourhood”. Ellen began work on this in 1809 and finished the list in 1812 and it was intended to be published by the Linnean Society, but for some reason was not submitted by Dawson Turner to the Society for publication.
Ellen’s ability to find new plants, identify them accurately, and the quality of her drawings and specimens drew admiration from the leading botanists of the day, and her work was featured in many of the leading publications, so although she never published herself, she was a major contributor to the new and developing plant sciences of her era. At first refusing to have her name associated with her finds, she soon relented, and her name appears on her specimens now in the most significant collections in the UK, Ireland and the USA. Sir James Smith wrote of her that “she could find almost anything”. Dawson Turner, in his “Fuci” in 1819, after her death says “that botany had lost a votary as indefatigable as she was acute, and as successful as she was indefatigable.” In William Hooker’s “Jungermanniae” Ellen’s name is more or less connected with nearly every rare species contained in the work.
Nearly all of her collecting was undertaken in the Banty Bay area and within Co Cork. She contributed to Lewis Weston Dillwyn’s work British Confervae. In 1809, Dillwyn and another botanist, Woods, visited Ellen at home at Ballylickey, and were very impressed with her extensive collections of plant specimens.
Her rare finds included lichens, and three species are called after her:
Seaweeds. Two marine algae are named in her honour:
Bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) – two species still carry her name.
A great many more plants were named after her, but their classification and so their names have changed as more has been learnt about them. There are at least seventeen of the marine algae, lichen and bryophyte Type Specimens at the Natural History Museum, London with her name on them, and the Cladophora hutchinsia (seaweed) at Trinity College, Dublin was collected by her.
Ellen was also a keen gardener, and she tended plants including ones sent her by Mackay in a field at Ballylickey, known as Miss Ellen’s Garden.
Her work was hampered by a decline in her health, and by late 1812 she was seriously ill. Her mother and her moved to Bandon in 1813 to receive medical care, and her mother died there in 1814. Ellen moved back to be cared for by her brother Arthur and his wife Matilda at Ardnagashel, close to Ballylickey, on Bantry Bay. Ellen died here on 9th February 1815, shortly before her thirtieth birthday.
She was buried in the Garryvurcha churchyard, Bantry. Her grave is unmarked, and a plaque was unveiled there during Heritage Week 2015, the bicentenary of her death, as part of the Ellen Hutchins Festival celebrating her life and work, organised by the Bantry Historical Society and the National Parks and Wildlife Services (Glenagarriff Woods Nature Reserve).
On her death her collection of specimens and drawings passed to Dawson Turner and most of her drawings are in the library and archive at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with some in Museums Sheffield. Her specimens are mostly in the herbarium at the Natural History Museum in London. Other specimens and drawings had been sent to leading botanists of her day and featured in their publications, and the specimens went into their collections. Today they can be found (and in some cases seen online) at Trinity College, Dublin; the Natural History Museum, London; the Linnean Society, London (Smith collection); and the New York Botanical Garden (William and Lynda Steere Herbarium). Her letters to Dawson Turner are in Trinity College, Cambridge; and Dawson Turner’s and James Mackay’s letters to her are in Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s library and archives. Her letters to James Mackay are in the Herbarium of the Botany Department, Trinity College Dublin.