Many letters of Ellen’s have survived and are the most important resource in discovering her story. There are one hundred and twenty letters between her and fellow botanist, Dawson Turner. Those from Dawson Turner to Ellen are held by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and those from Ellen to Turner are at Trinity College Cambridge. Kew also has six letters from James Mackay to Ellen and one from her to William Jackson Hooker, later to become the first Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
A selection of forty of the Ellen Hutchins / Dawson Turner letters were published as an Occasional Paper, by National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin in 1999, “Early Observations on the Flora of Southwest Ireland, Selected Letters of Ellen Hutchins and Dawson Turner 1807-1814”, edited by Professor Michael Mitchell. It is a delightful little publication and there are copies in Bantry library.
Recently, the Hutchins family found over fifty letters from Ellen to her brothers. Five letters from Ellen to James Mackay have been discovered in the correspondence files in the Herbarium of the Botany Department, Trinity College Dublin. The ‘new’ letters give a fuller picture of Ellen’s life, work and world.
The letters contain Ellen’s own description of her study of botany and her successes, when she first told two of her brothers who were living in London that she has been botanising. ‘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 to Dr Stokes & have made him a very fine collection. He says he is quite astonished at the progress I have made.’ Ellen to her brother Emanuel 16th April 1807
Ellen had not allowed her name to be used when her discoveries had been published. In this letter, Ellen asked her eldest brother’s advice (her father having died, her eldest brother was the head of the family) as to whether she should let her name be given. Ellen heard nothing from Emanuel, and on 16th May she wrote to Sam:
‘I wrote to Manny [Emanuel] some time ago but as he has a habit of putting letters in his pocket without opening, I fear he has not read mine – will you ask him.’ Ellen to Sam 16th May 1807
She wrote again to Sam on 25th June:
‘I have got a beautiful present of sea plants from a Mr Turner at Yarmouth. Some of the new plants I found were sent him. He was so pleased with them that he sent me some of the rarest kinds found in England and some foreign ones with some plates [drawings] and descriptions published by himself of Fuci and Lichens.
You have not told me if you have asked Manny what answer he had to make to my letter. If he has given you any pray tell me.’ Ellen to Sam 25th June 1807
There is no letter to show whether or not Emanuel ever gave a reply, but in December that year, Ellen wrote to Dawson Turner to say that her name could be published as the discoverer of new plants.
Ellen’s enthusiasm and energy for natural history are obvious from her letters. Reading them, you get a strong sense of her writing quickly, and with feeling. She skips from one topic to another, covering a huge range in each letter.
She was generous with her specimens and her knowledge, but seems to have been conscious of the price of postage, which was paid by the person receiving the letter. Double sheet letters cost twice as much as single sheet ones so when she had filled one sheet of paper with writing, often Ellen turned it round and wrote across it at right angles. This is called cross hatching and makes the letters much more challenging to read, particularly now that the ink has faded with age!
Can you decipher any of the one here? It can help if you put a piece of white paper under the line of writing you are trying to read. It is surprising how much of a difference this can make.