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

The Ellen Hutchins exhibition in Trinity College Dublin has now closed. On display were 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 were 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 were prints of Ellen’s drawings of seaweed and panels telling her story in words and pictures.

Shevaun Doherty making a start on the drawing of one of Ellen’s specimens from the Herbarium.

The big draw on the final Thursday was the added delight of being able to join award-winning botanical artist Shevaun Doherty as she demonstrated the beauty of botanical painting. Shevaun was painting one of Ellen’s specimens. This was a very special end to the exhibition Celebrating Ellen Hutchins.

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.

Breakfast at Ballylickey



When botanists Lewis Dillwyn and Joseph Woods visited Ellen Hutchins at Ballylickey in 1809, they were invited to breakfast with the Hutchins family.

Ellen’s letters often mention breakfast:

“Mrs Taylor spent a day here lately. She came out to breakfast and did not go home till evening, was in excellent spirits and very pleasant.” Ellen to Sam 11th Sept 1807

“I have been called again & again to breakfast & have written in such a hurry that I hardly know what I have said. I can only be sure that I alway feel your truly obliged and faithful E Hutchins.” EH to DT Sept 4th 1809

“How I long for the summer mornings when I can have many undisturbed hours before breakfast.” EH to DT Jan 10th 1810

Nowadays, in season, you can have brunch in Ballylickey at Mannings Emporium, at weekends from 10am to 3pm and enter into the Ellen breakfast mood. Mannings has an information panel on Ellen, and sells limited edition prints of one of her seaweed drawings.

Ellen’s Treasures

Fucus capillaris Collected April 18th 1808 in Bantry Bay. Image Courtesy of The Herbarium. Botany Dept. Trinity College Dublin.

Fucus capillaris Collected April 18th 1808 in Bantry Bay. Image Courtesy of The Herbarium. Botany Dept. Trinity College Dublin.

In shop windows in Bantry, West Cork, for a week or so last August, as well as the official Ellen Hutchins Exhibition and Botanical Art Trail, there were also photographs of seaweed specimens (dried plants on paper) of hers from the Herbarium in the Botany Department, Trinity College Dublin and the Natural History Museum, London, and watercolour drawings of hers held by Museums Sheffield (Yorkshire, England). These three institutions kindly gave permission for the photographs to be displayed in the shop windows during the Ellen Hutchins Festival 2016. This was a wonderful opportunity to see the detailed work that Ellen did in spreading out the seaweeds so carefully on the paper to make the specimens, and the exquisite detail that she captured in her drawings. If you were in Bantry, and found them, you could use the QR code beside them to find out more about them, or you can still click here for that information.

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.

Celebrating 201 Years!

There was a small gathering in Dublin on 10th February 2016, of people who were involved with the Ellen Hutchins Festival in August 2015. It marked the end of the bicentenary year, and looked forward to continuing celebrations of Ellen’s life.

Ellen Hutchins Festival 2016 and more
And there was plenty to celebrate. Arrangements were underway for the second Ellen Hutchins Festival around Bantry in Heritage Week, 20 – 28 August 2016, including walks with botanists, talks, exhibitions including the Pop Up exhibition of Ellen’s letters and one original drawing, and a children’s event.

It was also encouraging to see that others were celebrating Ellen, for example the publication by the Representative Church Body of the memoir written by Ellen’s niece, Alicia Hutchins, as their Archive of the Month for February 2016. Click here to see this.

An Exhibition in Dublin
At a meeting earlier the same day, an agreement had been reached between the Ellen Hutchins Festival and the Botany Department of Trinity College Dublin for the Department to host an exhibition on Ellen at some time in the next academic year (September 2016 to May 2017). This will bring Ellen to the attention of all staff and students of the Botany Department, and there will be at least one public access evening.

The Old Anatomy Building, Trinity College Dublin

The Old Anatomy Building, Trinity College Dublin, now occupied by the Botany Department and where the Ellen Hutchins Exhibition will be housed.

No longer unknown or forgotten
Those at the gathering felt justified that they could celebrate that by this, the 201st anniversary of her death, they had succeeded in rescuing Ellen’s story from obscurity.

The date of Ellen’s death
Ellen died on either 9th or 10th Feb, there are records with each of these dates in them. We use 9th Feb on the website etc, as that is what Michael Mitchell decided upon in his excellent publication of the Ellen Hutchins and Dawson Turner letters of 1999, as it is the date given in the letter from Ellen’s sister in law, Matilda Hutchins, to Dawson Turner notifying him of Ellen’s death.

The article about the memoir and the memoir use 10th Feb as that is the date in the church records. Matilda says in the letter written on February 26th 1815, “My beloved Miss Hutchins breathed her last in my arms on the ninth of this month”. In the paper accompanying the memoir on the Representative Church Body website, the author of the paper, John Lucey, says in a note about 9th and 10th February as the date of death, “the likelihood is that she passed away in the early hours of the latter date”.

A lock of Ellen’s hair
Another letter from Matilda Hutchins to Dawson Turner, where Matilda was packing Ellen’s collection of plant specimens and watercolour drawings and sending them to Dawson Turner, she mentioned that she would send Dawson Turner a lock of Ellen’s hair.

There is no portrait of Ellen, and the few descriptions we have of her looks do not say whether she was fair or dark haired. There is a slim chance that in the Dawson Turner papers held by the Norfolk Museums there might be the lock of Ellen’s hair sent to him by Matilda.

Lots more still to be uncovered
We think that there is probably much more still to be found out about Ellen and her work in botany on the cryptogams (non flowering plants) and on shells. There are probably more specimens and drawings of hers to be found. So far, we only have drawings by Ellen of algae (seaweeds and fresh water algae), but it is clear from her letters that she also drew mosses and lichens. Maybe, by February 2017, when we are celebrating 202 years, we will have made some exciting new finds.

Publication of a memoir: Ellen Hutchins, a botanist

As of 1st February 2016, a short memoir of Ellen Hutchins, in the custody of the Representative Church Body Library, Dublin, has been digitized and is now available online as the Library’s online Archive of the Month for February 2016. Click here to see the article about it as Archive of the Month which includes links to the memoir itself and a paper written about it.

The memoir of Ellen’s life was compiled by her niece Alicia Hutchins (1832-1915) and completed in 1913 but has not until now been published. The nine-page typescript which is preserved in the RCB Library (accessioned as Ms 47) provides an account of Ellen’s short life and surroundings ‘as gathered from letters and the conversation of the few that knew her’.

A very significant source of information

Alicia Hutchins memoire typed draft

Opening section of the ‘Ellen Hutchins a botanist’ memoir by Alicia Hutchins, RCB library Ms 47.

Thirty years after its completion, the memoir was lodged in the library by Ellen’s grand-niece, Lady Barbara Stephen (1872-1945). The memoir is a very significant source of information on Ellen, and it has been referenced and used by almost all writers on Ellen since it became available to researchers at the Representative Church Body’s archive in Dublin in 1943.

The other incredibly important source of information on Ellen is her letters, but there are aspects of her life that we only know about from the memoir. The memoir is the only place where we find out about Ellen being sent to a school between Dublin and Donnybrook, her poor health as a teenager, and her significant and formative stay in Dublin with Dr Whitley Stokes.

Dublin with Dr Whitley Stokes

This is an important stage of Ellen’s life about which we know very little, just the brief mention in the memoir. No correspondence with Whitley Stokes has been found, and we do not know whether Ellen spent weeks, months or even years with Dr Whitley Stokes, his wife and growing young family in Harcourt Street, Dublin. (Click here for a 1797 map of Dublin.) We do not know whether Ellen accompanied Dr Stokes on botany trips to Belfast, or how much she botanised with him before her return to Ballylickey on Bantry Bay. We don’t have an exact date for Ellen’s return to Ballylickey, but we know that she was there by August 1805 when botanist James Mackay visited her there.


We don’t know what school Ellen attended between Donnybrook and Dublin. Alicia’s memoir says that Ellen was sent away while still young. Ellen was ten years old in 1795 and fifteen years old in 1800, so this is the period of time that we are interested in finding out more about girls’ schooling and schools in Dublin. At what age would girls have been sent away to school and have left school? What curriculum would there have been? What instruction would there have been in drawing and painting?

Ellen’s letters

We are extremely fortunate to have so many of the letters that Ellen wrote to botanists Dawson Turner and James Townsend Mackay, and to her brothers Emanuel and Samuel. We also have the letters written to Ellen by Turner and Mackay. The Dawson Turner / Ellen Hutchins correspondence has 120 surviving letters and covers the period from 1807 to 1814, with a few letters written by Ellen’s relatives to Dawson Turner after Ellen’s death in February 1815. The letters to and from botanists are all now held in archives and available to be consulted by researchers. The letters from Ellen to her brothers were found recently in a collection of Hutchins family papers, and are now being read and transcribed.

Alicia’s sources

Russet notebook cover

Alicia Hutchins’ Russet series notebook

Alicia had at least four of the letters that Ellen wrote to her brothers, as Alicia copied out sections of them into her Russet Series notebook, (see illustration) and quotes from them in the memoir.

Alicia's list of Dawson Turner's letters

List of Dawson Turner letters from back of Alicia’s notebook

She also made a list on the back page of the notebook headed ‘Dawson Turner letters’ and lists about fifty of them by date, with a couple of comments, such as ‘much worn’. In the memoir, she gives information about books that Dawson Turner quotes from in his letters or recommends to Ellen, and there would not have been any other source of this information apart from the letters. This must mean that Alicia had access to the letters and probably that they were still held by the family at this time. The letters are now in the archives of Kew Gardens, London, but no acquisition records have so far been found to establish when they were acquired by Kew.

Alicia H

Alicia Hutchins in 1915

We don’t know how long Alicia had been working on the memoir, but she finished it in 1913, when aged 81 and living on the shores of Bantry Bay, at Gortnavalig, on the Ardnagashel townland, next door to the house in which Ellen had died in the arms of her sister in law Matilda Hutchins on 9th / 10th February 1815. I think it is more likely that Alicia had access to the Dawson Turner letters through the family than that she went to Kew Gardens, London to make a list of them and read them. Alicia herself was suffering from poor health at this stage, and died in November 1915.



The latest finds


Hand written page of the draft memoir

The latest finds of new Ellen related material in Hutchins family papers were in December 2015, and included three pages that I believe have been taken out of Alicia’s Russet Series notebook, and which are part of a handwritten version of the memoir. It had been written out by Alicia and sent to, or at least seen by, her sister Louisa, as with these pages are a set of plain sheets of thin card, cut to match the size and shape of the notebook pages, and marked as ‘to face page 2’ etc.



Card with pencilled notes

On them pencil written notes have been made about the memoir text, in some cases with the initials LSN for Louisa Shore Nightingale, and in handwriting that probably is hers. Some of these notes have been rubbed out, including one note which read: (omit LSN). These notes may have been written in 1913 or later, we do not know. The text of at least one of the notes was incorporated into the typed version of the Memoir that is held by the Representative Church Body. Alicia died in 1915, Louisa in 1922.

Not published

Various attempts have been made to publish the memoir by Hutchins family members over the years. In 1949 Patricia Greacen (nee Hutchins, a great grand-niece of Ellen’s and born at Ardnagashel House in 1911) hoped to publish the memoir in the Cork Historical and Archaeological Journal with extensive notes, and Patricia wrote to both the Archivist at Kew Gardens, London and the Keeper of the Natural History Division of the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin enclosing a copy of the memoir.

Detective work and an amusing find

The research for the paper on the RCB website about the memoir involved detective work, identifying different aunts’ handwriting and matching them, and looking for clues on typos and misspellings to try to establish when and where various versions were typed, and when typed from a hand written version. In the process, there was one amusing find. On the copy marked ‘Proof with complements and thanks’, one correction is in the piece about the exiled French lady exiledwho taught Ellen. The typing has an excited French lady corrected to exiled French lady. When I found the typed copies made in 1949 by my Aunt Patricia and sent to Kew and the NMI, these had the French lady as excited not exiled.

Bantry Bay


Ardnagashel House, sketch by Louisa Hutchins, in 1844

When Alicia wrote her memoir in 1913, members of the Hutchins family were still living in both the house Ellen was born in, Ballylickey, and the house she died in, Ardnagashel. Now, in 2016, some of the Hutchins family still live on the Ardnagashel townland, and other family members visit them in that wonderful part of the world as often as they can from their homes in the UK and Australia.

The Ellen Hutchins Festival Encore in Heritage Week, 20 to 28 August 2016 is a reason for you too to visit the Bantry Bay area and learn more about Ellen and her botanising.

Exploring the seaweeds on the Strand, Ardnagashel

Exploring the seaweeds on the Strand, Ardnagashel, during the Ellen Hutchins Festival 2015

Madeline Hutchins, great great grand-neice of Ellen.

January 2016