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

About This Site

This website is run by the Ellen Hutchins Festival team to share the story of Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815) of Ballylickey, Ireland’s first female botanist.

The Ellen Hutchins Festival in Heritage Week, August 2015 in the Bantry Bay area, was the first ever celebration of her life and work. It marked 200 years since her death in 1815. The Festival was a great success and will run again in Heritage Week, 20 – 28 August 2016.

Before the Festival in 2015, Ellen’s story had been almost forgotten, except by those in the specialist areas of botany to which she contributed, and by family and friends around Ballylickey where she lived and ‘botanised’.

Ellen’s is a wonderful story; of a short life, complicated by illness and family circumstances, but driven by a desire to be useful, and finding a way to connect to people through plants and letters. Ellen lived in Ballylickey, on the coast of Bantry Bay, West Cork, a remote but botanically rich corner of Ireland, at a time when it had been little explored.

By the age of twenty, Ellen showed an interest and an aptitude for natural history and was encouraged by botanist friends to study the non flowering plants called cryptogams: seaweeds, lichens, mosses and liverworts. She also collected and identified shells. She quickly became adept at identifying plants and within two years had found at least seven species new to science. Ellen sent her plant specimens to botanists making specialist studies of seaweeds or other cryptogams, and they described and published them. Some plants she found were named after her by fellow botanists as recognition of her importance to botany.

She corresponded avidly with other botanists, in particular James Townsend Mackay at Trinity College Dublin, and Dawson Turner in Yarmouth on the East Anglian coast of England. We know many details of her life and study of botany because the letters between Ellen and these botanists have survived, as have many letters that she wrote to two of her brothers.

Ellen was actively botanising from 1805 to 1813, and in this short period of just eight years, made a significant contribution to scientific knowledge. From 1808 onwards she also made watercolour drawings of the plants she found. These drawings which are wonderfully detailed and accurate, were greatly valued by Dawson Turner who engraved and used some as plates in his books and some in publications by other botanists.

Ellen died in 1815 at the age of twenty nine, after a long illness. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the old Garryvurcha churchyard in Bantry, where a plaque has now been erected to commemorate her contribution to scientific knowledge.

Ellen Hutchins plaque at Garryvurcha Church , Bantry.

Ellen Hutchins plaque at Garryvurcha Church , Bantry.

Hidden Heritage Award and More Events in August 2016

The Heritage Council has announced its Awards, ‘showcasing the best of National Heritage Week 2015 and recognising the fantastic work of all the event organisers and volunteers that take part’.

We are delighted that the Ellen Hutchins Festival has been given the Hidden Heritage Award. The Heritage Council says: ‘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 Award will be presented at a ceremony in Kilkenny in April 2016. Click here for more on the Awards on the Heritage Council website.

The three Ellen Hutchins Festival 2015 organisers met last week (November 2015) in Mannings Emporium, Ballylickey, and decided that there will be Ellen Hutchins events in the Bantry area again in Heritage Week, 20-28 August 2016.

The income from the sale of the Limited Edition Prints of Ellen’s seaweed drawing will help fund the events in 2016. Click here for information on the prints for sale.

Looking for Ellen’s specimens in Trinity College Dublin and a Homecoming for her seaweed drawings.

Earlier this year, Professor John Parnell of the Botany Department of Trinity College Dublin helped a small team of Ellen Hutchins researchers to hunt in the Herbarium there for specimens of seaweeds, mosses, or lichens collected by Ellen in the Bantry Bay area more than 200 years ago.

The story of the search for them is told by scriptwriter Sean Moffatt in a piece he wrote for RTE’s Sunday Miscellany programme.  It was first broadcast on Sunday 16th August 2015, and repeated the following Wednesday. Click here for the link to listen to it; there is a short musical prelude and the piece itself is about eight minutes long.

Here are the pictures that go with the search:

Trinity College Dublin today.

Trinity College Dublin

TCD 01

Sean Moffatt searching drawers full of small brown envelopes

Bantry Bay Sketch

A 19th century sketch of the hills, forests and inlets of Bantry Bay by Ellen’s niece, Louisa Hutchins


TCD 023

Herbarium corridor; TCD

TCD 027

Prof John Parnell searching the herbarium

TCD 030

On the top rung

TCD 031

Regrouped with large folder on small table

TCD 028

Specimen of Fucus sanguineus (Delesseria sanguinea); collected by Ellen Hutchins, Bantry Bay over 200 years ago

TCD 033

Sean is transfixed as more of Ellen’s specimens come to light

Specimens at TCD 163

Conferva stricta 1809

Conferva Brodiae

Conferva Brodiae

Polysiphonia Sp 1809

Polysiphonia Sp 1809

The Sunday Miscellany piece ends with Sean Moffatt describing the homecoming of Ellen’s drawings for an exhibition in Bantry House.

With wonderful synchronicity, the broadcast went out as Madeline and her husband Sean were driving over from England to Ireland, with the prints of the seaweed drawings from the Archives of Kew Gardens in the back of their car; all mounted, framed and labelled, ready to be hung in the Upper Landing gallery space at Bantry House, for their first ever showing in the Republic of Ireland. They were crossing the Severn Bridge at that moment, from England to Wales, with coast and seaweed below.

One of the Festival Organisers kindly emailed Madeline and Sean the link to the broadcast, and they listened to the Sunday Miscellany piece as the ferry pulled out of Pembroke Dock. Just as the piece finished, they saw, right in front of them, a pod of dolphins swimming alongside the ferry. It all felt very special.

And that special feeling continued throughout the Ellen Hutchins Festival. The organisers were pleasantly surprised by the large number of people attending all events, both locals and those who had travelled great distances; and the level of interest shown in Ellen was inspiring and gratifying. The view from the summit of Knockboy in the sunshine was spectacular. The children made splendid journey sticks and woven wonders in Glengarriff Woods. The botanist Donal Sinnott’s talk was captivating, showing how Ellen dried and laid out her specimens, the sort of microscope she would have used, and other fascinating details.  The scientific knowledge of the botanists brought a new dimension to the walks, and the botanical art demonstration was delightful. Every time the events were outside, the rain stopped and often the sun came out. As if to provide a perfect ending to the Festival week, on the final evening before the journey home, there was a stunning sunset over Bantry Bay.


Bantry House Gardens overlooking Bantry Bay

Bantry House Gardens, looking out over Bantry Bay


Madeline unpacking prints of Ellen’s drawings in Bantry House. 18 August 2015

The prints grouped ready for hanging

The prints grouped ready for hanging


The Exhibition is ready 19 Aug 2015


The Official Opening and Botanical Art Demonstration by Shevaun Doherty


Stunning sunset over the bay at the end of the festival; caught by John Crellin of FloralImages Brecon

Madeline Hutchins: great great grandniece of Ellen Hutchins, researcher on her life, and one of the organisers of the Ellen Hutchins Festival, Bantry, Heritage Week, August 2015

Drawings of Seaweeds from Bantry Bay 1808 – 1812

Ellen Drawing 054

Ellen’s drawing of Fucus asparagoides. 1811

On Thursday 20th August 2015, an exhibition opened in Bantry House of Ellen Hutchins’ watercolour drawings of seaweeds. This was their first showing in the Republic of Ireland and their home coming. They were drawn by Ellen Hutchins, at Ballylickey, about four miles from Bantry House, on Bantry Bay.

Ellen was born at Ballylickey in 1785 and lived there most of her life. She died two hundred years ago, in 1815, after a long illness, aged only twenty nine.


Ellen described seaweeds as a ‘curious and difficult branch of botany’ and other botanists at that time called them ‘neglected’. She appreciated their beauty and puzzled over their similarities to each other.

Remarkable botanist and accomplished artist

 Botanical illustration was, and still is, incredibly important to those who study plants. In the early nineteenth century, some botanists engaged a botanical artist to draw for them; others, such as Ellen had the skills to do the drawing themselves.

The first mention in Ellen’s letters of her drawing plants is in July 1808, and then again in December when she wrote to fellow botanist, Dawson Turner:

‘Dear Sir, Your most interesting letter found me employed finishing the drawing you wished for of Fucus tomentosus. I have sent it with drawings of some Confervae. … These are the very first that I have attempted.’

Ellen to Turner 2nd December 1808

The first three drawings exhibited at Bantry House, of Confervae, are dated October and November 1808, and are some of Ellen’s ‘very first’. Dawson Turner was full of praise for them and encouraged Ellen to continue drawing.

‘Your Fucus tomentosus will be very soon engraved. The others, I am sorry to say, seem doomed ‘to blush unseen’ in my portfolios, but they shall not be wholly lost. I trust you will not fail to cultivate this art, without which it is scarcely possible to study the Confervae with success. … Let me advise you also, if the trouble is not too much, to sketch the leaves of the mosses you examine under the microscope. It saves a prodigious deal of trouble.’

Turner to Ellen 21st March 1809

In July 1809, Ellen wrote that she had drawn ‘near 76 Confervae and a few Fuci.’

‘Botanical Illustration involves the painting, drawing and illustration of plants and ecosystems. Often meticulously observed, the botanical art tradition combines both science and art.’ Irish Society of Botanical Artists

Despite the advent of photography and digital technology, botanical illustration continues to be of great value to science today.

Ellen bequeathed her extensive collection of plants to Dawson Turner. Her sister in law, Matilda Hutchins, at Ardnagashel, Bantry Bay, who was organising this, suggested to Dawson Turner that he should have Ellen’s drawings as well: to you as a botanist I should hope they would be a great acquisition; if there should be duplicates of any of the drawings, I would feel much obliged by your returning the inferior ones.’ (Matilda Hutchins to Dawson Turner 14th December 1815) We do not know if this happened. The Hutchins family has only one of Ellen’s drawings, of Fucus Asparagoides which is included in the exhibition at Bantry House.

The drawings passed from Dawson Turner to William Jackson Hooker, another young botanist encouraged by Dawson Turner, to whom Ellen’s liverwort finds were sent. Either Turner or Hooker had the two hundred and thirty seven drawings bound into a volume with an index. In 1841 Hooker became the first official Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London. The volume was in Hooker’s private library, and is now in the archives at Kew Gardens, where you can make an appointment to see it.

One evening during the exhibition saw a demonstration of botanical art by Shevaun Doherty; and a Pop Up exhibition of one of Ellen’s botanical dictionaries, some of her books and letters.

The exhibition of the seaweed drawings at Bantry House, and the one which ran concurrently in Bantry Library, Ellen Hutchins, the young woman, her work and her world were part of the Ellen Hutchins Festival in and around Bantry for Heritage Week 2015.

Ellen and James Mackay, botanist, Trinity College Dublin

Ellen absorbed herself in natural history, specifically the study of plants, as a healthy outdoor occupation and something to occupy her mind as a distraction from her responsibilities of caring for her elderly and sick mother and disabled brother, and her own intermittent ill health.

She often felt lonely, living fairly remotely and without anyone nearby who shared her enthusiasm for natural history. When botanist James Mackay of Trinity College Dublin

JT Mackay – Assistant Botanist at TCD & later Curator of the TCD Botanic Gardens. Image courtesy of Herbarium. Botany Dept. Trinity College Dublin.

came to Ballylickey on his tour of West Cork, she was delighted to have contact with someone who shared her ‘pleasure in plants’. He suggested that she collected seaweeds and later in a letter to fellow botanist Dawson Turner, Mackay said

‘I am a little proud of having been instrumental in setting her a going in a branch of botany in which she has made such a conspicuous figure – she had never examined nor dried a sea plant until I gave her the hint in the summer of 1805 when I had the pleasure of spending a few days with her at Ballylickey.’

They wrote to each other, sending specimens, and comparing notes on their finds. Some of the specimens are tiny scraps folded into the letter, others are carefully spread onto paper and dried. Ellen’s beautifully preserved seaweed specimens sent to James Mackay are still in the

TCD today

TCD today.

herbarium at Trinity College Dublin. His letters to her are in the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London. Recently Ellen’s letters to MacKay have been found at Trinity College Dublin, allowing us to see more of the story of their botanical exchanges.





Mackay writes from Tralee on 10th September 1805, on his way back to Dublin:

Image courtesy of The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Image courtesy of The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

‘I enclose for you a small specimen of Hymenophyllum alarum in fruit, as I promised to you I would, I only found one in fructification the first time I found it which had not been seen before by any Botanist, but this time I have found about a dozen in that state.

 The day I left Ballylickey I found the new Irish saxifrage by the side of the road before you pass the Priests Leap and in a bog at the foot of it on the Kenmare side.’




And in March 1806:

Extract of letter from James Mackay to Ellen Image courtesy of The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

‘I received your favour and also the box of plants and shells quite safe. I am very much obliged by your attention and now return the box you sent with some plants for your garden – most of them would look well upon your rock provided you have some good fresh earth to plant them in…. I doubt not that the whole will thrive under your fostering hand.’

Mackay was instrumental in sending Ellen’s specimens of new discoveries onto the specialists in the relevant areas of botany across the British Isles, making her part of a community of people extending scientific knowledge. He posted her seaweeds to Dawson Turner in Yarmouth, England and this was the beginning of a hugely significant friendship between Dawson Turner and Ellen, conducted entirely through correspondence.

In September 1807, Ellen writes to Mackay:

Letter from Ellen to  to James Mackay Image courtesy of Herbarium. Botany Dept. Trinitty College Dublin.

Letter from Ellen to to James Mackay
Image courtesy of Herbarium. Botany Dept. Trinitty College Dublin.

‘All the plants you sent me are growing finely. … To what I have done since you last heard from me. I have been longing to tell you of all the sea plants I have got, of beauty and rarity. I shall begin with Fucus Wigghii of which I have got in the same spot at different times 6 or 7 plants and have more plentiful than at Yarmouth. I cannot be mistaken as to my plant being the one described by Mr Turner as he had the goodness to send me a plate [engraved drawing] of it. I would send you a specimen but it is too precious to cut for enclosing, and I shall give you at least 2 in the next parcel.’

Ellen specialised in the cryptogams which are non-flowering plants, and she cover seaweeds

Polysiphonia urceolata specimen . Found by Ellen in Bantry Bay.1809 Herbarium. Botany Dept. Trinity College Dublin.

(marine algae), mosses and liverworts (bryophytes), and lichens. She was very knowledgeable about all the plants (flora) of the Bantry Bay Area. Her interests and work in natural history also included the collection and identification of shells, and she is recognised as the discoverer of a couple of rare species, and described as the ‘young Irish conchologist. Ellen Hutchins’.

Being resident in the area and knowing it well, meant that Ellen knew where to go back to find plants again and saw them in all their stages of growth, and throughout the year. She could also work around the weather conditions. She combined this local knowledge with attention to detail and perseverance on the identification of species and varieties. She was very generous in sharing her specimens and knowledge. In describing a Conferva (seaweed), Ellen writes:

‘Upon examining it closely in my little microscope I found it quite distinct and in fruit. I got but little of it and of that little send you the best and largest plants. It grows on small mussel shells. As I know the spot I found it growing now I can get more when we have spring tides with an easterly wind. Of what I have now remaining I shall spread some specimens for you, and shall take the very first opportunity the weather will allow to get a good number of them.’ 

Ellen’s enthusiasm and energy for natural history is obvious from her letters. Reading them, you get a sense of her writing quickly, and with feeling. It is wonderful to have the letters as a record of two botanists collaborating, and for the details they reveal of Ellen the young woman and her world.

‘You may expect to get in the next parcel some good plants of Conferva Ardbascala. It generally grows on small mussel shells. The other plant enclosed sometimes on rock but oftener on Fuci [illegible]. I wish much to get Mr Dillwyn’s Conferva [his book, British Conferva]. Will you be so good as to let me know when it is published as if any part of it has already come out and the price, when I have this I can get a bookseller at Cork to get it for me from England. When does Mr Turner publish, are there any plates [engraved drawings] in his work? I fear I am very troublesome asking so many questions.

I am to have the boat and crew all the next summer to go where I please so that you may expect a good parcel at the end of it, I have high hopes of adding to our collections. If I don’t get something new I shall begin to feel what I think I have never yet been troubled with, envy, and then you know I must hate you with very good cause, you have had so much success. Until I grow envious, you have my best wishes for its continuance. E Hutchins’