Ellen Hutchins of Ballylickey was botanizing in the Bantry Bay area of West Cork, Ireland, long before collecting seaweeds became a fashionable hobby for Victorian ladies.
Between 1805 and 1812 Ellen was discovering new seaweeds, mosses and lichens, and sending her specimens and drawings to the leading botanists of the day who published her finds and were highly appreciative of her skills and achievements.
She was very much the right person, in the right place, at the right time. She was short sighted which is probably one reason why she chose to concentrate on the small non flowering plants known as cryptogams (seaweeds, mosses and liverworts, and lichens) and it helped her in distinguishing tiny differences between similar species. She was determined and curious, and put in the hard work needed to collect and preserve the specimens, then with her microscope she would puzzle over their features and fathom out whether they were already known or new. Her descriptions are detailed and precise. Her specimens are painstakingly and carefully spread out.
West Cork including the Bantry Bay area had been neglected by the botanical community, largely because it was remote, unknown, and travel to it and around it was difficult. Not until the beginning of the nineteenth century, in Ellen Hutchins’ time, did botanists start to realise what a rich and diverse flora the area possessed. This realisation came both from the specimens sent by Ellen, as well as visits that a few of them made to the area, often visiting Ellen at Ballylickey to pore over her sizeable collections of specimens.
The rich array of plants growing there and the neglect that has been given to the area meant that it was relatively easy for Ellen, with her short sightedness, determination, and knowledge of the non flowering plants to find new species. She also knew the Bantry Bay area very well indeed, and was careful in discerning different habitats, so knew where to look to find specific plants.
Her glowing descriptions of the seashore at Ballylickey and the woods at Glengarriff show a young woman in love with her environment. Later in the nineteenth century the landscape and natural delights of Bantry Bay and West Cork were to draw tourists to the area and many appreciated the same scenes as Ellen, as indeed they still do today.