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 Ellen’s death in 1815. The Festival was a great success and is now annual, the next one being 17-25 August 2019.
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, those studying the history of Natural History, and by family and friends around Ballylickey where Ellen 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 1812, 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.