Author Archives: Sean Maskey

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.

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 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.

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.

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 wote 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 wrote 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 covered 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 has been 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 she 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 wrote:

‘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’

Ellen’s letters

See Events  page for more Festival Information

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.

Mitchell - Early Observations

Image Courtesy of the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin.

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

Ellen to Emanuel 16 April 1807. Image courtesy of Hutchins family.

Ellen to Emanuel 16 April 1807. Image courtesy of Hutchins family.

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.

Cross hatching

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.

Cross hatched letter; Ellen Hutchins to Dawson Turner 15 Sept 1812. Image Courtesy of The Masters and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge

Cross hatched letter; Ellen Hutchins to Dawson Turner 15 Sept 1812.
Image Courtesy of The Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge

Botanists at Ballylickey 1809

A picture of Bantry Bay and the Hutchins household at Ballylickey

In the summer of 1809, botanists Lewis Dillwyn, Joseph Woods and William Leach travelled to West Cork, and they had with them a letter of introduction from Dr Whitley Stokes of Dublin to Ellen Hutchins at Ballylickey.

From Lewis Dillwyn’s diary we get his impressions of Bantry Bay, which he described as ‘heavenly’, and the Hutchins family set up at Ballylickey. Dillwyn’s party travelled in to Bantry from Dunmanway:

Bantry Bay

Bantry Bay

‘From the summit of a high hill we enjoyed a grand and impressive view of Bantry Bay which is surrounded by wild mountains.’

 The letter of introduction was sent by messenger from Bantry to the Hutchins family at Ballylickey, and an invitation was issued to Dillwyn and friends to spend the next day with the family. In the morning, Ellen’s youngest brother, Sam, who was visiting from Dublin where he was studying law at Trinity College, rode to Bantry to escort them to Ballylickey.

Ballylickey House a century later - 1910

Ballylickey House a century later – 1910

In his diary, Dillwyn described the house at Ballylickey and his day with the Hutchins household, and a return visit the next day for breakfast and then his journey over Priests Leap to Kenmare.

 Monday 17th July 1809

 ‘The house [Ballylickey] surrounded by a plantation of trees is delightfully situated at the head of a small cove… & commands a beautiful prospect of the bay & its surrounding mountains.


Whiddy island across the bay

 I busied myself until noon in looking over a part of Miss Hutchins’s extensive and well arranged collection of algae [seaweed] etc and we then, accompanied by her younger brother [Sam] embarked on board the family pleasure boat for a sail on the bay. We landed on a rather large island called Whittie [Whiddy], the shores of which are very steep and rocky & there I gathered several marine algae which I never saw growing before.

 We returned to Ballylickey and after dinner employed ourselves until 10 o’clock in examining different parts of Miss Hutchins’s extensive collections

.Specimens at TCD 161Specimens at TCD 162Specimens at TCD 163Specimens at TCD 164Specimens at TCD 165

Seaweed specimens collected by Ellen Hutchins in Bantry Bay 200 years ago; courtesy of the Herbarium. Botany Dept. Trinity College Dublin.

The master of the house at Ballylickey is Mr Thomas Hutchins who about ten years ago lost the use of his limbs so that he is obliged to be carried from one room to another, & with him an aged Mother and his Sister [Ellen] reside. The liberality, politeness and hospitality of all these we have great cause to remember.’

 Tuesday 18th July 1809

 ‘In the bay large quantities of corallines (coral sands) are dredged up for the purposes of manure, & on our way to Miss Hutchins’s, I for an hour examined some heaps in which I found several scarce and valuable shells & among these are two or three which Mr Leach thinks are new to Britain.

 About half past twelve, we with great regret parted from our new friends at Ballylickey & set out for Kenmare. At 1 o’clock we arrived at the foot of the Priests Leap….. It is a tremendous mountain for a carriage to pass & can only be accomplished with great difficulty on which account we found a respectable farmer with fifteen of the peasantry waiting by Mr Hutchins’s order in readiness to assist us.

 The prospect from its summit is very grand and extensive. To the southward the smooth and glassy surface of Bantry Bay with its numerous creeks & inlets formed a fine contrast to the dark line of its surrounding mountains, & a large tract of country with the Atlantic Ocean beyond as if spread in a map beneath us.’

 Writing to fellow botanist Dawson Turner, Lewis Dillwyn describes Bantry Bay as ‘perhaps the best garden in the world for the marine algae (seaweed), and they there grow in deep pools secure from the ravages of every storm, and as you know, attain an enormous size’.

 For a modern day picture of ‘heavenly’ Bantry Bay see the Wild Atlantic View, described as Ireland’s most beautiful viewing point.

If you are visiting Bantry Bay yourself, see the Heritage Trail page for a self guided tour of the area and enhance this with the Audio Guide which includes readings from Ellen’s letters and Lewis Dillwyn’s diary.