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
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
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:
‘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:
‘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:
‘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
(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’