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