Tag Archives: Letters

1st June 1807: Ellen to Sam

Ellen’s letter to her youngest brother, Sam, written 210 years ago today – 1st June 1807

Ballylickey June 1st 1807

My dear Sam

Tom has got your letter. Arthur is gone to Dublin. We cannot tell exactly when he will return. ….. 

You have got my letter by T. Taylor before this. I hope soon to get an answer. You don’t say how or where Manny is and as of late he never writes to Tom. We have no other way of hearing of him but when you write. I suppose you will soon enter college.

My Mother is pretty well she says she would write to you some times but that it is very painful to her to stoop she is so weak.

Arthurs children are here. The little girl is a sweet tempered funny little thing. She is not at all petted but Tommy is the most troublesome obstinate ill tempered child I ever saw. His Mother pets him so, that his temper is quite ruined. ….. 

Will you tell T. Taylor that all his friends at Inchilogh are very well. Mrs Taylor is downstairs every day to breakfast.

Tom is just as usual.

I am very well, quite strong. I walk, I botanize a good deal, to that I attribute my having health or strength, for living as I do without any person to take a walk with me, if I had not Botany to interest me, I should have no inducement to take exercise.

I hope that you have made enquiry about Dillwyn’s work for me. I am very anxious to have it. It will contain plates and descriptions of new plants found by me. I have discovered a great many marine plants, great beauties too.

My Mother and Tom desire their love
Yours affectionately
E Hutchins

Ellen to her youngest brother Sam: 16 May 1807

The latest letter from 1807 posted here on the day it was written 210 years ago. Ellen to Sam, 16 May, in which Ellen uses the departure of her third cousin, Thomas Taylor, also a botanist, and studying Physic (medicine), as the means of delivering a letter to her youngest brother who was living in London. We hear that her eldest brother Emanuel (known by the family as Manny) has a habit of not opening letters. She asks all over again for help to get Lewis Dillwyn’s book on seaweed. We learn that her disabled brother Tom has a gig and begins to go out every day.

A ‘gig’ in 1807 was not a ‘single professional engagement by a musician or comedian’ or ‘an abbreviated form of gigabyte’ but a ‘light two wheeled carriage pulled by one horse’.

Sam is expected to be going to Cambridge University to study law. Ellen hopes he is studying diligently.

She is full of praise for her third cousin, Thomas Taylor, and asks Sam what he thinks of him. Some researchers on Ellen have suggested that there may have been a romantic connection between her and Thomas Taylor. So far this is the only mention I have found in the letters of anything that could remotely suggest an emotional interest between them, and it not much to go on. There are still letters that I have not read, and maybe they will reveal more. Watch this space!

Ballylickey 16 May 1807

My dear Sam
Tho’ I have not much to say I cannot let Mr Taylor go without a line to you. He seems to wish much to see you and Manny. Mrs Taylor is anxious that Manny should see him and would thank him for any advice and assistance he could give him.

I wrote to you some time ago to Eton St and fear you have not received my letter as you have not answered it. I begged you to make enquiry about a book for me that I wish very much to get. Will you acquire of Mr Sowerby No 2 Mead Place Lambeth whence “Dillwyn’s British Confervae” is to be had, how many numbers of it are published and the price of each number. Let me hear from you as soon as you have made this enquiry for me. I wrote to Manny [Ellen’s eldest brother, 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.

Tom desires you will tell Manny that he thinks Mr Parsons is offended with him for never having written to him since he went to England. He mentioned something in a letter to Tom that plainly shows he feels angry with Manny.

Arthur and Mrs Hutchins are not at home. Two of their children are here. Tom is in pretty much the same state as he has been this some time past. He has now got a gig and begins to go out every day. I hope the exercise he will have during the summer may serve[?] him, going out in his chair was not exercise sufficient for him. My Mother is better than she was during the winter. The fine weather has had good effect on her health tho’ not much on her spirits. She never goes out any where but in the garden or just about the house. I rejoice that the winter is past. She was so ill.

I am very well, quite strong.

Why don’t you write oftener? I suppose you will soon go to Cambridge. Is Manny now in town?

I have nothing new to tell you, what passes in this country cannot interest you and even if it did I should not have much to tell as I am not very inquisitive to know what my neighbours are about and we have no visitors except the Taylors. Phyllis is with us very often and is at all times our most welcome guest.

My Mother desires her love to you and hopes you will soon write.
I am my dear Sam affectionately
E Hutchins

I suppose you are diligently studying Law. Tho’ I may not see you, I hope to hear of you yet. You are now the only one of my brothers I expect to hear much of, I mean in any profession.

Tom Taylor is studying Physic. I think he looks the Doctor already. How do you like him? He is esteemed a young man of genius and has obtained many honourable marks of distinction, Premiums and Medals at College.

24th April 1807: Name or no name?

Much has been made in many accounts of Ellen’s life and botanical achievements of her reluctance to have her name mentioned as the finder of plants. From the research I have done and the letters to her brothers that surfaced in 2012, I think that Ellen’s reluctance and therefore assumed modesty about being named is over-stated.

This post is one of a series in which I am making available the letters (or extracts from them) written by Ellen and James Townsend Mackay in 1807 about Ellen’s study of botany, and Ellen’s letters to her brothers about her botanizing. They are being posted here on the date they were written.

The letters provide a fascinating account of Ellen’s botanizing and details of life at the time, and will also provide material to reassess her modesty and reluntance about having her name published.

On 24th April 1807, 210 years ago today, James Mackay, botanist of Trinity College Dublin writes to Dawson Turner, botanist specialising in seaweed, based in Yarmouth, England:

Miss Hutchins is as yet rather averse to her name being mentioned in any publication as the finder of any plant – so that in case you should describe any of the discoveries you can say they were found by a lady near Bantry – but I hope to be able to prevail with her to allow her name to be mentioned.

Mackay to Dawson Turner 24th April 1807

16th April 1807 Ellen to Emanuel: botany and use of her name

Ellen wrote to her eldest brother, Emanuel (known in the family as Manny) on April 16th 1807, 210 years ago today. Ellen’s father, Thomas, had died when Ellen was two years old, and Emanuel (who was 17 years older than Elln) was the head of the family. He had studied law at Trinity College Dublin and lived and worked in London. This appears to be the first time that Elln has told him about her botany studies.

Dear Manny
I address you once more to ask a little advice as I have no other friend [relative] to consult. For some time past I have amused myself learning botany. I am told by those who are good judges that I have made very great progress for the time I have been learning, in a curious and difficult branch, that of marine plants. I have been very successful and have discovered a great number of kinds unknown before. Of these new plants, plates [engraved drawings] and descriptions will be given by botanists now publishing their works, and it is usual to mention the place where the plant was found and the name of the person who was the discoverer. I desired that my name should not be published & I have since been asked to allow it to be mentioned as Ladies who have found plants always do so. I am doubtful whether I ought to do so or not & beg you to tell me what I shall do.

If you have any dislike to writing to me will you tell Sam whatever answer you wish to give, as I wish to give a decisive answer. Mrs Taylor and Phyllis wish my name to be mentioned for the plants I have found, but I would not suffer it to be done until I knew if you thought it right.

I send my plants to Mr Mackay, a very good botanist who was 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 of Dr Stokes & have made him a very fine collection. He says he is quite astonished at the progress I have made.

I hope you will excuse my troubling you on this subject & that you will tell me what is right for me to do.’                     Ellen to Emanuel 16th April 1807

The people mentioned in the letter include her youngest brother, Sam, who was living with Emanuel in London at this time, and Mrs Taylor who lived near Ballylickey, at Inchilough. She was a relative of Ellen’s and mother of Thomas Taylor, Ellen’s third cousin and another botanist. Phyllis was a member of the Taylor household but we have not identified her further. James Townsend Mackay and Dr Whitley Stokes were both of Trinity College Dublin. Dr Stokes was a family friend and he ‘prescribed’ botany for Ellen when she was returning to Ballylickey after living in his household in Dublin.

3rd April 1807

This is a continuation of the series of posts giving the correspondence between Ellen and her brothers, and Ellen and James Townsend Mackay in 1807, with extracts of the letters posted here on the day on which they were written.

On 3rd April 1807 Ellen wrote to her youngest brother, Samuel, telling him about her study of botany and asking for his help to find out about Lewis Dillwyn’s book, British Confervae. This letter is also one stage in the story of Ellen not wanting her name to be given as the finder of plants.

My dear Sam,
Tom has sent £80 for you in cash. Let him know when you have received it. You never gave any accurate description about the nightshirts you wish for. Write exactly what you wish to have done about them and Tom will have it done. What number do you want? You must describe the size as well as you are able and the quality of the linen. [??] Tom desires you to tell Manny [Emanuel] that there is no chance at present of doing any thing with Thinn in the business I mentioned in my last. He is not now disposed to sell.

I wish that you may be as successful in Law as I have been in botany. I have made some discoveries in sea plants of some kinds entirely new, others new to Britain but known to botanists of other countries, and I have also found many rare, curious and beautiful plants.

Now I want to ask you to give me a little assistance will you call on Mr Sowerby, No 2 Mead Place, Lambeth and enquire whether “Dillwyn’s British Confervae” is to be had, how many numbers of it there are published, and the price of each number. Let me know as soon as you can what you have learned about this work. I can get it sent from Cork as soon as I know whence it is to be had. Mr Dillwyn is describing and giving plates of Confervae, a beautiful genus of sea and fresh water plants. His work will contain some of the plants I have found here which have been sent to him from Dublin. My name will not be mentioned as the finder. I have desired that it should not.

I enclose you a specimen of one of them. A very elegant little plant. Most of the others I have got are too large to put in a letter. I have a very fine collection of marine plants and have sent Doctor Stokes a vast many specimens – I should learn a great deal of botany if I had good assistance but all the fine works on that subject are very expensive.

My Mother is tolerably well, tho she is often ill of late. Tom is the same way – I am but middling. I am very subject to a troublesome complaint in my stomach but tho I am some times very ill with it, I am generally pretty strong and able to walk a great deal.’

The letter continues with news of family and neighbours, and ends:

‘My mother desires her love to you and hopes you will soon write. 

My dear Sam I am affectionately yours
E Hutchins’

Ellen had four brothers, the eldest was Emanuel (Manny) who was seventeen years older than her, and he had studied law at Trinity College Dublin, and now lived and worked in London. Arthur was sixteen years older than Ellen and he had bought land at Ardnagashel, just round the coast of Bantry Bay from Ballylickey where Ellen lived, and was married to Matilda and had young children. Next was Thomas (Tom) seven years older than Ellen, and he had lost the use of his limbs, one account says through an accident falling on ice at school, and had to be carried from room to room. Ellen cared for Tom and her widowed mother. When Lewis Dillwyn (author of British Confervae) visited Ballylickey in 1809, he described Tom as the head of the household at Ballylickey. Ellen’s youngest brother was Samuel (Sam) who was eighteen months younger than Ellen. Sam had been to school in England and was staying with Emanuel in London prior to going to college to study law.

While a large number of letters written by Ellen to Emanuel and Sam have survived, so far none have been found written by either brother to Ellen.

The next letter will be posted on 16th April, when Ellen writes to he eldest brother Emanuel about her botanizing and whether to allow her name to be given in publications as the finder of plants.

26 March 1807

210 years ago today, the Botanist in charge of the Botanic Gardens at Trinity College Dublin, James Townsend Mackay, wrote to Ellen Hutchins of Ballylickey, with whom he had been corresponding since September 1805 about plants she was finding in the Bantry Bay area of West Cork.

He answers questions Ellen has asked about books, comments on her wish not to have her name published as the finder of plants, tells her of a present of sea plants on its way to her from Dawson Turner, and sends her some seeds of a native plant for her garden.

James Mackay: letter to Ellen Hutchins 26 March 1807 Image by kind permission of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. 

Dublin, 26 March 1807


I have to thank you for your kind letter of the 16th inst. and also for another of the 15th of last month the contents of which I have not yet had sufficient time to examine. I thank you for your kind invitation of sending more and shall be glad of more specimens of the Conferva you sent me last if the parcel is not gone before this reaches you. I think it seems different from any you sent before but am not as yet certain about its name. I cannot as yet tell you exactly the price of Mr Dillwyn’s work on Conferva but it is published in Numbers at about 2/6 or 5/- each I think each No if 5/- will contain 10 or 12 plates with descriptions. Any of your friends in London that will take the trouble to call at Mr Sowerby No 2 Mead Place, Lambeth, London will get the necessary information where to be got and also know the price and quantity of it published. Mr Turner’s work on Mosses is in Latin. It is entitled Muscologiae Hibernica. The title of Mr Dillwyn’s work is Dillwyn’s British Conferva.

I will attend to what you say of not wishing to have your name mentioned in print – I hope I have not erred in mentioning it to Mr Turner. I should think it were a pity that two persons who have paid so much attention to the same branch of botany should not know one another’s names!

I believe I mentioned in my last letter that he was about to send me for you, specimens of rare British sea plants. I wrote him word I was sure they would be acceptable – I expect them here about the middle or latter end of next month – I will soon have his opinion of some of your rare species which I have sent him. Your Fucus No 6 (?) is certainly Fucus edulis of Turner’s Synopsis and which was considered by some authors as only a variety of Fucus palmatus, although I think it very different from in many respects, as you also justly observe it to be.

I shall mention to Mr Turner, what you say of Fucus membranacens, perhaps he may not have seen it in a recent state.

I understand Mr Taylor will be going to your part of the country next month when I will send you some plants, or may perhaps send them before he comes.

I have found since publishing my list that the plant I took for Turritis glabra is not that plant but Turritis alpina, new to Britain. It will soon appear in English Botany together with my new British Arcnasia. So that instead of a Turritis glabra ?? H Br. you can mark in the list Turritis alpina Linnaeus Systema Vegetabilium page 600. It is a biennial plant. I enclose you a few seeds of it which you can immediately in your garden on a light soil. It grows on a sandy common near the sea side in Connemara perhaps you may find it on your coast next summer.
I remain
yours respectfully
J T Mackay

The original of the letter was given to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew by the Hutchins family and is in the archives at Kew Gardens, along with the letters from Dawson Turner to Ellen. The transcription is by Madeline Hutchins, one of Ellen’s great great grand nieces, researcher on Ellen and an organiser of the Ellen Hutchins Festival.

The other half of the correspondence, letters from Ellen to Mackay, are held in the Herbarium, Trinity College Dublin, and are on display at present, for the frst time ever, in the exhibition, Celebrating Ellen Hutchins, in Trinity, alongside specimens of plants Ellen found 210 years ago and sent to Mackay at Trinity. There are two free public open sessions, this Thursday, 30th March and Thursday 27th April, 5pm to 6:30pm, in the Old Anatomy Building.

See here

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

An amazingly strong friendship through plants and letters

Dawson Turner, in Yarmouth, England, was preparing a book on seaweeds. He received some of Ellen’s specimens from James Mackay, assistant curator at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin. Turner was delighted and in April 1807 he sent a parcel of plants to Ellen as a thank you. This was the beginning of a seven year correspondence, lasting right up to Ellen’s early death aged twenty nine.

Dawson Turner

Their early letters were full of descriptions of plants. Often the letters had specimens identified by numbers, pinned to the pages. Ellen and Turner offered to fill in each other’s collections and asked each other to help with identification. Ellen gave substantive detail; where she had found each seaweed, moss and lichen, their appearance. In the case of seaweeds, she wrote which season they fruited in, and which others they resembled. She described the colour changes as they dried, and talked of what she hoped to be able to find next season. Turner wrote about plants too, initially mostly providing Ellen with answers to her questions relating to her specimens. He also told her about other botanists he was in contact with, their tours and publications, meetings he was attending in London and he sent her botanical books.

Dawson Turner invited Ellen to stay with his family in Yarmouth; Ellen explained that her caring duties prevented her from leaving home. She, in turn, suggested that the Turners would be welcome at Ballylickey. Turner explained that a visit to Ireland was as improbable as Ellen coming to Yarmouth.

Gradually the topics covered in the letters extended past plants and botanists. His letters start to cover ‘domestic concerns’ of the Turner family, and the illness and death of friends and botanists, and Ellen wrote of her mother’s ill health and her own. Ellen described how much she enjoyed the stillness and solitude of the night by the riverside, and clambering over rocks and up mountains in search of plants. Turner quoted poetry. They conferred on literature they had enjoyed and he recommended books to Ellen.

Thus an incredibly strong and supportive friendship developed through the correspondence. Ellen had periods of illness that prevented her doing any botanizing, and she alluded to family troubles but didn’t give any detail. Ellen found the letters and the friendship a wonderful source of comfort when she was immersed in dealing with her own and her mother’s illness. Dawson Turner and his wife faced great sadness when a child of theirs died. Turner named one of his daughters after Ellen and asked her to be the child’s godmother. He said that Ellen of all women in the world was the one he would be most pleased for his daughter to emulate. Ellen collected and sent sea shells to Turner’s eldest daughter, Maria. Ellen and Turner showed real concern for each other in times of stress and illness, and sought to console and encourage the other.

By 1813, Ellen’s health was poor and she and her mother moved to Bandon for better medical care. When Ellen’s health deteriorated further in 1814, and she was bed-bound and under doctor’s orders not to exert herself by letter writing, she disobeyed and sent Turner a letter to reassure him that she was still alive. He was extremely relieved and wrote back immediately. She replied that she read his letters ‘with tears of gratitude and affection for such kindness.’ In this, her last letter to him before her death, she ended with ‘Send me a moss – anything just to look at.’

Ellen died on 9th February 1815 at Ardnagashel, just along the coast of Bantry Bay from Ballylickey, her lifetime home, at the house of her brother Arthur and his wife Matilda who had nursed her for the last nine months of her life.