Ellen’s is a remarkable story; of a short life, complicated by illness and family circumstances, but she had a great love and understanding of plants, and was driven by a desire to be useful. Ellen showed great skill and determination in her study of plants, and she was generous in sharing specimens of rare plants, and information about them, with others.

 

Ellen’s Story

Ellen lived in Ballylickey, on the coast of Bantry Bay, West Cork, a remote but botanically rich corner of Ireland, at a time when that area had not been explored by botanists. 

By the age of twenty, Ellen showed an interest and an aptitude for natural history and was encouraged by botanist friends in Dublin 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 was a field botanist or plant hunter. 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 two botanists, James Townsend Mackay at Trinity College Dublin, and Dawson Turner in Yarmouth on the East Anglian coast of England. We know details of her life and study of botany because many letters between Ellen and these botanists have survived, as have some letters that she wrote to two of her brothers.

Ellen was actively botanising from 1805 to 1813, and in this short period of just eight years, made a significant contribution to scientific knowledge. Seaweeds were not very well understood at the time, and with some, where no evidence of producing fruit had been found, specialists studying natural history thought that these seaweeds might not be plants at all but sponges (which are animals). Ellen was the first botanist to find evidence of fruit (fructifications) on one seaweed, called Fucus tomentosus. more

Watercolour of Bantry Bay (HFC)

Morning Dress, 1812

Seaweed Specimens: Ellen Hutchins, (NHM)

Drawings of Seaweeds:

Ellen Hutchins, in Dawson Turner’s book on Seaweeds,  Historia Fucorum (KEW)

Seaweed (Fucus tomentosus) specimen: Ellen Hutchins (NHM)

Seaweed (Fucus tomentosus) specimen: Ellen Hutchins (NHM)

From 1808 onwards Ellen also made watercolour drawings of the plants she found. The first drawing she made was of Fucus tomentosus to show its fructifications. These drawings, which are wonderfully detailed and accurate, were greatly valued by Dawson Turner who had them engraved and used some as plates in his books and some in publications by other botanists.

 

Ellen suffered from periods of ill health, and sometimes for months on end could not leave the house and go plant hunting in the mountains or on the shores of Bantry Bay. When really ill, she was so weak that she could not even hold a pen and write a letter. Other times we learn from her letters that she is strong and healthy and leaving at daybreak to go to the mountains, and one day that meant a 3am start! 

 

Not only did her own ill health often prevent Ellen going plant hunting, but so did the poor health of her mother and the needs of her brother Tom, who was disabled. Ellen was their main carer and often these responsibilities took up nearly all of her time

 

As well as the very specialised work on the non flowering plants (cryptogams), Ellen was asked by botanist Dawson Turner to make a complete list of all the plants she could find in her neighbourhood. She spent three years working on this and listed over one thousand plants, from trees to lichens. more

 

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.

Garryvurcha churchyard and church with plaque.

Each year, in August, in West Cork, round Bantry, Ballylickey, Glengarriff, Kealkil, and on Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay, there is a Festival to celebrate the life and work of this remarkable young woman who lived over two hundred years ago, and in a short life made a significant contribution to science. The Festival focuses on botany, botanical art, and the coastal and mountain landscapes that inspired Ellen. 

 

For information on the next Ellen Hutchins Festival, 18 - 26 August 2018 see here.

For a short (under 2 minutes) video from the 2016 Festival click here.  Many thanks to the Heritage Council and Crow Crag Productions for allowing use of this.

Photographs from the Ellen Hutchins Festivals

in 2015, 2016 and 2017

  • Facebook Social Icon

Key to abbreviations used in photo captions

HFC  - Hutchins Family Collection  KEW - Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London

NHM - Natural History Museum London. TCC  - Trinity College Cambridge. TCD -  Trinity College Dublin