Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist

Ballylickey House, Home of Ellen Hutchins. Although the burned down, it was rebuilt exactly as the original.

Ballylickey House, Home of Ellen Hutchins. Although the house burned down, it was rebuilt exactly as the original

In West Cork, we have been celebrating the short but extraordinary life of Ellen Hutchins who died 200 years ago this year. Acknowledged in her lifetime as one of the most knowledgeable and accomplished botanists in the British Isles, she contributed specimens and drawings to the great collections in Glasnevin and Kew and kept up a lively and learned correspondence with some of the leading botanical scientists of the day. When she died, aged only 29, her name had already been memorialised: several plant specimens bore the title hutchinsia.

Looks and character

It’s been a fantastic week of lectures, guided walks, exhibitions and demonstrations. Jointly organised by the Bantry Historical Society, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Hutchins family, the week has been a marvellous success, with all the events well attended and everyone eager to learn more about Ellen. For a program of what was available, take a look at the excellent Ellen Hutchins website and the Facebook page.

Dublin Botanic Gardens

While many of Ellen’s specimens ended up in Kew Gardens, some went to what has become the Dublin Botanical Gardens

The website contains biographical data about Ellen, her accomplishments, her family and her place in the scientific community, and a links and resources section leading to much more information. Ellen Hutchins was born in Ballylickey, near Bantry, in 1785 and spent most of her life there. During schooldays in Dublin she lived with family friend Dr Whitley Stokes who introduced her to the discipline of botanizing. She became an avid and scholarly collector of plants and seaweed, annotating, sorting and cataloguing as she went, and an expert illustrator of marine and terrestrial specimens.

Ellen identified new species of seaweeds on the shores around Bantry Bay

She roamed freely around the shores of Bantry Bay and took her family’s boat out to Whiddy Island. She also climbed (we’re not sure how) to the top of Knockboy, the highest mountain in Cork at 700m, identifying new species of plants right at the top. We followed her footsteps last weekend, led by Wildlife Officer Clare Heardman of Glengarriff Nature Reserve, botanist Rory Hodd, writer Kevin Corcoran, and Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece of Ellen, who has been uncovering all kinds of new material on her ancestor.

group botany

What a day we had! It was warm and dry until we got to the top, where we were subjected to a hailstorm for form’s sake before the sun re-emerged. It was an insight into what gets botanists excited – tiny plants, apparently, with subtle variations from other tiny plants.

We were in awe of the knowledge on display, and the boundless enthusiasm of all the plant experts in the group. The highlights for them were finding some of the species that bore Ellen’s name, although Rory and Clare were particularly pleased to find a dwarf willow at the summit that had originally been identified by Ellen over 200 years ago. Along the way, we also learned a lot about the characteristics of that kind of high mountain environment, with its burden of boggy moss and highly acidic environment.

Kevin Corcoran demonstrated the properties of sphagnum moss, and showed us how soft the bog underneath us was, by probing with his staff

Knockboy descent

We felt on top of the world on Knockboy. We drove up to Priest’s Leap and only climbed the final 300m.  But how did Ellen get up there, with her long skirts and her intermittent poor health?

In Bantry House we viewed Ellen’s drawings, beautifully framed and presented and on loan from their permanent homes in Kew Gardens, Trinity College, Dublin and elsewhere. Her drawings were used by other botanists to illustrate books and were considered to be superior in their exactitude.

The Bantry Library hosted an exhibition about her life. This was curated by Madeline Hutchins and here we came closer to appreciating the woman herself, of whom no portrait exists. We learned, through her letters, of the struggles of a home life dominated by an ailing mother, a disabled younger brother and two bitterly feuding older brothers. She suffered from intermittent ill health, which often prevented her from collecting, but when she was strong her delight in her outdoors pursuits was palpable. One of her greatest pleasures was her correspondence with fellow botanists, among whom she earned true respect, especially Dawson Turner.

Dawson Turner

Dawson Turner: Although they never met, he thought of Ellen as a beloved sister and was devastated when she died

Although we were not able to join the group tour of the Ardnagashel Arboretum, we ventured down there on our own and were shown around the east section by the gracious Arethusa Greacen, herself a Hutchins on her mother’s side. The arboretum was started by Ellen’s brother and was maintained and added to by succeeding generations of Hutchins – the botany gene was obviously strongly embedded in the family!

Myrtle Woods Path

Ardnagashel colourMyrtle groves and colour at Ardnagashel

The enormous contribution made by Ellen Hutchins to science has languished in obscurity for two centuries, known only to a few experts in the field (a bit like that other West Cork woman of science, Agnes Clerke of Skibbereen). All that changed last week. West Cork, and Bantry/Ballylickey in particular, has celebrated and honoured Ellen Hutchins in style. There is talk of future events, perhaps even a summer school.

Ellen Plaque

A new plaque has been erected on the wall of the old ruined church in Garryvurcha graveyard, final resting place of Ellen Hutchins

Well done to the hardworking organisers of this exceptional festival! Thank you to them for illuminating the life of this remarkable woman and to helping us appreciate, in the most hands-on and interesting way, her enormous contributions to science.

Madeline Clare Angela

The team behind the Ellen Hutchins Two Hundred Year Celebration: Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece and biographer of Ellen; Clare Heardman of the National Parks and Wildlife Service; Angela O’Donovan of the Bantry Historical Society. This photo was taken from the Ellen Hutchins 200 Years Facebook Page, with appreciation

Don’t forget to check out the website Ellen Hutchins: Ireland’s First Female Botanist for so much more detail than I could give you in a blog post.

10 thoughts

  1. Thank you for another interesting article! Do you know if Ellen was related to Arthur and Samuel Hutchins? Arthur was one of the original owners of the Berehaven Copper Mines in Allihies and Samuel, a local landlord in the area. The venture into establishing the mine began around the same time that Ellen died.

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    • Ellen had a brother Arthur and a brother Samuel. It looks like we’re talking about the same family! More about the Hutchins if you poke around the links and resources on the Ellen Hutchins website.

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    • Arthur Hutchins was the second son of Elinor and Thomas Hutchins and he established himself in Ardnagashel in 1800, having previously lived at Ballylickey. Samuel was the fourth son and they were brothers of Ellen Hutchins. In 1844 Samuel Hutchins gave evidence to the Devon Commission, sitting in Bantry, which was set up to study the landlord situation in Ireland.

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