Ellen Hutchins was an accomplished botanist and a talented botanical artist. In just eight years of botanising, cut short by her death aged 29, she discovered many new species, and made a significant contribution to the understanding of seaweeds, lichens, mosses and liverworts, writes Deirdre Ní Chuanacháin
Recently, as I was about to walk across Clontarf Bridge in Cork city centre, I noticed an electrical box at the start of the bridge not far from the Clayton Hotel. What caught my eye was that the front of the box had a brightly painted background. Against which was the silhouette of a woman and what looked to me like the leaf of a plant sketched alongside.
At the bottom the name Ellen Hutchins was printed. I had not heard of Ellen Hutchins but I wanted to find out who she was and how she came to be remembered on the electrical box. It set me on a quest I was happy to follow and I found Ellen’s life and legacy to be fascinating and significant.
Ellen Hutchins was born in 1785 in Ballylickey House on the shores of Bantry Bay beside the Ouvane River in West Cork, a place where she spent most of her life. Her father, Thomas Hutchins of Ballylickey, married his second cousin, Elinor Hutchins from Creggane near Charleville, County Cork. They took over the tenancy of Ballylickey House, then owned by Lord Kenmare, from Thomas’ parents.
Thomas was active in farming and fishing at Ballylickey and Berehaven, and was also a magistrate. The couple had twenty-one children. Only six survived their first years of life. Ellen’s father died when she was two, she had one younger brother, Samuel, two much older brothers, Emanuel and Arthur, and Thomas, who was seven years older than Ellen. Her one sister Katherine died when Ellen was four years old.
Ellen was sent to school in Dublin, a school located between Dublin and Donnybrook. Madeline Hutchins Ellen’s great-great-grandniece says that the school was “likely to have been a ladies’ seminary, where they were taught ‘drawing room’ subjects — English, grammar and penmanship, arithmetic, history, French, art, drawing, nature study and music.”
While still at school Ellen became ill and her family sought advice from a family friend Dr Whitley Stokes (1763–1845), who was then Professor of Medicine at Trinity College, Dublin. He suggested that Ellen live with his family at 16, Harcourt Street until she was well enough to return home to Bantry. Stokes gave some advice of immense value to Ellen for which the world of botany, botanical art and science must be grateful.
He suggested she spend as much time as possible in the open air and take up the study of some branch of natural history, such as botany, a subject in which he had a great interest. He offered to lend her the books which she had been reading while staying in his house.
While in Dublin she became acquainted with the botanist and banker Dawson Turner (1775–1858) of Yarmouth in England and with Scottish botanist James Townsend Mackay (1775–1862). In 1804, Mackay was appointed assistant botanist at Trinity College, Dublin and taught Irish Botany to medical and other students. He became a renowned curator of the Trinity College Botanic Garden, one of the earliest botanic gardens to be established in either England or Ireland.