Archive of the Month
Ellen Hutchins (1785–1815): Botanist and Artist: by John Lucey & Madeline Hutchins
Archive of the Month – February 2016
For February, in hopeful anticipation of the coming of spring, Archive of the Month at the Representative Church Body Library turns to the subject of botany, and specifically a typescript manuscript of previously largely unknown provenance that has ended up in its custody. This is a memoir of the life of Ellen Hutchins (born on 17 March 1785 in county Cork) who became Ireland’s first female botanist, and who died on 10 February 1815 just short of her 30th birthday. The memoir is accessioned as RCB Library Ms 47 and now available here
Ellen Hutchins was born in the parish of Kilmocomogue at Ballylickey, between Glengarriff and Bantry, in west Cork and lies buried in an unmarked grave at Garryvurcha churchyard.
Regarded as the first female field botanist in Ireland, Hutchins was also a gifted botanical illustrator. Constrained by ill–health and family commitments, she nonetheless managed to identify and catalogue more than 1,000 plant species in a short period of botanising between 1805 and 1813. She contributed records and illustrations to the works of the leading botanists of the day. She discovered many species new to science and had many species named in her honour, mostly in the non–flowering plants or cryptogams that she specialised in, including mosses and liverworts, lichens and marine algae (seaweeds) as well as some flowering plants.
Specimens collected by Ellen Hutchins are now in various herbaria around the world including Dublin, London, Edinburgh, Helsinki and New York. Over 200 of her illustrations of seaweeds are held in the archives at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and there are also some in Sheffield Museum with just one drawing held by the Hutchins family. Letters between her and botanical scholars James Mackay and Dawson Turner are held at Trinity College Dublin, Trinity College Cambridge and at Kew.
Regarding the provenance of the typescript in the RCB Library, there were three questions to be answered:
- Who compiled the manuscript?
- At what date?
- How did it end up amongst the library’s collections?
The manuscript bears no marks which would answer any of these questions. However, documented information held by the Hutchins family revealed the answers and the provenance of the manuscript has now been established.
The memoir, on Ellen Hutchins (1785–1815), was compiled by her niece Alicia Hutchins (1832–1915) and completed in 1913. It provides us with some account of her short life and surroundings ‘as gathered from letters and the conversation of the few that knew her’.
The manuscript was lodged with the RCB Library in 1943 by Ellen’s grandniece, Alicia’s niece, Lady Barbara Stephen (1872–1945). The year 2015 marked, respectively, the bicentenary, centenary, as well as the 70th anniversary, of the deaths of these three ladies. In the 201st year since Ellen’s death (in February 1815) it is thus a fitting time to belatedly publish the family manuscript.
Before it was typed, Alicia had sent the hand–written memoir to her sister Louisa in England asking for comments and Louisa replied on 17 July 1913, saying that it would be ‘profanation to meddle with it’. Louisa had married William Shore Nightingale (first cousin of Florence Nightingale (1820–1910)). Louisa’s daughter had kept house for a time, after going down from Cambridge, for the celebrated nurse. It was this daughter Margaret Thyra Barbara Shore Nightingale – the Lady Barbara Stephen – who lodged one copy of the manuscript in the RCB Library in 1943, while another copy was retained in the Hutchins family collection. Both copies consist of nine folios of typescript tied into a limp card folder.
It was suggested, by the Library’s Assistant Archivist Susan Hood, that there may have been some familial association between Lady Barbara Stephen (seen here) and Rosamond Emily Stephen (1868–1951) who had bequeathed her book collections to the RCB Library (see here). In fact, the two were sisters–in–law, and it may reasonably be concluded that the manuscript came into the possession of the RCB Library through this relationship.
Alicia had kept a notebook, which included information on Ellen’s letters, from which she compiled the memoir, which was completed in 1913. Later the MS had been typed and then retyped, with corrections to the text, after typographical errors had been identified. Following the deaths, respectively, in 1915 and 1922 of Alicia and Louisa, the memoir had come into the keeping of the succeeding generation.
As later efforts to have the memoir published, by the family, were unsuccessful the manuscript has now been digitized by the RCB Library, and is formally published online at this link for the first time.
Madeline is the great–great–grandniece of Ellen Hutchins and lives in Surrey. She was a co–organiser of the Ellen Hutchins Festival in Bantry in August 2015 and researched Ellen’s life for an exhibition in Bantry Library having given an illustrated talk there, and for the website www.ellenhutchins.com
John is a biologist and historian based in Kilkenny.
The full text of the paper by John Lucey and Madeline Hutchins on the manuscript, which includes details of provenance and its author, is available here.
Librarian and Archivist
Dr Susan Hood
Librarian and Archivist