- Walter Burroughs
- Biographies and personal histories, History - pre-Federation, Influential People, Biographies
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2019 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Peter Ashley (2005) perhaps encapsulates an apt description of Flinders as a person:
Driven, ambitious, sometimes arrogant and occasionally reckless, few navigators had a greater share of misfortune than Captain Matthew Flinders, yet achieved so much.
Matthew Flinders was small in stature; the recent discovery suggests he may have been a diminutive 5 feet 3 inches (160 cm) tall, whereas the usually reliable American scholar James Decker Mack (1966) says he stood at a more respectable 5 feet 6 inches (168 cm). Mack’s perceptive pen picture describes him:
His figure was slight, but well-proportioned with a light and buoyant step. Possessed of average strength he exuded extreme energy and activity. Of pale complexion, his nose was rather aquiline, his chin a little projecting and his lips compressed. He had a noble brow, hair almost black, eyes dark brown, bright, and with a commanding expression, amounting at times to sternness. His features expressed intelligence, animation and the ability to command.
Perhaps the best likeness we are able to see is that painted by the French settler and capable amateur artist Toussaint Antoine de Chazal de Chamarel when Flinders, aged about 33, was under house arrest on the Isle de France (Mauritius). This portrait, which now hangs in the Art Gallery of South Australia, is featured on the front cover of this magazine.
Flinders was the first to circumnavigate the continent of Australia and gave the nation we know today its name, although it was not recognised in his lifetime. Monuments commemorating his exploits exist in positions of prominence in Adelaide, Melbourne, Port Lincoln and Sydney, and fittingly there is now one at Mauritius. Melbourne has a major thoroughfare and railway station named after him, old hands talk of Flinders (Flinders Naval Depot) rather than HMAS Cerberus. Adelaide honours him with a university, and an RAN ship has proudly borne his name. Until the introduction of decimal currency his likeness adorned the Commonwealth ten-shilling bank note, and later the one-dollar postage stamp. Physical features of the majestic Flinders Ranges, two Flinders Islands and the Flinders Group National Park mark his progress around the continent. Ironically a statue of him was installed at Euston Station in 2014.
Matthew Flinders Rediscovered
Recent media reports have exciting news of the discovery of the remains of the great explorer Matthew Flinders. Fittingly, against all odds these were discovered just in time for the celebration of Australia Day 2019.
Matthew Flinders died in London 205 years ago on 19 July 1814 and was buried in the cemetery of St James’s Church, Hampstead Road in central London, on 23 July 1814. This old burial ground, dating from 1790, closed in 1853 and was estimated to hold the remains of tens of thousands.
The Flinders Memorial website (2014) informs us that St James’s Burial Ground, where he was interred, belonged to St James’s Church, Piccadilly. There were several very large inter-connected cemeteries in the district covering an area eastwards from Hampstead Road through St. James’s Garden and Euston Station as far as St. Pancras Station. During the mid-1800s an expansion of the railways led to the closure of several cemeteries and the remains of thousands were removed to a mass grave at Finchley.
However, his sister-in-law Isabelle, who had arranged and attended the funeral and interment of Flinders, visited the burial ground again in February 1852 and found that the entrance had changed and the grave was gone. A letter written later by his daughter, Mrs. Petrie, says:
Many years afterwards my Aunt Tyler went to look for the grave, but found the churchyard remodeled, and quantities of tombstones and graves with their contents had been carted away as rubbish, among them that of my unfortunate father, thus pursued by disaster after death as in life.
According to later research, it appeared to be almost certain that the remains of Flinders were moved to an unmarked grave a short distance to the east, either under Euston Station (platforms 11 to 15), or under St. James’s Garden, with it is estimated thousands of others.
Another extension to the rail system is under way, known as the High Speed 2 rail link from Euston to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, which has called for further excavation of St James’s Park. Archaeologists were given a short window in which to conduct further research. Only a small portion of the estimated remains of bodies exhumed from St James’s have been identified, making the discovery of the remains of Flinders like looking for ‘a needle in a haystack’ according to the lead archaeologist, Helen Wass.
With so little to go on it is indeed remarkable that on 15 January 2019 a workers’ trowel hit the hard surface of the breastplate of a lead coffin. When cleaned this revealed the cursive inscription on the ornately decorated plate which read: ‘Capt. Matthew Flinders RN. Died 19 July, 1814. Aged 40 Years’.
The lead plate has helped preserve parts of the wooden coffin, although some had crumbled under the pressure and moisture of the earth. Helen Wass says: ‘underneath was a complete skeleton, though not the best preserved’. The bones of Flinders, now washed and cleaned, will be subject to forensic archaeological assessment before they are reinterred in a site yet to be determined. This should be of significant interest to many Australians.
Early Life – the Flinders Family Tree
Matthew Flinders was born in the small Lincolnshire market town of Donington on 16 March 1774. Donington lies in farming country on the flat and fertile Fen district about ten miles from the nearest sea, at the Port of Boston.
Matthew was the third child of a respected country surgeon and apothecary, also named Matthew. His mother, Susannah, nee Ward, in 1771 when aged 19 gave birth out of wedlock to their first son John. John (Poor John) had a mental defect and was later committed to a lunatic asylum. On 6 May 1773 Matthew and Susannah married and after five months a daughter Elizabeth was born. Next came Matthew and afterwards John (Jackey) who died at six weeks, then a daughter Susannah, and finally another son Samuel. Most likely exhausted by childbirth, Susanna died aged 31 early in 1783 (the exact date is unknown).
Obviously a solitary life did not suit Dr. Flinders as on 2 December in the same year that his first wife died he remarried a widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Ellis, nee Weekes. Elizabeth1aged 33 was of the same age as her husband and they produced two children, sisters Hannah and Henrietta.
Matthew was first educated at local schools where he excelled, and at age 12 he was sent to board in a nearby town at Reverend John Shinglar’s Grammar School at Horbling. Here he again was a good pupil studying English, Greek, Latin and mathematics. Unfortunately, he did not study French which was later to cost him dearly. When he was aged 13 his father removed him from school to assist him with his medical practice, where he was expected to succeed his father. His lessons continued, overseen by his father.
At about the time of his 15th birthday Matthew had read a then best seller, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. This deeply affected him and caused a rift with his father when he expressed a desire for a seafaring career. This was also discussed with his father’s brother whose career as a naval lieutenant was not exactly flourishing. Uncle John advised the youngster about which books on navigation and mathematics he should read if he was to pursue such a career. This was done with intent of putting the youngster off, but it had the opposite effect, encouraging scientific pursuits. This must have upset his father as he had obtained a position for his son with Joseph Dell, a surgeon and apothecary of Lincoln, at a welcome salary of ten guineas a year.
According to the custom of those times the accepted entrée of a young gentleman into the Royal Navy lay in the sponsorship of a ranking commanding officer, preferably of Captain’s rank. This system of recruitment, known as ‘the interest’, was a form of patronage used to place a child on the quarterdeck and upwards.
To sea with Captain Bligh
Fortuitously a cousin, Henrietta (Henny) Flinders, was governess to the family of Captain (later Admiral Sir) Thomas Pasley RN, then in command of HMS Scipio. A meeting between the youngster and the captain resulted in Matthew Flinders being entered as a Lieutenant’s Servant in HMS Alerton 23 October 1789. Six months later, when Pasley learned he was to take command of the 74-gun ship Bellerophon, he called for his young protégé to be posted into Scipioas an able seaman. Then a few days later he took the youngster with him to Bellerophon where he was entered into the books as a midshipman. After about eight months Flinders was transferred to another ship-of-the-line, the 64-gun HMS Dictator, for further training.
Captain Pasley, however, had other ideas and was to make a decision which would have a profound influence on the career of Flinders. His acquaintance, Captain William Bligh, recovering from his ill-fated Bounty expedition, was fitting out the sloop HMS Providence and her consort HMS Assistant (Lieutenant Nathaniel Portlock)at the behest of Sir Joseph Banks for the transfer of breadfruit trees from Tahiti to Jamaica. Pasley recommended the bright youngster to Bligh who accepted him as one of six midshipmen embarked. They sailed from Deptford on 3 August 1791. This placed Flinders amongst the top league of navigators as both Bligh and Portlock had honed their skills under the great scientific navigator, Captain James Cook.
While the breadfruit voyage was a success and led to promotions for both Bligh and Portlock, the young midshipman’s time was less fortunate. Learning from the best, Flinders had acquired skills in astronomy, cartography, and navigation but his relationship with his captain was not cordial.
Exposed to the favours of attractive and uninhibited South Sea island maidens, the young midshipman contracted venereal disease which would plague him for the remainder of his life and ultimately lead to his untimely death. As well as being a strict disciplinarian, Bligh was conscious of the need to maintain the health of his officers and men, and to curtail the spread of European diseases amongst native populations. In April 1793, before Providencereturned to Deptford in August 1793, in an unexplained incident Bligh demoted Flinders to Able Seaman. However, when taking his examination for lieutenant in January 1797, Bligh favourably reported on the conduct of Flinders and his suitability for promotion.
Back in England Flinders returned to Bellerophon and under the continued patronage of Captain Pasley, he was soon reinstated to midshipman. It was during this time that Flinders took part in the only major naval action of his career, ‘The Glorious First of June’ in a 1794 battle against the French, in which the English won a decisive victory and Pasley lost a leg, but gained a flag and a knighthood.
Flinders in the Great South Land
This is not the place to write a voluminous history of the exploits of Flinders in Australia but some explanation of how he first came here and developed a lifelong interest in the Great South Land is necessary.
Lieutenant Henry Waterhouse was also promoted from Bellerophon to command HMS Reliance which was then being readied to transfer the second Governor of New South Wales, Captain John Hunter RN, to take up his position. With Captain Pasley’s blessing Flinders was allowed to transfer to Reliance as a Master’s Mate. Here Matthew established another association as the ship’s surgeon was a fellow Lincolnshire man, George Bass, who later married Henry Waterhouse’s sister. By now the father’s disapproval of his son’s career must have dissipated as Matthew’s younger brother Samuel Ward Flinders was also in Reliance as a volunteer.
Trim the cat, from monument at Donington, Linconshire.
With her consort Supply, Reliance departed from Plymouth on 15 February 1795 and reached Sydney on 7 September of that year. During quiet periods in their new surroundings Matthew and his friend George Bass set about exploring the coastline and this led to their famous exploits in Tom Thumb.
Towards the end of 1796 Reliance was sent to Cape Town to secure livestock for the colony and brought back in her cargo the first merino sheep. She returned around the southern extremity of Van Diemen’s Land and arrived safely back at Port Jackson after a voyage of six months. Early in 1797 Flinders was promoted to Lieutenant and in acknowledgement of the good works in exploration conducted by Flinders and Bass both were given land grants near present day Bankstown.
On 7 October 1798 Flinders was to achieve his first command of the very small colonial sloop Norfolk which had been built on Norfolk Island. He sailed in her with Bass and a crew of eight men from Port Jackson and was able to confirm that a strait (Bass Strait) existed between the mainland and Van Diemen’s Land.
Reliance, now greatly in need of refit, returned to England in 1800 and to obtain news of his favorite topic Flinders became the focus of attention of Sir Joseph Banks. Aware that the French were preparing for a large expedition to the South Seas the Admiralty selected the 334-ton sloop Xenophonand fitted her out, renamed HMS Investigator. Sir Joseph, who was consulted on most things to do with New South Wales, was asked about a suitable commander. He recommended the 26 year-old Flinders.
Flinders now set about organising his personal life and through cousins had struck up a friendship with Miss Ann Chappelle. Ann was considered clever with a sweet temperament, she was witty with an aptitude for poetry, literature, singing and was a talented painter of flowers. Ann carried an affliction in that she was blind in one eye from smallpox lancing. Her father had been a captain in the merchant service who had died at sea. Her mother remarried the Reverend William Tyler and they had another daughter, Isabelle.
Matthew, newly promoted to Commander, and Ann married on 17 April 1801 and as Investigator was fitting out at Sheerness on the Thames, he took Ann with him to be near the ship. The intention may well have been to smuggle his wife onboard and sail with her as a passenger. When the Admiralty got wind of this the young commander was told in no uncertain terms that he would be dismissed if he was to take this course of action. Investigator sailed from Spithead on 18 July 1801 and Matthew was not to see his wife again for some nine years. The Australian author Ernestine Hill (1941) in her book My Love Must Wait portrays a fictional although exceptionally well crafted and researched story of the relationship between Matthew and Ann.
Cape Leeuwin was sighted on 6 December 1801 and after undertaking surveys on the south coast they passed through Bass Strait finally reaching Port Jackson on 9 May 1802. As indicated earlier we shall not dwell here on the magnificent circumnavigation of the continent which was to win Flinders great acclaim.
With his survey largely complete Flinders was in a great hurry to return home to finalise his cartography, including new charts, and, to write a comprehensive account of his circumnavigation from his log books and notes. As well as bringing personal satisfaction, he considered that this would give him a place amongst the great navigators, possibly leading to fame and fortune.
Flinders sailed homeward as a passenger in HMS Porpoise under command of Lieutenant Robert Fowler RN. Safely stowed were his extensive documents and collection of plant specimens. On 10 August 1803 departure was made from Sydney in company with the ship Cato, Captain Park, and the Indiaman Bridgewater under Captain Palmer. As Flinders sought to prove the advantage of the route he had discovered in Investigator they sailed outside the Barrier Reef for the Torres Strait. Seven days into the voyage, in the early hours of the morning when still in darkness, the lookout sighted breakers ahead. Too late they tried to bring her about and Porpoise struck an uncharted atoll, now known as Wreck Reef. While Bridgewater cleared the reef, Cato too was wrecked. Fearing the hazards Captain Palmer decided he could not, or would not, help and continued on his voyage.
Out of the disaster came some relief as at dawn the survivors found a sandbank on which they could camp and retrieve stores and provisions from the wrecks. With a few exceptions invaluable charts and papers prepared by Flinders were salvaged. So too was his seafaring cat ‘Trim’ that had circumnavigated the globe with him.
The largest of Porpoise’s six-oared cutters was salvaged and christened Hope. In her Flinders and Captain Park and fourteen of his best men set out for Port Jackson to fetch another vessel to gather the remainder. Lieutenant Fowler remained in charge on their small island with instructions to use materials from the wrecks to construct another two craft sufficient to take off the survivors should relief not come.
With her desperate party, the overcrowded Hope set sail on 26 August in good weather; two days later they sighted land, and on the fifth day went ashore (North Stradbroke Island) where they replenished their water casks. On 8 September the citizens of Sydney were surprised to find sun and salt-caked survivors from Porpoiseback amongst their midst. Governor King quickly put a rescue plan into place and the Government schooners Francis and Cumberland and the ship Rolla reached Wreck Reef on 7 October.
During the waiting period the industrious survivors had built a small decked boat which they named Resource. Those preferring to return to Sydney sailed in Resource with Francis.Those wishing to return to England sailed in Rolla, first headed for China.
Flinders, still anxious to make immediate passage to England, pestered the Governor who eventually let him have the elderly and worn-out schooner Cumberland with a crew of ten for a voyage for which she was ill prepared. Cumberland, leaking like a sieve, was obliged to put into the French colony of Isle de France (Mauritius) but unknown to them, Britain and France were again at war. His passport was made for his command of Investigator on a scientific expedition. His arrival in another ship gave the Governor, General de Caen, sufficient reason to detain his visitor. Shortly after arrival the poor manners displayed by Flinders in declining a dinner invitation from Madame de Caen was seen as an insult. His disrespect and intransigence led to him remaining under house arrest for six and a half years.
Flinders did however establish friendships with cultured members in the local society, who helped sustain him, and in turn he helped tutor their children in mathematics, and he was obliged to learn their language.
The Return and Final Chapter
Eventually on 13 June 1810 his sword was returned and he was a free man to embark in the British ship Harriet which had been granted free passage to take British persons from the island, which was then under siege. However, few decisions in his life were straightforward and to speed his passage he requested transfer to the naval sloop Otter en route to the Cape. Here he was detained for several weeks while debriefing the Flag Officer Cape Station, and it was not until 28 August that he took passage in the cutter Olympia, arriving at Spithead on 24 October 1810. It will be recalled this was the departure point from which he had sailed full of enthusiasm in Investigator more than nine years previously.
The arrival of Flinders in England was not a triumphal return, he was prematurely aged with his health and spirit broken. Upon arrival he went to the Admiralty for talks with both the First Lord and Secretary who were pleased to announce the promotion of Flinders to Post Captain. He was then reunited with Ann who had travelled to London.
By 5 November some normality entered their lives with rooms rented at 16 King Street Soho. Friends were visited, acquaintances remade and calls made to the great, such as Sir Joseph Banks. On 23 November Matthew and Ann left London for a six-week holiday in Lincolnshire.
Immediately after this holiday Flinders set about writing his narrative of A Voyage to TerraAustralis. This task occupied him from this moment almost until his death. This immense work was produced in three volumes, plus an atlas of sixteen charts, two plates of coastal profiles, and ten of botanical drawings. Not only did Flinders write of his voyages but found time to complete an important scientific memorandum on magnetism of ships. In time this gave rise to the introduction of the ‘Flinders Bar’ which greatly improved the performance of magnetic compasses in all ships by compensating for the use of iron in their construction.
On 8 February 1812 the now Rear Admiral Bligh took Flinders to the Palace where he was presented to HRH the Duke of Clarence (later King William IV) who had asked to see some of the latest charts drawn by the great navigator. On 1 April 1812 Ann gave birth to a daughter, named Anne.
Working all day and often into the night took its toll and in December 1813 he suffered the beginnings of his last illness. By 9 March 1814 his distress from pain was such as to bring his work to a close. Matthew Flinders died on 19 July 1814, aged 40 years, four months and three days. A great man now largely forgotten.
On 23 July a funeral service was held at St James’s Chapel off Hampstead Road. Afterwards a small cortege led by Ann, supported by her brother-in-law Samuel and her sister Isabelle, proceeded to the adjacent churchyard where Matthew Flinders was laid to rest.
1 Hannah, the sister of Elizabeth Weekes, married Lincolnshire gentleman-farmer Willingham Franklin. Their son John Franklin served as a midshipman in HMS Investigatorunder the patronage of his step-uncle Matthew Flinders. As Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin he became a famous Arctic explorer and later Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land. He died in 1843 whilst attempting to chart the Northwest Passage.
Ashley, Peter, The Indomitable Captain Matthew Flinders, Royal Navy, Pierhead Press, Clanfield, Hants, 2005.
Baker, Sidney, J., My Own Destroyer – A Biography of Capt. Matthew Flinders, RN, Currawong Publishing, Sydney, 1962.
Estensen, Miriam, Matthew Flinders – The Life of Matthew Flinders, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2002.
Flinders, Matthew, Trim – Being the True Story of a Brave Seafaring Cat, Collins, San Francisco, 1973.
Hill, Ernestine, My Love Must Wait, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1941.
Hughes, Thea Stanley, Matthew Flinders, Movement Publications, Sydney, 1984.
Mack, James, D., Matthew Flinders 1774 – 1814, Nelson, Melbourne, 1966.