News last month that the remains of early 19th century explorer Matthew Flinders had been found beneath Euston railway station. But just who was Flinders and what, aside from being the location of his burial, were his connections to London?
Flinders was not a native Londoner by birth – he was born on 16th March, 1774, in Donington, Lincolnshire, the son of a surgeon-apothecary and educated in local schools. He joined the Royal Navy at the age of 15, serving first on HMS Alert as a lieutenant’s servant and several other ships including the HMS Providence, captained by William Bligh (of mutiny on the Bounty fame) on a voyage taking breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica. He also subsequently saw action while on the HMS Bellerophon in 1794, when the ship was involved in the Battle of the Glorious First of June against the French in the English Channel.
As well as establishing a reputation as a navigator and cartographer on the voyage, he became friends with the ship’s surgeon George Bass. After arriving at Port Jackson in New South Wales, Flinders undertook two expeditions with Bass in small boats dubbed the Tom Thumb and Tom Thumb II – the first to Botany Bay and the Georges River and the second to Lake Illawarra.
In 1798, now a lieutenant and based in New South Wales, Flinders was given command of the sloop Norfolk with the aim of proving Van Diemen’s Land (now the state of Tasmania) was an island. He did so and named the strait between it and the Australian mainland after his friend Bass (the largest island in the strait would later be named Flinders Island).
In 1799, he sailed the Norfolk north to Moreton Bay before in March, 1800, returning to England on the Reliance.
Thanks to the advocacy of Sir Joseph Banks, to whom Flinders had dedicated his text Observations on the Coasts of Van Diemen’s Land, on Bass’s Strait, etc, in January, 1801, Flinders was given command of HMS Investigator and, subsequently promoted to commander, given the mission of charting the coastline of the Australian continent, then known as New Holland.
Having married his longtime friend Ann Chappelle on 17th April, 1801, he set sail for New Holland on 18th July of that year (without Ann – he had intended taking her on the journey but ordered to remove her from the ship by the Admiralty).
Flinders reached and named Cape Leeuwin in what is now Western Australia on 6th December and then proceeded eastward along the continent’s southern coast. He met the French explorer Nicolas Baudin, aboard the Geographe, in what he named Encounter Bay, named Port Lincoln and Kangaroo Island in what is now South Australia and further to the east spent time exploring the environs of Port Philip Bay (around the modern city of Melbourne). He proceeded north to Sydney, arriving on 9th May, 1802, setting sail again on 22nd July.
Heading northward, he surveyed the coast of what is now Queensland before, having charted the Gulf of Carpentaria, discovering his ship was badly leaking. Unable to undertake repairs, he decided to return to Sydney but did so via the west coast of the continent, thus completing the first documented circumnavigation of it. Back in Sydney, the Investigator was found to be unseaworthy and condemned.
Unable to find another vessel to continue his explorations and hearing of his father’s death and wife’s illness back in England, Flinders looked return home as a passenger aboard the HMS Porpoise. But the Porpoise was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef and Flinders undertook the role of navigating the ship’s cutter back across open sea to Sydney so the remainder of the ship’s crew could be rescued.
He was then given command of the HMS Cumberland to return to England but the poor condition of that ship forced him to put into the French controlled Isle de France (Mauritius) for repairs on 17th December, 1803. War had broken out between England and France and Flinders was detained (it was during his period of detainment – he was allowed to venture around the island after the first few months – that he sent back to England a map of the Australian continent, the only one in which he used the name “Australia” for the title. While he wasn’t the first to use the name Australia, he is credited with popularising it).
Flinders wasn’t released until June, 1810, after a Royal Navy blockade of the island (despite being granted his release by the French Government in 1806, authorities on Mauritius decided to keep holding him). Travelling via the Cape of Good Hope, he returned to England where he was promoted to post-captain.
On returning to home, Flinders, now in poor health, and his wife Ann lived at several rental properties in London – there’s an English Heritage Blue Plaque on one former property at 56 Fitzroy Street in Fitzrovia, central London – and had a daughter Anna (her son Matthew Flinders Petrie, later Sir Flinders Petrie, would go on to become a famous archaeologist and Egyptologist).
It was during this period that Flinders wrote a book about his voyages, A Voyage to Terra Australis. It was published on 18th July. Remarkably, Flinders died of kidney failure just a day later. He was buried on 23rd July in the graveyard of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, which was located up in Camden.
The location of his grave was later forgotten when the headstone was removed and the site became gardens, part of which were subsequently built over by Euston station. Famously, of course, his body was found last month during excavations conducted ahead of the construction of the Euston terminus for the high-speed rail link, HS2, between London and Bristol.
Flinders legacy lives on in the more than 100 geographical place names bearing his moniker in Australia including the iconic Flinders Street Railway Station in Victoria and the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. There’s also a statue of him in his home town of Donington and in July, 2014, the 200th anniversary of his death, a large bronze statue by Mark Richards depicting Flinders and his cat Trim (we’ll deal with Trim’s story in an upcoming post) was unveiled at Australia House by Prince William. It was later installed at Euston Station near where his grave was assumed to be (pictured above).