The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 1

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 1. Birth and origins

Chapter I.

BIRTH AND ORIGINS

Matthew Flinders was the third of the triad of great English sailors by whom the principal part of Australia was revealed. A poet of our own time, in a line of singular felicity, has described it as the "last sea-thing dredged by sailor Time from Space;"[1] and the piecemeal, partly mysterious, largely accidental dragging from the depths of the unknown of a land so immense and bountiful makes a romantic chapter in geographical history. All the great seafaring peoples contributed something towards the result. The Dutch especially evinced their enterprise in the pursuit of precise information about the southern Terra Incognita, and the nineteenth century was well within its second quarter before the name New Holland, which for over a hundred years had borne testimony to their adventurous pioneering, gave place in general and geographical literature to the more convenient and euphonious designation suggested by Flinders himself, Australia.[2]

But, important as was the work of the Dutch, and though the contributions made by French navigators (possibly also by Spanish) are of much consequence, it remains true that the broad outlines of the continent were laid down by Dampier, Cook and Flinders. These are the principal names in the story. A map of Australia which left out the parts discovered by other sailors would be seriously defective in particular features; but a map which left out the parts discovered by these three Englishmen would gape out of all resemblance to the reality.

Dampier died about the year 1712; nobody knows precisely when. Matthew Flinders came into the world in time to hear, as he may well have done as a boy, of the murder of his illustrious predecessor in 1779. The news of Cook's fate did not reach England till 1781. The lad was then seven years of age, having been born on March 16th, 1774.

His father, also named Matthew, was a surgeon practising his profession at Donington, Lincolnshire, where the boy was born. The Flinders family had been settled in the same town for several generations. Three in succession had been surgeons. The patronymic indicates a Flemish origin, and the work on English surnames[3] that bids the reader looking for information under "Flinders" to "see Flanders," sends him on a reasonable quest, if to no great resulting advantage.

The English middle-eastern counties received frequent large migrations of Flemings during several centuries. Sometimes calamities due to the harshness of nature, sometimes persecutions and wars, sometimes adverse economic conditions, impelled companies of people from the Low Countries to cross the North Sea and try to make homes for themselves in a land which, despite intervals of distraction, offered greater security and a better reward than did the place whence they came. England derived much advantage from the infusion of this industrious, solid and dependable Flemish stock; though the temporary difficulty of absorption gave rise to local protests on more than one occasion.

As early as 1108, a great part of Flanders "being drowned by an exudation or breaking in of the sea, a great number of Flemings came into the country, beseeching the King to have some void place assigned them, wherein they might inhabit."[4] Again in the reign of Edward I we find Flemish merchants carrying on a very large and important trade in Boston, and representatives of houses from Ypres and Ostend acquired property in the town.[5] In the middle of the sixteenth century, when Flanders was boiling on the fire of the Reformation, Lincolnshire and Norfolk provided an asylum for crowds of harassed refugees. In 1569 two persons were deputed to ride from Boston to Norwich to ascertain what means that city adopted to find employment for them; and in the same year Mr. William Derby was directed to move Mr. Secretary Cecil, Queen Elizabeth's great minister, to "know his pleasure whether certain strangers may be allowed to dwell within the borough without damage of the Queen's laws."[6]

During one of these peaceful and useful Flemish invasions the ancestors of Matthew Flinders entered Lincolnshire. In the later years of his life he devoted some attention to the history of his family, and found record of a Flinders as early as the tenth century. He believed, also, that his people had some connection with two men named Flinders or Flanders, who fled from Holland during the religious persecutions, and settled, in Queen Elizabeth's reign, in Nottinghamshire as silk stocking weavers. It would be very interesting if it were clear that there was a link between the family and the origins of the great Nottingham hosiery trade. A Flinders may in that case have woven silk stockings for the Royal termagant, and Lord Coke's pair, which were darned so often that none of the original fabric remained, may have come from their loom.

Matthew Flinders himself wrote the note: "Ruddington near Nottingham (it is four miles south of the town) is the place whence the Flinders came;" and he ascertained that an ancestor was Robert Flinders, a Nottingham stocking-weaver.

A family tradition relates that the Lincolnshire Flinders were amongst the people taken over to England by Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch engineer of celebrity in his day, who undertook in 1621 to drain 360,000 acres of fen in Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. He was financed by English and Dutch capitalists, and took his reward in large grants of land which he made fit for habitation and cultivation. Vermuyden and his Flemings were not allowed to accomplish their work of reclamation without incurring the enmity of the natives. In a petition to the King in 1637 he stated that he had spent 150,000 pounds, but that 60,000 pounds of damage had been done "by reason of the opposition of the commoners," who cut the banks of his channels in the night and during floods. The peasantry, indeed, resisted the improvements that have proved so beneficent to that part of England, because the draining and cultivation of so many miles of swamp would deprive them of fishing and fowling privileges enjoyed from time immemorial. Hardly any reform or improvement can be effected without some disruption of existing interests; and a people deeply sunk in poverty and toil could hardly be expected to contemplate with philosophical calm projects which, however advantageous to individuals and to posterity, were calculated to diminish their own means of living and their pleasant diversions. The dislike of the "commoners" to the work of the "participants" led to frequent riots, and many of Vermuyden's Flemings were maltreated. He endeavoured to allay discontent by employing local labour at high wages; and was courageous enough to pursue his task despite loss of money, wanton destruction, and many other discouragements.[7] Ebullitions of discontent on the part of fractious Fenlanders did not cease till the beginning of the eighteenth century.

A very simple calculation shows that the great-grandfather of the first Matthew Flinders would probably have been contemporary with Sir Cornelius Vermuyden's reclamation works. He may have been one of the "participants" who benefited from them. The fact is significant as bearing upon this conjecture, that no person named Flinders made a will in Lincolnshire before 1600.[8]

It is, too, an interesting circumstance that there was a Flinders among the early settlers in New England, Richard Flinders of Salem, born 1637.[9] He may have been of the same family as the navigator, for the Lincolnshire element among the fathers of New England was pronounced.

The name Flinders survived at Donington certainly for thirty years after the death of the sailor who gave lustre to it; for in a directory published in 1842 occur the names of "Flinders, Mrs. Eliz., Market Place," and "Flinders, Mrs. Mary, Church Street."[10]

The Flinders papers, mentioned in the preface, contain material which enables the family and connections of the navigator to be traced with certainty for seven generations. The genealogy is shown by the following table:—

Family tree of Matthew Flinders, p6 - The life of Captain Matthew Flinders, RN.png

There is also an interesting connection between Flinders and the Tennysons, through the Franklin family. The present Lord Tennyson, when Governor of South Australia, in the course of his official duties, in March, 1902, unveiled a memorial to his kinsman on Mount Lofty, and in April of the same year a second one in Encounter Bay. The following table illustrates the relationship between him who wrote of "the long wash of Australasian seas" and him who knew them as discoverer:

Franklin family tree, p7 - The life of Captain Matthew Flinders, RN.png

The Flinders papers also contain a note suggesting a distant connection between Matthew Flinders and the man who above all others was his choice friend, George Bass, the companion of his earliest explorations. Positive proof is lacking, but Flinders' daughter, Mrs. Petrie, wrote "we have reason to think that Bass was a connection of the family," and the point is too interesting to be left unstated. The following table shows the possible kinship:

John Flinders of Donington, born 1682, died 1741 (great-grandfather of the navigator) had:

Mary Flinders, third and youngest daughter, born 1734, married as her third husband, Bass, and had:

Bass family tree, p7 - The life of Captain Matthew Flinders, RN.png
It is clear from the particulars stated above that the tree of which Matthew Flinders was the fruit had its roots deep down in the soil of the little Lincolnshire market town where he was born; and Matthew himself would have continued the family tradition, inheriting the practice built up by his father and grandfather (as it was hoped he would do), had there not been within him an irresistible longing for the sea, and a bent of scientific curiosity directed to maritime exploration, which led him on a path of discovery to achievements that won him honourable rank in the noble roll of British naval pioneers.

His father earned an excellent reputation, both professional and personal. The career of a country practitioner rarely affords an opportunity for distinction. It was even less so then than today, when at all events careful records of interesting cases are printed in a score or more of professional publications. But once we find the elder Matthew Flinders in print. The Memoirs of the Medical Society of London[11] contain a paper read before that body on October 30th, 1797: "Case of a child born with variolar pustules, by Matthew Flinders, surgeon, Donington, Lincolnshire." The essay occupies three pages, and is a clear, succinct record of symptoms, treatment and results, for medical readers. The child died; whereupon the surgeon expresses his regret, not on account of infant or parents, but, with true scientific zest, because it deprived him of the opportunity of watching the development of an uncommon case.

Donington is a small town in the heart of the fen country, lying ten miles south-west of Boston, and about the same distance, as the crow flies, from the black, muddy, western fringe of the Wash. It is a very old town. Formerly it was an important Lincolnshire centre, enjoying its weekly Saturday market, and its four annual fairs for the sale of horses, cattle, flax and hemp. During Flinders' youth and early manhood the district grew large quantities of hemp, principally for the Royal Navy. In the days of its prosperity Donington drew to itself the business of an agricultural neighbourhood which was so far cultivable as it rose above the level of desolate and foggy swamps. But the drainage of the fens and the making of good roads over what had once been an area of amphibious uncertainty, neither wholly land nor wholly water, had the effect of largely diverting business to Boston. Trade that came to Donington when it stood over its own tract of fen, like the elderly and respectable capital of some small island, now went to the thriving and historic port on the Witham. Donington stopped growing, stagnated, declined. On the map of Lincolnshire included in Camden's Britannia (1637) it is marked "Dunington," in letters as large as those given to Boston, Spalding and Lincoln. On modern maps the name is printed in small letters; on some in the smallest, or not at all. That fact is fairly indicative of its change of fortunes. Figures tell the tale with precision. In 1801 it contained 1321 inhabitants; in 1821, 1638; in 1841 it reached its maximum, 2026; by 1891 it had gone down to 1547; in 1901 to 1484; at the census of 1911 it had struggled up to 1564.[12]

The fame conferred by a distinguished son is hardly a recompense for faded prosperity, but certain it is that Donington commands a wider interest as the birthplace of Flinders than it ever did in any other respect during its long, uneventful history. The parish church, a fine Gothic building with a lofty, graceful spire, contains a monument to the memory of the navigator, with an inscription in praise of his character and life, and recording that he "twice circumnavigated the globe." Many men have encircled the earth, but few have been so distinguished as discoverers of important portions of it. Apart from this monument, the church contains marble ovals to the memory of Matthew Flinders' father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. They were provided from a sum of £100 pounds left by the navigator, in his will, for the purpose.

It is interesting to notice that three of the early Australian explorers came from Lincolnshire, and were all born at places visible in clear weather from the tower of St. Botolph's Church at Boston. While Flinders sprang from Donington, George Bass, who co-operated with him in his first discoveries, was born at Aswarby, near Sleaford, and Sir John Franklin, who sailed with him in the Investigator, and was subsequently to become an Australian Governor and to achieve a pathetic immortality in another field of exploration, entered the world at Spilsby. Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist of Cook's first voyage, Flinders' steadfast friend, and the earliest potent advocate of Australian colonisation, though not actually born in Lincolnshire, was the son of a squire who at the time of his birth owned Revesby Abbey, which is within a short ride of each of the places just named.
  1. Bernard O'Dowd, Dawnward, (1903).
  2. Not universally, however, even in official documents. In the Report of the Committee of the Privy Council, dated May 1, 1849, "New Holland" is used to designate the continent, but "Australia" is employed as including both the continent and Tasmania. See Grey's Colonial Policy I., 424 and 439.)
  3. Barker, Family Surnames (1903) page 143.
  4. Holinshed's Chronicle (edition of 1807), II 58.)
  5. Pishey Thompson Collections for a Topographical and Historical Account of Boston and the Hundred of Skirbeck (1820) p. 31.
  6. Boston Corporation manuscripts quoted in Thompson, History and Antiquities of Boston (1856).
  7. See Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, for 1619, 1623, 1625, 1638, 1639 et seq; and White's Lincolnshire page 542.
  8. See C. W. Foster, Calendar of Lincoln Wills 1320-1600`, (1902).
  9. Savage, Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England, (Boston, U.S.A. 1860).
  10. William White, History, Gazetteer and Directory of the City and Diocese of Lincoln, (1842), p. 193.
  11. Vol. IV., p. 330 (1779).
  12. Allen, History of Lincolnshire, (1833), 1., 342; Victoria History of Lincolnshire Volume II. 359; Census Returns for 1911.