Matthew Flinders – the man who named Australia

Matthew Flinders statue euston

Mark Richards’ bronze statue of Matthew Flinders has been on the concourse of Euston station for almost two years but seldom gets the attention it deserves. Much of the time it is almost hidden among  passengers waiting  for trains who hardly notice what they rest their coffee cup on or where they perch to eat a sandwich and send a text message.  The modern traveller’s concentration on our contemporary tools of navigation and communication is mirrored  by the statue.  Matthew Flinders looks down, dividers in hand, concentrating only on his charts and making calculations with the tools of his own time.

Matthew Flinders & Trim 2

Later in the evening, when the crowds have died away and the rubbish has been cleared, Captain Flinders and Trim, his feline companion, are still hard at work. But now we can see what the work is. The chart is Australia. Although Flinders is not well known in his native country, his name (and that of his cat) are household words in Australia.

Matthew Flinders was a Lincolnshire lad, born on 16th March 1774. He went to sea with the Navy at 15, sailed with Captain Bligh to Tahiti and became a passionate and talented cartographer.  Flinders made three voyages to the Southern Ocean.  On the second, with his friend and colleague George Bass, he discovered that Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) was a separate island rather than part of the mainland.  On the third he became the first person to circumnavigate the Australia and to identify it as a continent. In fact we owe the name Australia to Matthew Flinders who was the first to apply it specifically to the continent and who popularised it in his book Voyage to Terra Australis. 

Returning home from his final voyage, Flinders became caught up in the wars between France and England, was arrested as a spy and detained in Ile de France (Mauritius) for more than six years.

Flinders Plaque Fitzroy Street
52 Fitzroy Street

During this time he was able to make notes for Voyage to Terra Australis and on his return in 1810 he settled in London, renting rooms in Soho and Fitzrovia to afford the access to the Admiralty and to his patron Sir Joseph Banks that he needed in order to complete his book and an atlas of his maps.  London was expensive; he did not receive the promotion he hoped for and was living on half pay.  His health was poor and he lived only another four years, just long enough to see publication of his book and dying at the age of forty.

Books seem to have played a large part in Matthew Flinders’ life, and he clearly made time for fiction.  As a boy, he had been inspired to seek a Naval career after reading the adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Trim the cat was named after Uncle Toby’s manservant in Tristram Shandy on account of his ‘great fidelity and affection’. Trim was a ship’s cat born in the South Seas.  He circumnavigated Australia, survived shipwreck and was the subject of a biographical tribute written by Flinders when he was detained in Mauritius.

But what are Flinders and Trim doing on Euston Station?  Sadly, the answer relates to  Matthew Flinders’ death.  When Flinders died he was buried at St James Church, Hampstead Road, London. When the burial ground was closed to burials in the mid-nineteenth century and later opened as a public garden, part of the land was lost to the development of the railway.  It is said that Matthew Flinders’ final resting place may lie beneath what is now platforms 12-15 of Euston Station.

Something of Matthew Flinders’ flair and methodological approach seems to have passed down the generations. Matthew’s only child Anne, was the mother of Flinders Petrie, the pioneering Egyptologist whose extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities now resides a stone’s throw from Euston in UCL’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Petrie’s  brain (and head), deposited with the Royal College of Surgeons  in nearby Lincoln’s Inn Fields, were reputedly brought back by his widow in a hatbox from Jerusalem where his body is buried.

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