Tag Archives: Flinders Petrie

Digging up Matthew Flinders

There’s been a bit of noise about Matthew Flinders’ grave just recently. There are plans to extend the very fast train system from London to the north of England, and to do this, a lot of Euston Station and its surroundings will be dug up and redeveloped.

This includes the old graveyard of St James’ Church, where about 61,000 bodies were buried, Flinders included. Some of the graveyard was dug up during the 19th century during various expansions of the station, so many of these bodies have already disappeared. Apparently when his widow died in 1852, her sister looked for the grave but couldn’t find it. The first expansion of Euston Station was then underway.

Matthew Flinders portrait

Matthew Flinders watercolour miniature, c.1800, from State Library of New South Wales

The Victorians tended to take a brutally unsentimental attitude to such things, as the old music hall song suggests:

They’re moving grandpa’s grave to build a sewer,
They’re moving it regardless of expense.
They’re taking his remains, to put in 9-inch drains,
To irrigate some rich bloke’s residence.

In Australia, Flinders is one of the best-known naval explorers, so it’s a bit startling to find a 2014 article in the (English) Guardian announcing the erection of a statue at Australia House ‘to the most famous navigator you’ve probably never heard of’.

I don’t suppose many people these days read Ernestine Hill, My Love Must Wait (1941), a fictionalized life of Matthew Flinders, but when it was first published it was a bestseller, and it was commonly set as a text book in Australian schools. The Esplanade at the end of my street in Sandgate was renamed Flinders Parade at about this time, and Flinders became a common place name. He shares with only James Cook, John Monash, Charles Darwin and Charles Sturt, the honour of having a university named after him.

It helps to have a cat, too.

To the memory of Trim

One of my favourite Flinders stories comes from early in his exploring career. In 1798, he and Bass sailed south to circumnavigate Tasmania. This was an important matter: if the southernmost tip of the continent was a separate island, it wasn’t covered by Cook’s original claim of possession. On their way back, they stopped somewhere along the Ninety Mile Beach, where they came across a group of Aboriginal people feasting on a beached whale.

Soon afterward a man made his appearance. He was of middle age, unarmed, except for a whaddie, or wooden scimitar, and came up to us seemingly with careless confidence. We made much of him, and gave him some biscuit; and he in turn presented us with a piece of gristly fat, probably of whale. This I tasted; but watching an opportunity to spit it out when he should not be looking, I perceived him doing precisely the same thing with our biscuit. (Matthew Flinders, 7 October 1798)

I like the parallel revulsion of the two men towards each others’ gifts of food – whale blubber and ship’s biscuit – and their equal politeness in trying to spit them out discreetly.

Flinders married Ann Chappelle in 1801, intending to take her out to Australia with him on his next voyage of exploration. It was not uncommon for the captain’s wife to sail with her husband, though it was controversial. (Jane Austen covers the debate in Persuasion, set just a few years later.) In this case the Admiralty chastised Flinders for taking Ann aboard, and she was not allowed to go out with him. On his way home from New South Wales, the French Governor of Mauritius detained Flinders there, and it was 9 years before Ann saw her husband again.

By then she was 40. In 1812 she gave birth to their only child, a daughter, Anne. Flinders managed to get A voyage to Terra Australis published just before he died in 1814, but the book had less impact than he would have hoped, because the record of the Baudin expedition had already been published. (François Péron Voyage de découvertes aux Terres Australes (1807; English translation 1809).

Flinders’ widow and daughter lived on in genteel poverty. For years they pleaded with the British Government for a pension in acknowledgement of Flinders’ work and early death, but as the Guardian article suggests, Flinders was forgotten in his native land. It was only in 1853 that the two colonial governments of New South Wales and Victoria agreed to grant an annuity of £100 per year to the Flinders family.

Ann Flinders had died the year before. That same year, at the age of 40, her daughter Anne married an engineer, William Petrie. Like her mother, she had one child, a son, born at an age – 41 – when childbirth was very dangerous for older women. She named him William after his father, and Matthew Flinders after her own father.

Anne was a scholar of sorts. In 1845, under the pseudonym Philomathes, she published a book, The Connexion between Revelation and Mythology Illustrated and Vindicated, which shows her fascination with Egyptian mythology. She also wrote essays for periodicals under the initials “X.Q.’ Her husband William Petrie was a scientist who took an early interest in electricity and magnetism, and is credited with inventing an early arc light. These two scholarly, aging parents taught their only son at home, using the colonial annuity of £100 per year to enhance his education. He was interested in science and mathematics, but also fascinated, as his parents were, by Egypt. He first went out there in 1880.

He didn’t use his first names, so few people know of the connection, but he eventually became a good deal more famous than his eminent grandfather, in Britain at least. Perhaps there’s an irony in the fact that if archaeologists dig up the graveyard in St James’s Gardens, they will do so according to scientific principles of archaeology that were first laid down by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie in his ‘small but epoch-making book’, Methods and Aims in Archaeology (1904).

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