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'Forgotten' Flinders and his Boston connections

The recent discovery of the grave in London of explorer Matthew Flinders has attracted national attention.

Despite being dubbed by the media as the forgotten explorer he is anything but forgotten in his home village of Donington.

But what may not be so well known locally is that he also had very strong connections with Boston. Flinders comes from a small group of explorers from this corner of Lincolnshire: Flinders, Banks, Bass, Franklin - their brave exploits shaped the modern world.

Archaeologists working on the HS2 high-speed rail project uncovered Flinders' coffin, complete with nameplate confirming his identity, in a burial ground in Euston.

There are now growing calls for him to be reburied in his home village of Donington, where there is a statue and a church museum dedicated to his memory.

Flinders is most closely linked with George Bass, of Boston. But they were more than just sailing companions.

They were sailor explorers and huge friends at a time when the world was on the edge of the new science of navigation, but still firmly planted in an era when many still believed the earth to be flat and the oceans inhabited by ship-eating sea monsters.

While Flinders was growing up in nearby Donington, Bass grew up in Boston, living with his mother in the High Street (a commemoration stone marks the spot). After his education at Boston Grammar School he was apprenticed to practice medicine.

But the sea was in his blood and at the age of 18 he was accepted in London as a member of the Company of Surgeons, and in 1794 he joined the Royal Navy as a surgeon.

Flinders and Bass arrived in Sydney in New South Wales on HMS Reliance on September 7, 1795.

Aboard the Reliance was a tiny boat - a mere eight footer with a five foot beam named the Tom Thumb by Bass - in which he and Flinders sailed out of Port Jackson to Botany Bay and explored the Georges River further upstream than had been done previously by colonists. Their reports on their return led to the settlement of Bankstown.

In March 1796 they embarked on a second voyage in a similar small boat, which they also called the Tom Thumb, travelling to Lake Illawarra, which they called Tom Thumb Lagoon. They discovered and explored Port Hacking.

In 1798 Bass and Flinders, in the sloop Norfolk, circumnavigated Van Diemen's Land. In the course of this voyage they found and explored the estuary of the Derwent River, where the city of Hobart would be founded, on the strength of Bass's report.

When the two returned to Sydney, Flinders recommended to Governor John Hunter that the passage between Van Diemen's Land and the mainland be called Bass Strait.

Flinders wrote: "This was no more than a just tribute to my worthy friend and companion for the extreme dangers and fatigues he had undergone, in first entering it in a whaleboat, and to the correct judgement he had formed, from various indications, of the existence of a wide opening between Van Diemen's Land and New South Wales."

Bass returned the honour, naming the town of Flinders in Australia after his friend.

In 1998 Flinders and Bass were honoured on a postage stamp issued by Australia Post and a plaque marking Bass's achievements was added to the Bass and Flinders memorial at Flinders in Australia.

Bass was an enthusiastic naturalist and botanist, and he forwarded some of his botanical discoveries to Sir Joseph Banks in London. Banks was to become Boston Corporation's Recorder and had his office in the Guildhall. When his own exploring days were over he was instrumental in encouraging, using his influence and in some cases funding himself the voyages of Flinders and Vancouver, from across The Wash in King's Lynn.

Flinders was born in Donington in 1774, where his father was the doctor. He attended Donington Free School, which was founded and endowed by Thomas Cowley in 1718 (now Thomas Cowley High School). He joined the Navy aged 15, embarking on what was to become an illustrious career.

He sailed with the infamous Captain Bligh, not long after he had been at the centre of the mutiny on the Bounty.

Later, aboard the Bellerophon, when Britain was at war with France, he saw action at the Battle of Brest in 1794. The Bellorophon suffered damage and had to be taken in tow after a topmast and sails had been shot away. Shortly after his war experiences, he returned to Donington.

In 1795 Flinders left for Terra Australis, as Australia was then known. He jotted "Australia" on a chart, and the rest is history.

Australia was still open to anyone who claimed it, and the French were on the way. With the support of Sir Joseph Banks, Flinders managed to persuade the Admiralty to finance a scientific expedition which he would lead.

Flinders chose the crew which was to explore Australia with him, and Banks selected the scientists and completed the details of the expedition.

John Franklin, Flinder's nephew from Spilsby, was also on board. He was an outstanding junior whose qualities later earned him a knighthood and the Governorship of Tasmania. He died in 1847, with the entire crews of the Erebus and the Terror, while attempting to find the North-West Passage in the Arctic.

The major achievement of Flinders' expedition was that Australia had been circumnavigated for the first time, the area around south Australia had been discovered the whole of its coastline was mapped. A number of places were named after Lincolnshire villages and towns familiar to Flinders (Cape Donington, Kirton, Spilsby Island, Boston Bay, Port Lincoln). Other newly-discovered places were also named after Flinders (Flinders Island, Flinders Loch), his wife and crew.

Flinders was impatient to return to England to report his findings even though he was ill. He left Sydney as a passenger on board the Porpoise, which hit a coral reef. Flinders and other survivors managed to retrieve food and possessions, including his invaluable papers, and sought refuge on a nearby sandbank. Flinders and a small crew then salvaged one of the ship's boats, which they named Hope, and sailed for help south to Sydney about 750 miles away. Thirteen days later they arrived tattered and worn, and within two months Flinders was back to save the rest of the men.

Once more he embarked for England on the 15,000 mile journey in the Cumberland. But the ship began to leak in heavy seas and was forced to seek haven in Mauritius. The island was controlled by the French who were still at war with Britain. Flinders was accused of being a spy and was thrown in prison for six and a half years, where his health deteriorated.

He was eventually released on the order of Napoleon, who had been impressed by his courage and skill as a navigator.

He had not remained idle in prison. He carried out experiments into navigation, and became the first to investigate the phenomenon of compass deviation caused by iron in ships. The result of his work was the invention of the Flinders Bar for ships' compasses which was an important breakthrough in navigation.
Flinders eventually reached England in October 1810, after being away from home for almost ten years. He prepared his charts and notes but died aged 40 the day after publication of his journal 'A Voyage to Terra Australis'.

He is revered in Australia where only Queen Victoria has more statues dedicated to her. Places, streets, educational establishments and parks are named after him. He is remembered in Donington where his statue stands in the Market Place. There is a Flinders Park in the village, there are memorials to him and his family in Donington Parish Church, where his baptism is recorded, and a glorious stained glass window honouring Flinders, Bass and Banks.

Bass, who may have ended his days as a feast for cannibals after being shipwrecked off the coast of New Zealand, and other explorers linked with Boston feature in the book Tales of the Guildhall, available at the Guildhall for £3.50.

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