Only 26 Leaps to the other side of the world

Anna Dewis shares an unexpected legacy from our 26 Leaps project, and how her words are taking their own leap from Bloomsbury to Adelaide.

When the news of another fabulous 26 writing project popped into my inbox, I leapt at the chance (excuse the pun) to get involved. 26 Leaps combined Bloomsbury, one of my favourite parts of London, with Australia, a place I’ve visited and enjoyed twice. My task was to write about Matthew Flinders, an 18th century navigator who’d spent most of his short life on the high seas, exploring the far reaches of the known world.

Writing only 260 words about a man whose achievements were so vast was going to be my greatest leap. Flinders is lauded down under as the man who put Australia on the map. Inspired by the story of Robinson Crusoe, as a youngster he’d set his heart on a life at sea. One of his first voyages was with the infamous Captain Bligh; he later became a captain at just 27 years of age, sailing to the southern hemisphere to continue exploring the land that Cook had discovered just 30 years previously.

At that time, it was thought probable that New Holland (the west side of Australia) and New South Wales (the east side) were two separate land masses. Flinders proved that Tasmania was an island and produced its first map. He then circumnavigated the whole continent, proving that east and west were, in fact, part of one huge land mass. He called the land Australia and named many of places after his friends, family and fellow sailors. So accurate was his cartography that his maps of the Australian coastline were still in use fifty years ago.

Flinders’ professional achievements were marred by personal tragedy. Returning home to raise funds for further exploration, he was detained by the French on the island of Mauritius, separating him from his new wife, Anne, for nine years. On his return to England, he died of kidney disease, at just 40 years of age, probably precipitated by his long arduous years at sea, dogged by disease and long periods without fresh water. He was buried close to Euston Station. It’s important to remember that while at home, the name Flinders is relatively unknown, overshadowed as it is by Cook and Bligh, in Australia, it’s everywhere. Flinders Ranges, Flinders Peak, Flinders Bay, Flinders Street Station – more than 100 geographical sites and places today bear his name.

Earlier this year, Flinders’ remains were discovered during excavations for HS2. This has kick-started renewed interest in Flinders’ achievements and a long-overdue statue has been erected outside Euston Station. Following the discovery of his remains, the South Australian government has sought permission for them to be reinterred in Adelaide Cathedral. However, Flinders’ descendants have now decided, quite rightly, that they will be reinterred in the village of his birth, Donington, Lincs. It might not have his remains but Adelaide Cathedral is currently planning a special Flinders memorial and permanent exhibition and has requested the breastplate from the coffin as one of its main features. Which brings me to my involvement.

As part of my research, I’d spoken to Matthew Flinders’ direct descendant, John Flinders, and, completing my 260 words, as a matter of courtesy, I’d forwarded my piece to him. He was very happy with the result and shared it with a number of historians and other Flinders campaigners, including Bill Muirhead, Agent General for South Australia. Bill was involved in the campaign to get the Euston Station statue erected and is passionate about Flinders and his legacy. ‘I’m always amazed that he is the greatest English explorer that no one here (in the UK) has ever heard of. In Australia, he’s a household name – a truly great man.’ On seeing my words, Bill emailed to say he wanted to engrave and display my words as part of the cathedral memorial. Obviously, I’m delighted with this news and, as we stand today, I’m waiting to hear if the cathedral has secured the breastplate from Flinders’ family and how the memorial plans are progressing. Who’d have thought that a few words written about a long forgotten navigator could go half way around the world? Watch this space….

Anna Dewis

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