top of page

Matthew Flinders

Updated: Feb 19

Lieutenant Matthew Flinders was the first English explorer to set foot on the Redcliffe Peninsula.

Flinders was born in the English town of Donington in Lincolnshire in 1774. His first voyage to New South Wales and his first trip to Port Jackson was in 1795, as a midshipman aboard HMS Reliance, carrying the newly governor of New South Wales, Captain John Hunter. On this voyage he quickly established himself as a fine navigator and cartographer, and became friends with the ship's surgeon George Bass who was three years his senior and had been born 11 miles from Donnington.

After they reached Sydney in September 1795 the two, individually and in company, made several surveys, some of them in a small boat called Tom Thumb which Bass had brought with him from England. At that time it was thought that Tasmania, then called Van Diemen's Land, was part of the Australian mainland, but Bass and Flinders came to the conclusion, independently, that this might not be the case. Governor Hunter was interested in their theory and gave them the chance of testing it, and on 7 October 1798 they sailed from Port Jackson in the sloop Norfolk. After discovering the existence of what was later named Bass Strait, they accomplished the first circumnavigation of Tasmania. This was the last exploration the two made together and Bass returned to England. In 1803 Bass disappeared on a trading voyage to Peru.

Among his considerable achievements, Flinders was the first white man to circumnavigate Australia. He is also credited as being the first person to utilise the name Australia to describe the entirety of that continent including Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), a title he regarded as being "more agreeable to the ear" than previous names such as Terra Australis.

In 1799 Flinders' request to explore the coast north of Port Jackson was granted and the sloop Norfolk was assigned to him. Bass had by this stage returned to Britain and in his place Flinders recruited his brother Samuel 16 (now Midshipman on HMS Reliance), Bungaree a Port Jackson aborigine and Flinder's cat Trim.

He was also given a timekeeper from HMS Reliance for this voyage. They sailed out of Port Jackson on 8 July 1799 to chart the area that Cook had done 29 years earlier. They departed on 8 July 1799 and arrived in Moreton Bay six days later.

The trip was hampered by a leaking boat a few days out (constructed from Norfolk Pine which despite Cook's recommendation

for its use turned out to be quite unsuitable for shipbuilding) and several encounters with aborigines. Despite detailed sketch

surveys, three major rivers were missed, Clarence, Brisbane and Burnett. Unlike English rivers clearly running into the sea many Australian river outlets only give this appearance during the wet season when the rivers are high and at other times of the year resemble estuaries (tidal marshes), sand banks and mangroves which makes their appearance far less obvious.

He described their inland expedition to one of the Glass House Mountains and recorded differences with the aborigines he encountered and different animals such as dugongs.

Arriving at what is now called Redcliffe on the 17th July 1799 and anchored offshore.

The following was noted in his journal for Wednesday 17th 1799:

"Wednesday. 17th At daylight on Wednesday morning we again weighed and turned up with a southerly breeze, as long as the tide lasted. At half past ten oClock, anchored one mile and a half off a point that has red cliffs in it, in three and half fathoms. A little West of this Point I observed the latitude with the artifical horizon to be 27°:16’:25" south. The bight which lays round the Point, is shoal with a muddy bottom; the land is low, but not so sandy as in the neighbourhood of the river. The rocks are a strongly impregnated Iron stone, with some small pieces of granite & chrystal scattered about the shore. From Red Cliff Point we pulled over to a green head about two miles to the westward, round which the bight is contracted into a river like form, but the greatest part of it is dry at low water. The wood that we collected at high water mark for our fire, proved to be Cedar and of a fine Grain.

A light sea breeze coming from the northward in the afternoon on our return on board, we got the Sloop underweigh, steering our course SEbS; the water gradually shoaled to two fathoms, and the breeze dying away at the same time, we pulled to the north eastward with the sweeps into two and a half and then anchored for the night upon a soft muddy bottom. The extreme near Cape Moreton now bore N21°E, and the farthest connected land now visible on the same side of the bay [Moreton Bay], ENE, which is not far from the latitude of the entrance from Moreton Bay: the shore to the S:W: was four or five miles distant."

We know the headland two miles to the west as Clontarf Point. There he found an indigenous (Ningi Ningi) humpy and observed tracks of dogs (dingoes) kangaroos and emus on the beach. Flinders took away with him a large aboriginal fishing net and in its place left a tomahawk.

He mapped Green Island, Morton Bay and Pumicestone River which is in fact a passage between Bribie Island and the mainland and returned to Port Jackson on 20 August 1799.

In England, Flinders, who had been promoted to lieutenant while in Australia, was appointed to command the sloop Investigator. With his cousin John Franklin aboard he sailed in July 1801 to Australia where, between December 1801 and May 1802, he surveyed much of the Great Bight, including St Vincent's Gulf (where Adelaide now stands), Bass Strait, and Port Phillip (site of Melbourne), before reaching Port Jackson (Sydney). In July 1802 he continued the circumnavigation of Australia in his ship, now worn out and leaky, surveying parts of the Great Barrier Reef and the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, before sailing anticlockwise around the continent, returning to Port Jackson on 9 June 1803. It was a voyage of great privation for all aboard and resulted in the loss of many of Flinders's crew through scurvy and other causes, and damaged his own health.

Besides his extensive surveys, Flinders made many scientific studies, particularly regarding the deviation of the magnetic compass caused by the iron components of his ship, which were to prove of the greatest importance; the compensating bars placed in the binnacle of a magnetic compass are still named after him. With the massive collection of material and papers arising out of his voyages, he set off for England as a passenger, but was first of all wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, and was then made a prisoner of war when the schooner he was travelling in stopped at the French island of Mauritius in December 1803. This misfortune was caused because his French passport, which should have protected him, was made out specifically for the Investigator and not for the ship he was on. His captivity lasted until 1811 and his health deteriorated further during his detention, but on his return to England he nevertheless managed to compile his splendid account of his accomplishments, A Voyage to Terra Australis, dying on the day that it was published.

Flinders died, aged 40yrs, on 19 July 1814 from kidney disease, at his London home at 14 London Street, later renamed Maple Street and now the site of the BT Tower.

On 23 July 1814, he was interred in the burial ground of St James's Church, Piccadilly, which was located some distance from the church, beside Hampstead Road, Camden, London.

The burial ground was in use from 1790 until 1853. By 1852 the location of the grave had been forgotten due to alterations to the burial ground.

The grave was located in January 2019 by archaeologists. His coffin was identified by its well-preserved lead coffin plate.


His devoted wife – Ann Flinders:

Born on 21 November 1772 and thus 16 months older than Matthew, Ann Chappelle had been part of Flinders’ circle of friends before he sailed for New South Wales on Reliance in 1795. He had not seen her now for over five years, though he had written to her and named a mountain and an island after her in Bass Strait. He had only one meeting with her, in January 1801, before they married on 17 April that year. Flinders had promised to take her on Investigator with him. He was unable to redeem this foolhardy pledge. After three months of marriage, Matthew and Ann would not see each other again for over nine years.

Ann’s later letters to him deplore his decision to undertake the voyage and desert her. He answers firmly that there was no alternative as, unless he could add to his finances, there simply was not the money available to live decently in England.

Flinders was finally reunited with Ann in London in October 1810. He spent his remaining years with Ann living at a number of rented lodgings in London while he prepared his charts for publication. He died in July 1814 while Ann lived for a further 40 years, dying in 1852, aged 80. One daughter, Anne, was born to Matthew and Ann, in April 1812.


HM Sloop Norfolk:

In service: 1798-1800 Vessel type: 16 ton, one masted Sloop

Location: Norfolk Island and Australia's Eastern coast.

HM Sloop Norfolk was the first sea-faring ship built on Norfolk Island, a small settlement located 1,673 km from Sydney. As Norfolk Island’s population included convicts, the shipbuilding project was in blatant disregard of a command issued by Governor John Hunter. However, low supplies and disgruntled settlers convinced the Island’s new Lieutenant-Governor, Captain John Townson, to approve the project. Constructed from local Norfolk Pine, the small one-masted sloop successfully arrived in Sydney Cove in June 1798.

However, victory was short-lived as Governor Hunter immediately confiscated the vessel. Refitted, HM sloop Norfolk was then used by Lieutenant Matthew Flinders and Mr George Bass for their circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land, confirming the landform was a separate island. Two years after its maiden voyage, in service as a government cargo ship transporting provisions and grain, she was bound for Port Jackson laden with bushels of wheat from the Hawkesbury River Settlement when seized by a gang of fifteen convicts.

This piratical seizure was reported to Governor Hunter who issued a general order on the 9th of October 1800, wherein he stated, “On this occasion the Governor finds it necessary to fore warn any convicts from attempting such a scheme in future, as nothing but inevitable destruction awaits those who have seized the Norfolk”.

Planning to travel through the Dutch settlements in the Moluccas then onto China, the convicts sailed north and ran into a storm, seeking shelter in the Hunter River the runaways only succeeded in wrecking her onshore at a place infamously called ‘Pirate Point’ until 1862 when it became known as Stockton.

Of the fifteen convicts who wrecked the small sloop on Pirates’ Point (Stockton Peninsula), seven were ironically sent to Norfolk Island as punishment. The very place the ship had illegally been built! Made in secret, confiscated, stolen and finally wrecked, the little sloop Norfolk had a short, but important story.

Mysteriously, no traces of the original Norfolk have ever been found.

Full-scale Norfolk replica at the Bass and Flinders Museum. George Town Tasmania.

Model of HM sloop Norfolk, NIM7082, Created by Col Gibson in 2007



Matthew Flinders is listed on the wall of the Redcliffe Wall of Fame:

A collection of portrait and information honouring the achievements of individuals who have influenced and shaped Redcliffe. The collection is in the Jetty Arcade at 139-141 Redcliffe Parade.

For a complete list of people who appear on the wall click on the following blog post:

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page