A Faithful Spouse
'Write to me constantly; write me pages and volumes. Tell me the dress thou wearest, tell me they dreams, anything, so do but talk to me and of thyself. When thou art sitting at thy needle and alone, then think of me, my love, and write me the upppermost of thy thoughts. Fill me half a dozen sheets, and send them when thou canst. Think only, my dearest girl upon the gratification which the perusal and reperusal fifty times repeated will afford me, and thou will write me something or other every day. Adieu, my dearest, best love.'
Matthew Flinders, Letter to Ann Flinders (December 1801)
Born on 21 November 1772, Ann Chappelle had been part of Matthew Flinders' circle of friends before he sailed for New South Wales on Reliance in 1795. He had not seen her for over five years, though he had written to her and named a mountain and an island after her in Bass Strait. He met with her, just once, in January 1801 before they married a few months later on 17 April.
Flinders had promised to take her on Investigator with him. He could not redeem this pledge. After three months of marriage, Matthew and Ann would not see each other again for over nine years. Ann's 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.
As Catharine Retter and Shirley Sinclair explained: 'Ann destroyed her own letters to her husband, considering them too personal for others to read after her death, his were too precious to dispose of, even at the risk of others reading them at some later date.'
After he was released from prison on Mauritius, Matthew Flinders sailed into Portsmouth on 24 October 1810. He went to London by coach and was reunited with Ann the next day. He had not seen her for over nine years. His remaining time was spent with Ann at several rented lodgings in London while he prepared his charts for publication and wrote the accompanying narrative. On 1 April 1812, the couple had a daughter, Anne.
Flinders' problem with 'gravel', stones in the bladder, returned. The general diet of the time – as well as the more limited, low-fibre diets associated with long periods at sea – is thought to have aggravated this. He had suffered intermittently from this for 20 years but the last months of his life were spent in great discomfort and the associated infection killed him. Yet, he continued to work, with Rob Mundle describing how he spent 'hours editing and proofreading his manuscripts, and checking his charts for accuracy. He applied the same dedication to this project that he had as an explorer – all was in the quest for perfection.'
His book A Voyage to Terra Australis, with accompanying atlas – the summary of his life's work – was published on 18 July 1814. Flinders died the next day (although he had seen a copy earlier).
This story draws on the exhibition, 'Matthew Flinders: The Ultimate Voyage' (Paul Brunton, Curator), presented at the State Library of New South Wales from 1 October 2001 to 13 January 2002.
Brown, Anthony J. and Gillian Dooley (Eds) (2005), Matthew Flinders Private Journal: From 17 December 1803 at Isle of France to 10 July 1814 at London. Adelaide: The Friends of the State Library of South Australia.
Brunton, Paul with Arthur Easton (2001), Matthew Flinders: The Ultimate Voyage. Sydney: State Library of New South Wales.
Flinders, Matthew ([c. 1803-1810] 1977), Trim. Illustrations by Annette Macarthur-Onslow. Sydney: William Collins Publishers.
Mundle, Rob (2016), Flinders: The Man Who Mapped Australia. Sydney: Hachette.
Retter, Catharine and Shirley Sinclair (Eds) (1999), Letters to Ann: The Love Story of Matthew Flinders and Ann Chappelle. Sydney: HarperCollins.
Scott, Ernest (1914), The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, RN. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.