Captain Matthew Flinders (1774–1814) joined the navy at age 15 determined to explore the world. He served as a midshipman under Captain William Bligh on a voyage to Tahiti and saw action against the French, before sailing for New South Wales to map sections of its coastline. In 1798–99 Lieutenant Flinders accompanied George Bass on a circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), proving it to be an island.
Flinders was promoted in February 1801 to command the Investigator on a survey of more of the Australian coastline. His instructions included the ‘Unknown Coast’, part of what is now South Australia, from the Great Australian Bight to the Victorian border.
He set sail from England on 18 July 1801, reaching Western Australia on 6 December. Flinders surveyed and named much of the South Australian coast between January and April 1802: Port Lincoln, Kangaroo Island, Gulf St Vincent, Spencer Gulf, Encounter Bay and Mount Lofty are just a few of the places named by him.
Matthew Flinders went on to circumnavigate Australia and to identify it as a continent. He died aged 40 on 19 July 1814, the day after his book A voyage to Terra Australis and accompanying Atlas were published. He left a wife and young child. South Australia's parliament would later refuse to join New South Wales and Victoria in granting Flinders’ widow, Ann, financial assistance.
Matthew Flinders is remembered in South Australia through various locations and institutions bearing his name, including Flinders Street in Adelaide, the suburb of Flinders Park, the Flinders Ranges, Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island, Flinders Highway from Port Lincoln to Ceduna, Flinders Island, the Flinders University of South Australia and the Flinders Medical Centre.
Several monuments have been erected in his honour; commencing with an obelisk on the summit of Stamford Hill near Port Lincoln in 1841. In 1902, during the centenary of his survey of South Australia, a tablet commemorating the meeting between Flinders and the French mariner Captain Nicolas Baudin was installed on the Bluff at Victor Harbor (Encounter Bay). Also dedicated that year were Flinders Column on Mount Lofty and the Flinders Monument at Kingscote on Kangaroo Island. However, a statue of Flinders was not installed in Adelaide until 1934.
Conception of the statue
In his annual report for 1914 Lord Mayor Alfred Simpson argued that the centenary of the death of Flinders was an opportune time to perpetuate his memory through the erection of a statue. He observed that Colonel William Light, Captain Charles Sturt and John McDouall Stuart had been honoured with a statue, but that the man who had mapped and named many features had been given no such honour.
Simpson’s suggestion was put aside during the First World War, but it was not entirely forgotten. In 1916 Lord Mayor Isaac Isaacs ‘urged that the matter of a memorial statue should be taken in hand as soon as practicable’ after the war had ended. Lord Mayor Charles Glover reiterated the need for a statue in his report of 1919, but it was not until two years later that the call was answered.
Community pressure in 1921
Early in 1921 the South Australian League of Empire, the Royal Geographical Society and the Navy League, led by the honorary secretary of the Adelaide branch of the Royal Society of St George, Fred Johns, called on the Adelaide City Council to erect a statue of Flinders. They were prompted by South Australia’s failure to secure Flinders’ original logbook because the state had no public representation of him. A senior South Australian public servant, Charles Edward Owen Smyth, had met with Flinders’ grandson, the eminent archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie, when in England in an attempt to secure the logbook. Petrie had informed him that it would go to the first Australian state to erect a monument to the explorer and navigator. Thus the logbook went to New South Wales because the bronze image of Flinders in Sydney by WR Colton was the first to be constructed. Society representatives were determined that Adelaide’s embarrassing neglect of Flinders should be rectified.
Lord Mayor Frank Moulden convened a public meeting in the Adelaide Town Hall on 29 April 1921 to discuss the societies’ proposal. It was endorsed in the following terms by an enthusiastic gathering:
Recognising the great achievement of Capt. Matthew Flinders, RN, in making known to the world the coast of the Australian continent, especially those of South Australia, which he virtually discovered, this public meeting of citizens affirms the desirableness of erecting in the City of Adelaide a national memorial to the illustrious navigator, and of raising a fund for this purpose. (Register, 30 April 1921)
General and executive committees were formed to progress the project. The executive committee included Adelaide notables such as Premier Henry Barwell, Lord Mayor Moulden, Chief Justice Sir George Murray, newspaper editor Sir William Sowden, geologist and explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, newspaper proprietor Sir Langdon Bonython and leading businessman Sir George Brookman. Fred Johns was appointed honorary secretary.
However, in spite of the efforts of Johns in particular, enthusiasm soon waned. The project was not revived until the erection of a statue in Melbourne in 1925 prompted angry letters to Adelaide newspapers and questions about what had happened to the funds collected previously. Johns died in 1932 and did not see the finished statue erected in 1934.
English sculptor Frederick Brook Hitch (1871–1957) was commissioned to design the statue. He had created the Adelaide memorial to Sir Ross Smith in 1927, which was greatly admired. Hitch based the likeness of Flinders on miniatures and portraits provided by Petrie. He depicted Flinders dressed in a naval uniform of the period, carrying his tools of trade and standing in a thoughtful pose with one bent arm resting on the other. In a letter to the South Australian committee Hitch stated that the statue represented Flinders ‘in a calm attitude, contemplating in a general sense the accomplishment of his work of exploration. The telescope and the sextant symbolised his calling of the sea, and the broken mast and strained cables at the back of the base of the statue his misfortunes by shipwreck’ (Advertiser, 13 April 1934).
The bronze statue was cast in England and erected on a granite plinth in the Prince Henry Gardens on the north side of North Terrace. Two bronze relief panels of his journeys were placed on the plinth. The western panel shows Flinders’ route around Australia. The panel on the eastern side shows a map of his explorations of South Australia and major locations named by him.
The statue was unveiled by Governor Sir Alexander Hore-Ruthven on 12 April 1934 in one of his last official acts as governor. Ten groups of sea scouts formed a guard of honour. The guests included Premier Richard Butler, members of his cabinet, High Commissioner Stanley Melbourne Bruce from London, Lord Mayor Jonathon Cain, military officials and committee members.