A History Lesson on Matthew Flinders with Ruth TaylorJanuary 18th, 2021
We spoke with Ruth Taylor, the author of the wonderful tale, The Cat and the Captain. Ruth told us all about her inspiration for the creation of this story all about Matthew Flinders and his loyal feline friend, Trim.
If it hadn’t been so historic, such an eloquent and engaging story I wouldn’t have felt the compulsion to write about it. The explorer and cartographer Matthew Flinders’ hand-written account of his pet cat, Trim, dated 1806: A Biographical Tribute to the Memory of Trim, determined its own destiny. As a cat lover the story miaowed at me to reveal itself to a new generation.
My day job was G.P., my holiday job: ship’s doctor. I was looking for a history of quarantine in the Caird archive library of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for the memoir I was writing about my experiences on board ship. There wasn’t one. I deduced that the original job of sanitizing ships must have fallen to cats, who were taken on board from time immemorial to kill the mice and rats that inevitably found their way to sacks of food. I asked the librarian for information. This is when Flinders’ story of Trim was placed into my ungloved hands. My heart missed a beat. Surely this wasn’t the very Matthew Flinders who circumnavigated Australia and gave it its name; the man who inspired the massive Flinders Street Railway Station in Melbourne, where I grew up; whose bronze statue stood outside St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne leaning forward with deep imperative on the prow of a boat being dragged ashore by two muscular seamen? But it was.
In January 2019 I was ready to submit my memoir when Matthew Flinders’ remains were unexpectedly unearthed behind Euston Railway Station during excavations for the HS2 rail line. It hit the news. The grave had been missing for 160 years. His bones were passed to an osteo-archaeologist for analysis about his last illness, his medications and diet. A plan was hatched for him to be re-interred in his home town of Donington, Lincolnshire, followed by a memorial service in Lincoln Cathedral in July 2020. Dignitaries would be present; the Royal Navy; Flinders’ descendants and descendants of other people touched by his life. There would be a fanfare.
I had to crack on. Half a dozen biographies have been written about Flinders, but the best researched and written, by far, is Miriam Estensen’s. I studied it and Flinders’ journals. Took notes. Books on Lincolnshire history, scurvy, diseases and cures of the day, seamen’s lives in the 18th century, navigation techniques, conditions in the penal colony, Aboriginal people’s experience of the first Europeans all passed through my hands. Where was the research to end? What to put in and what to leave out?
I started steeping myself in Flinders’ life, visiting St Mary’s Church in Donington where the Flinders’ family had worshipped, been baptised and buried. A local expert, Alan James, has mounted a comprehensive display of Flinders’ life in the church. I followed up with more Lincolnshire towns, St Thomas’s Church in Woolwich where Flinders’ wife, Ann, was buried and Euston where Flinders’ and Trim’s statues stand. Flinders is a location-specific story.
Rushing to finish The Cat and the Captain I was just in time to witness the pandemic prevent Flinders’ re-interment. However, the publishing went ahead on 31 August 2020. Maybe Flinders will be re-interred in 2022. Covid is in charge.
The Cat and the CaptainWill Matthew Flinders find fame and fortune?
This intrepid explorer circumnavigated and charted the coast of Australia between 1802 - 1803 accompanied by his mischievous but faithful cat, Trim.
Faced with a leaking ship, stormy seas, sickness and an unknown land, Matthew and Trim overcome every obstacle until they are shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef.
Their adventures don’t stop there.
After surviving the shipwreck they sail to Mauritius where they are imprisoned by the French as spies.
What will become of them?
Tags: author, children, history, kids, publishing
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