Australia in the Fenlands: Links with Lincolnshire [by Mary E. Fullerton, 1 March 1930]

[Editor: An article by Mary E. Fullerton. Published in The Argus, 1 March 1930.]

Australia in the Fenlands.

Links with Lincolnshire.

By Mary E. Fullerton.

London, Jan. 2. — The visitor to the fenlands of Lincolnshire does well to make the old town of Boston the starting point of his tour. Boston is a place of much charm and it has a history teeming with romance. Among its natives of fame the town claims two such diverse personages as Fox, the martyrologist, and the poetess Jean Ingelow. In the basement of the old Guildhall are still to be seen the cells in which the Pilgrim Puritans were imprisoned alter having been captured off the east coast while attempting to flee from the country by way of Holland. The port of Bolton for long was second only to the Port of London in all England. The era of prosperity lasted till the discovery of America took the trade westward to Liverpool. Boston has still a port, but its old sea trade is shrunken. In modern times its prosperity is founded upon the land rather than the sea. Its face to the marvellously rich fens, its back to the sea, the old town stands firm in new prosperity.

All through the fens are artificial waterways which served the double purpose originally of transporting freight and of draining the country. Now they are little used for transport, and the land is well drained. Never have I seen anywhere finer root crops than the potatoes and mangolds harvested on the fens last September after a season of drought and dearth in other parts of England. The more recent history of the draining of the fenlands is connected with a man who was among the early explorers of Australia, Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist with Cook when the British flag was hoisted at Botany Bay. He introduced the mango and the breadfruit into the West Indies from Tahiti. Bank’s work in Lincolnshire was of another order, though not less useful. For 41 years he was Recorder of Boston, and his name is associated with the work of rescuing the “drowned” fenlands from the sea. One of the last portions of Lincolnshire to be drained was about the Witham, near Boston. In this Sir Joseph Banks assisted. Bostonians insist that much of the success of the undertaking was due to Banks, whose genius was varied. Banks also organised an important expedition which surveyed and explored the submarine forest that lies between Skegness and Mablethorpe. Boston claims Banks as one of her finest citizens. His portrait hangs in a conspicuous place in the town’s old guildhall.

Franklin’s birthplace.

From within a short distance of Boston came three other men, natives of Lincolnshire, who have written their names on Australia’s history — Sir John Franklin, Matthew Flinders, and George Bass. In Spilsby, his native town, just where the level lands begin to use into the more English-like hills and dales, their stands in the market-place a fine bronze statue of Franklin. The explorer is depicted looking out, telescope under arm, as it were over the icy world of the Arctic. Just across the square is the house in which Franklin was born, now a stationer’s shop. The upper rooms are occupied by the proprietor and his family. The windows of the room in which the explorer was born look out upon the square and the statue. Members of the Franklin family are still living in the neighbourhood, and in the church are many tablets to various members, including one to Sir John Franklin, erected by his wife. The explorer was not the only one of the family to attain fame. A brother was a distinguished Judge of the Supreme Court of Madras. Not less honoured and remembered in Australia, especially since Professor Ernest Scott’s contribution to Australian history has given him his proper place in our annals, is Matthew Flinders. Flinders came from Donington — spelt variously with one “n” and with two — a small town a few miles from Boston. The place was once renowned for its flax trade. It was a wet fen in those days, and it was also famous for its geese, which were plucked five times a year for their quills. At present Donington is the centre of a rich farming district, a place of comfortable homes, well-stored barns, and quiet ways. From any one of the many farmhouses which I passed approaching from Boston, might have issued George Eliot’s Mrs. Poyser, whose prototype “belonged” to that legion.

Flinders’s people were surgeons and apothecaries for generations. When not of the medical profession, they were sailors. The navy list still contains the name. The present vicar of Donington is the 51st in succession to the pastorate. In the old church there is a group of tablets to members of the Flinders family, ranging over many generations. The central tablet of the group is in memory of its most famous member. It bears a long inscription, setting forth that Matthew Flinders “died, aged forty, after having circumnavigated the globe twice, having made discoveries on the coast of Terra Australis in 1801, after which he was made prisoner by the French.” Flinders died on the day of the publication of his story of his discoveries “on the coast of Terra Australis.” In the churchyard at Donington lie many of the explorer’s ancestors. Matthew Flinders was buried in a cemetery in Hampstead, London. This graveyard was much disturbed during some changes, and the site of Flinders’s grave was obliterated. The people of Donington know nothing of his achievements.

Bass’s ancestry.

To find the tiny hamlet from which came Flinders’s friend and fellow-explorer, George Bass, was not so easy as it was to reach Donington. Aswarby stands somewhat aloof. It is not a village. There are only the church, the vicarage, and the Manor House — no inn or public place where the infrequent traveller may get refreshment. The nearest town is Sleaford, five miles distant. The population numbers fewer than one hundred, most of whom are in the employment of the people of the Manor House. I was allowed to look over the church register for the hundred years covering the period of the sojourn of the Bass family in that part of Lincolnshire. The old volume is rich in records of the family. Marriages, baptisms, or burials are on almost every page, coming down to the final entry of the baptism of George, son of George and Sarah Bass, “Febry ye 3rd, 1771.” Soon after that time the whole family left the neighbourhood, probably when the future explorer went to Boston to be apprenticed to Dr. Francis, a surgeon of that town. Like the Flinders family, the Bass family were surgeons from father to son. The little place, so sleepy and remote, which has made its contribution to Australian exploration is a lovely little corner of the world. Though Flinders and Bass lived but a few miles apart they did not know each other till in later years they meet and became friends and brothers in adventure. No one in Aswarby till my visit there knew the name of Bass. What I told of his exploits caused a ripple of enthusiasm. The vicar asked me to say something of Australia, and of Bass’s exploits there, to a class of children assembled at the vicarage. With a map and a pointer I was able to give them some idea of the voyages made, and of the dangers braved by George Bass.

The tragic end of George Bass — the actual manner of it only to be conjectured — cuts short tradition and history concerning him here as in Australia. He rests in some far strange land. His was an old Lincolnshire family. The county records show that as far back as 1333 there were Basses living in the parish of Wrangle, people of some substance, who were taxpayers. The family name survives on the female side. I lately visited the home of Dr. Bass Ricketts, of Hatch End, near London, whose mother was descended from George Bass’s family. There are still doctors in the family, and in the new generation young men qualifying for that profession. Dr. Bass Ricketts has no records or relics of the explorer, nor, so far as he knows, has any of the family. The young man going south was effectually lost to his people.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 1 March 1930, p. 6

Editor’s notes:
fen = low-lying flat swampy land, which has been drained of water (usually for agricultural purposes); a marsh

mangold = a root vegetable, Beta vulgaris, commonly grown as feed for cattle (also known as mangold wurzel, mangelwurzel, mangel, mangel beet, field beet, or fodder beet)

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