Archaeologists working at a construction site near London’s Euston Station have uncovered the long-lost remains of Captain Matthew Flinders, solving an enduring mystery surrounding the final resting place of one of Australia’s most revered explorers.
Flinders, a British naval officer who in 1803 led the first expedition to circumnavigate Australia, and who is widely credited with giving the continent its name, died in 1814 and was buried in a London cemetery. The graveyard subsequently fell into neglect and was later redeveloped into a city park named St. James Gardens. The headstones were unceremoniously cleared away and the locations and identities of the graves, some 60,000 of them, were lost and forgotten.
A portion of the old burial ground became the site of the Euston railway station, and a popular urban myth sprang up that Flinders was buried under Platform 15.
That’s how things might have remained but for the mammoth HS2 high speed rail link being built to connect London with Birmingham. As part of that megaproject, St. James Gardens is being built over and the thousands of graves are being exhumed for reburial elsewhere.
"Finding and identifying Matthew Flinders' remains was like finding a needle in a haystack," says Helen Wass, the lead archaeologist for the HS2 project. "There are literally tens of thousands of graves here. We didn't have any idea where in the old churchyard he was meant to have been buried. It's an amazing stroke of luck."
With no headstones and no burial map of the old churchyard, the only way of identifying remains is if the coffin has a breastplate identifying the occupant. Only a small percentage of coffins unearthed so far have them, and those made of tin tended not to survive in the damp London soil, at least not well enough to be read. "If he hadn't have had a breastplate on his coffin or had one made of tin, we'd have dug him up and never known who it was," says Wass.
Fortunately, Captain Flinders' coffin had a breastplate made of highly durable lead. Its inscription and floral embellishments are still clearly legible after more than two hundred years in the ground.
Famous and forgotten
Flinders has long been a prominent name in Australian history. Although he never named a single feature for himself, an admiring posterity put his name on towns, streets, national parks, electoral districts, a mountain range, an island, and a university. "My Australian colleagues were stunned to learn that we were hoping to find the unmarked grave of Matthew Flinders," says Wass. "They more or less assumed he'd be buried somewhere like Westminster Abbey."
The discovery of Flinders remains has revived interest in a man who was once rated alongside Cook and Bligh as one of the preeminent navigators of the age, but has since been largely forgotten in his homeland.
Born in Lincolnshire in 1774, the son of a country doctor, Matthew Flinders was inspired as a boy by reading The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. He joined the Royal Navy at 15 seeking the same sort of swashbuckling adventure and found it in spades. He sailed to Tahiti and around the world with Captain Bligh, explored the unknown coasts of Tasmania and New South Wales in small boats, saw action in the Napoleonic War, led the first expedition to circumnavigate Australia in 1803, and on his way back to England was arrested as a spy by the French and spent six years in captivity in Mauritius.
By the time he returned to England in 1810 his health was broken. He barely finished his magnum opus, A Voyage to Terra Australis, in which he christened the continent "Australia". He died on July 19, 1814, one day after his book was published.
"Had he died in battle or on some far-flung shore, Flinders would be much better remembered today," says James Delgado, a marine archaeologist and historian. “Flinders and his peers, Cook and Bligh, opened the world by charting the seas. They’re part of a progression of surveyors and navigators who made possible the world we live in today."