Posted on Friday 25 January 2019
Archaeologists excavating a London burial ground on the site of the new High Speed 2 (HS2) station being built near Euston have identified the remains of the famed naval navigator and explorer, Captain Matthew Flinders.
Born in 1774 in Donington, Lincolnshire, the son of a surgeon (also Matthew Flinders) began his naval career at age 15 when he joined the Royal Navy. He served on a number of ships including HMS Alert, Scipio, and Bellerophen as well as HMS Providence, which at the time was under the command of another well-known naval captain, William Bligh.
1795 saw Captain Flinders’ first voyage to Port Jackson, New South Wales. Serving as a Midshipman on HMS Reliance he established himself as an exemplary cartographer and navigator. In 1798, now a Lieutenant and in command of the sloop Norfolk, he discovered the passage between mainland Australia and Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania). The passage reduced the voyage from England by several days and was named the “Bass Strait” in honour of his close friend George Bass, the ship’s surgeon with whom he served with on Reliance.
Flinders’ continued his work which had now drawn the attention of Sir Joseph Banks, an influential scientist of his day. Banks, using his influence with Earl Spencer, convinced the Admiralty that an expedition of the New Holland was needed. The Admiralty agreed and in January 1801 Flinders was given command of HMS Investigator and promoted to Commander the following month.
It was during this voyage that Flinders’ would become the first known person to circumnavigate the entire coast of Australia, some 13,909 nautical miles (16,006 miles/25,760km) and its confirmation as a continent. He is also credited with giving Australia its name; although he was not the first to use the term it was popularised by his work.
Flinders belatedly returned to England in October 1810, after a trip besieged with ill-fortune. His first ship, HMS Porpoise, was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef and the second, HMS Cumberland, was in such poor condition he had to put in at the French-controlled Isle de France (now Mauritius) for repairs in 1803 where he was imprisoned until his parole in June 1810.
Captain Flinders died aged 40 as a result of poor health on the 19 July 1814, the day after his work, “A Voyage to Terra Australis” was published. Other less known pieces of his work include the biography of Trim, his ship’s cat who appears to have had his own intriguing adventures.
Captain Flinders was buried in St James’ burial ground, Camden, which in 1878 became St James’ Gardens. By this time the location his grave had already been lost, a result of his headstone being moved following the expansion of Euston Station. This was partly built over the former cemetery in 1840 with rumours that his grave may lie under one of the station’s platforms.
Ironically it was a further expansion of Euston station, needed for the new HS2 rail line that would give archaeologists the opportunity to re-discover his grave. Buried alongside 61,000 other individuals the task seemed almost impossible but archaeologists were able to identify his coffin by the well preserved lead breastplate placed on his coffin. They now plan to study the remains of those buried on the site giving an invaluable insight into the lives of those in London during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Once the study is completed Captain Flinders will be reinterred at a new location yet to be decided along with the remaining buried population. These include Bill “The Black Terror” Richmond, a slave born in New York who would become a free Londoner and well known bare-knuckle fighter who was favoured by King George IV and also taught Lord Byron sparring. Other notable graves include those of Lord George Gordon, a religious and political activist known for his role in the anti-Catholic “Gordon Riots” of 1780 and James Christie, a British naval officer who would later become an auctioneer and would found Christie’s auction house in 1766.
Captain Flinders legacy continues to this day with over 100 landmarks named after him in Australia and a statue of him and Trim which was unveiled at Euston station on the bicentenary of his death in 2014.