Captain Matthew Flinders with the Royal Navy may be credited with the first circumnavigation of Australia and its namesake, but the famously unlucky Royal Naval man lived a life of unfortunate events. For starters, not a single person has knowingly visited his grave in the last 150 years simply because nobody knew where it was – until now.
Archaeologists working on a light rail project in London have identified the grave of Captain Flinders by a lead breastplate placed on top of his coffin, along with the remains of 40,000 other humans once interred in St. James burial ground in Euston.
“Given the number of human remains at St. James’s, we weren’t confident that we were going to find him. We were very lucky that Captain Flinders had a breastplate made of lead meaning it would not have corroded. We’ll now be able to study his skeleton to see whether life at sea left its mark and what more we can learn about him,” said Helen Wass, HS2 Head of Heritage, in a statement.
Captain Flinders is famously known as the commander of the HMS Investigator. Having first set sail in 1801 on a mission to chart the coastline of Australia, he successfully navigated around the entire coast and subsequently became the first person to sail around the country and confirm it was, in fact, a continent. But the story doesn’t start there.
After having just married his wife Ann, Flinders was ordered to set sail and leave her behind – for nine years. Upon hearing of his father’s death and Ann’s serious illness, he set sail for England only to be shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef. (Before you laugh, that happened a lot.) Flinders then rowed back to Sydney, picked up two other ships, and rescued all the survivors, including his brother. He then set off for England but was forced to stop in Mauritius for repairs, not knowing that Britain and France were at war. Here, he was detained as a prisoner for more than six years.
Ultimately, Flinders made it back to Britain and fathered a daughter with Ann. Unfortunately, he died just two years after in 1814 – the day after his book and maps were published – and buried in the St James burial ground where Euston station would later be built. It was here that in the 1840s his headstone was removed as part of an expansion and his remains lost. For years, an urban legend held that Captain Flinders was buried under Platform 15.
Nevertheless, the discovery of his remains helps place his important role in history.
“The discovery of Captain Matthew Flinders’s remains is an incredible opportunity for us to learn more about the life and remarkable achievements of this British navigator, hydrographer and scientist. Captain Matthew Flinders put Australia on the map due to his tenacity and expertise as a navigator and explorer,” said Wass.
Given the breadth of socioeconomic backgrounds, archaeologists say further analysis of the graves will help paint a picture of what London life was like during the 18th and 19th centuries.