The lead breastplate of Captain Matthew Flinders, found during excavations of the St James’ burial ground in Euston. It reads: ‘Captn Matthew Flinders, RN. Died 19th July 1814. Aged 40 Years.’ (IMAGE: HS2, courtesy of MOLA Headland Infrastructure)

Archaeologists have identified the grave of the 19th-century explorer Matthew Flinders while excavating at Euston Station as part of the HS2 scheme.

The team from MOLA Headland Infrastructure was investigating the location of the St James’ burial ground ahead of the HS2 station that will be built there, when they found a coffin with a lead plate bearing the name of Captain Matthew Flinders – a Royal Navy explorer who led the first circumnavigation of Australia (accompanied by an Aboriginal man, Bungaree) in 1802.

Before his death on 19 July 1814, Captain Flinders made several significant voyages. As the commander of HMS Investigator he was the first person to sail around Australia, confirming it as a continent, and he is also credited with giving the country its name (although he was not the first person to use the term, his work popularised its use).

‘The discovery of Captain Matthew Flinders’ remains is an incredible opportunity for us to learn more about the life and remarkable achievements of this British navigator, hydrographer, and scientist,’ said Helen Wass, HS2 Head of Heritage. ‘Captain Flinders put Australia on the map due to his tenacity and expertise as a navigator and explorer.’

Although Flinders was known to have been buried in St James’ burial ground, at first archaeologists were not hopeful that his remains would be identified. In addition to having to locate his grave among some 40,000 burials, they were also aware that, when Euston Station expanded into part of the burial ground in the 1840s, it was thought that Flinders’ headstone had been removed and lost. There was even a popular urban legend that he was buried under Platform 15.

Helen added, ‘Given the number of human remains at St James’, we were not confident that we were going to find him. We were very lucky that Captain Flinders had a breastplate made of lead, meaning that it did not corrode. We will now be able to study his skeleton to see whether life at sea left its mark, and what more we can learn about him.’

Captain Flinders was not the only noteworthy person interred at St James’. Bill ‘the Black Terror’ Richmond – a slave born in New York, who become a free Londoner renowned for his bare-knuckle boxing, even teaching Lord Byron how to spar – is known to have been buried there, as well as Lord George Gordon, a political and religious activist famous for his part in the anti-Catholic ‘Gordon Riots’ of 1780, and James Christie, a British naval officer who founded Christie’s auction house in 1766.

Human remains from the cemetery – which interred people from all walks of life – will now undergo postexcavation analysis, which will hopefully reveal details about life and death in London during the 18th and 19th centuries. The remains, including those of Captain Flinders, will then be reinterred at a location to be announced.

This article appeared in CA 349.

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