25 Jan 2019

Body of British explorer who named Australia uncovered in archaeological dig

7:44 pm on 25 January 2019

The body of the British explorer and navigator Matthew Flinders has been found under a London train station - ending a 200-year mystery.

A stamp printed Australia, shows the portrait of Captain Matthew Flinders, circa 1966

Matthew Flinders, depicted on an Australian stamp from about 1966. Photo: 123rf

The body of explorer Matthew Flinders has been found at a burial site beneath Euston station in London, 216 years after he circumnavigated Australia.

His headstone had been removed from the grave site in the 1840s, and it was feared his remains had been lost.

His body was identified by archaeologists working on the controversial HS2 high-speed rail project, thanks to a well-preserved lead breastplate over his coffin.

"I was rather hoping that there would be a ship or an anchor - something that linked him to his nautical endeavours," Helen Wass, the project's heritage chief, said.

"But it's just so exciting to see that here and to know that this was his grave."

Flinders circumnavigated Australia's coastline between 1801 and 1803.

Among his crew on HMS Investigator was Indigenous sailor Bungaree, credited with being the first Australian to sail around the continent.

Flinders died at the age of 40, the day after the book detailing his journey, A Voyage to Terra Australis, was published.

He was interred in what was then St James's burial ground on 23 July, 1814.

For years, experts thought the explorer was buried under what became platform 15 at Euston station. But while Flinders' remains were found at Euston, they were not under platform 15.

"The records show that he was buried here. He died in a house not very far away from this site," Ms Wass said.

The cemetery at St James soon became overcrowded. Originally designed for 16,000 bodies, it quickly expanded to about 60,000.

Euston station expanded into the burial ground in the 1840s. Flinders' headstone was removed, and it was feared his remains had been lost forever.

Now, it's the site of one of the largest infrastructure projects in British history - the $101 billion HS2 rail link between London and Birmingham, which is due to start operations in December 2026.

As part of the painstaking project, a team of archaeologists and specialists are exhuming about 40,000 graves.

Many will never be identified, but the unearthing of the lead breastplate attached to Flinders' coffin confirmed the discovery of the British navigator.

"The archaeologists go through a very rigorous process, so once they identify a grave area you can tell by the different coloured soil," Ms Wass said.

"You get a grave-shaped patch of ground and then they carefully use their hands and their tools to scrape away the soil.

"Obviously as soon as you start to see any type of coffin plate you know that that might have biographical information about the person who's buried there.

"Of course, he's at the slightly more affluent end of the burial ground.

"St James Chapel is just beyond his grave, and generally the richer you were … the closer you were buried to church, to God".

The burial site includes the remains of other notable figures, including the founder of Christie's auction house and American boxer Bill Richmond, but Flinders is its most renowned resident.

"This is a very exciting moment for Australia," Australian High Commissioner to the UK George Brandis said outside the station, standing beside a statute of Captain Flinders.

"It is serendipitous the discovery of the remains of Matthew Flinders, one of the great early explorers, should come in the week of Australia Day".

Flanders' remains will undergo testing for more clues about his extraordinary life before he is interred with the other bodies at an undecided site.

Archaeologists frequently discover remains underneath London during digging works for rail links.

Flinders University honorary senior researcher Gillian Dooley, said Flinders - the university's namesake - could now "be treated with the respect he deserves".

"Even in death, after his short and unsettled life, he hasn't been allowed to rest in peace in the English countryside, which is what he wished for. Let's hope this can now be achieved," Dr Dooley said.

In 2013, 20 Roman skulls were uncovered in a dig for the city's Crossrail project.

Archaeologists said it was possible the remains, found along the River Thames, dated back to a rebellion by the British queen Boudicca.

In 2015, experts uncovered a mass grave of thousands of plague victims underneath Liverpool Street station.


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs