Two hundred and sixteen years after he first circumnavigated Australia, the remains of British explorer Captain Matthew Flinders have been discovered in a burial site beneath a train station in London.
His remains were identified by archaeologists working for a controversial high-speed rail project – known as HS2 – thanks to a well-preserved lead breastplate.
“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.”
Rob Mundle, author of Flinders: The Man who Mapped Australia, said the discovery of his remains was a remarkable find.
“I think it’s quite ironic that it’s been announced on the eve of Australia Day which is fantastic because he’s the man who was responsible for impressing the name Australia upon everyone,” Mr Mundle told The New Daily.
“He was a brilliant explorer and a great navigator … it wasn’t until I researched him in depth and I came away gobsmacked with how many things he did that we still appreciate till this day,” he said.
Matthew Flinders died at the age of 40 – the day after the book detailing his circumnavigation of Australia, A Voyage to Terra Australis, was published.
He was interred in what was then St James’s burial ground on July 23, 1814.
“The records show that he was buried here. He died in a house not very far away from this site,” Ms Wass said.
“An urban myth was that he was buried under Platform 15 of the modern Euston Station – we now know that is not true.”
The cemetery 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 high-speed rail project from London to Birmingham.
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’s 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, and 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 or the more affluent 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”.
Flinders’s remains will undergo testing for more clues about his extraordinary life before he is interred with the other bodies at an undecided site.