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Captain Matthew Flinders

Archaeologists working on the HS2 project in Euston have discovered the remains of Captain Matthew Flinders. The Royal Navy explorer led the first circumnavigation of Australia and is credited with giving the country its name.

Captain Matthew Flinders portrait
Captain Matthew Flinders

The Flinders name is synonymous with exploration, science and discovery.

HS2, through its archaeology programme, will maximise the opportunities for further academic and scientific study. The discovery was made as archaeologists were preparing the site where the Euston HS2 station will be built.

Watch our video showing the site of the discovery at Euston.

The discovery

HS2 archaeologists were able to identify Captain Matthew Flinders’s remains by the lead depositum plate (breast plate) placed on top of his coffin. The discovery of his burial site among 40,000 other human remains, in Euston’s St James’s burial ground, so early on in the archaeological dig has thrilled archaeologists.

The archaeology programme is a central part of HS2’s ground preparation works for Phase One of the project, from Birmingham to London.

How we build HS2 is as important to us as what we are building. That’s why we are committed to sharing as much of our cultural heritage as possible. The discovery of one of Britain’s most significant explorers helps us tell the story of our past as we prepare to help build its future.

Before we bore the tunnels, lay the tracks and build the stations, an unprecedented amount of archaeology is now taking place between London and Birmingham. This is the largest archaeological exploration ever in Britain, employing a record number of skilled archaeologists and heritage specialists from all across the country and beyond.

Flinders’s achievements

Captain Flinders made several significant voyages, most notably as commander of H.M.S. Investigator which he navigated around the entire coast of Australia. This made him the first person to sail around the country in its entirety, confirming it as a continent. He is also credited with giving Australia its name. He was not the first to use the term, but his work and publications popularised it. His surname is associated with many places in Australia, including Flinders Station in Melbourne, Flinders Ranges in South Australia and the town of Flinders in Victoria.

Flinders died in 1814 and was buried in the St James burial ground. Following the expansion of Euston station westwards into part of the burial ground in the 1840s, his headstone was removed and it was thought that his remains had been lost. For a long time, there was an urban myth that Captain Flinders was buried under platform 15.

Flinders's hand-drawn map of the Australian continent
Flinders's map of the Australian continent

The impact of the discovery

Helen Wass, HS2’s Head of Heritage, explains the impact of the discovery:

“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.

“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.

“This discovery is particularly exciting for me as an archaeologist working on the site as Captain Matthew Flinders was the grandfather of renowned Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, commonly known as the ‘Father of Archaeology’.

The scientific study of human remains from St James burial ground will better our understanding of life and death in London’s 18th and 19th centuries, shedding light on health and disease, social status and lifestyle. Those buried in the long since demolished chapel and burial ground include individuals from all walks of life: paupers and nobility, artists and musicians, soldiers and sailors, inventors and industrialists, as well as victims of accidents, disease, suicide and murder.

Bronze statue of  sitting cat. Trim was Matthew Flinders's beloved companion on his explorations
Trim, Matthew Flinders's beloved cat who accompanied him on his voyages. Commemorated in bronze as part of the statue to the explorer at Euston Station.

The life and legacy of Matthew Flinders

Where was Matthew Flinders born?

Matthew Flinders was born on 16 March 1774 at Donington, Lincolnshire, England.

What school subject was Matthew Flinders good at?

At school, he had been particularly interested in mathematics and navigation. Flinders joined the navy at the age of fifteen on the HMS Alert in October 1789 as lieutenant’s servant.

When did Matthew Flinders sail to Australia?

During the late 1790s Flinders sailed to Australia and established himself as a first class navigator, an excellent cartographer and a man of determination. In 1798 Flinders, John Thistle and George Bass sailed around Tasmania and proved it to be an island. The passage was later named Bass Strait and one of the islands Flinders Island. John Thistle had an island named after him at Cape Catastrophe where he drowned.

What voyage is Matthew Flinders famous for?

Back in England in 1801, Flinders married Ann Chapelle in April. Ann was a descendant of a Norman Baronet who had helped sign the death warrant of Charles I of England in 1660. Flinders was placed in command of HMS Investigator and given the order to ‘make a thorough survey of the Australian coastline’. Having married only three months before, he was expecting to take his wife with him but the Admiralty had different ideas. It was to be nine years before husband and wife would meet again. The ship left port, in the middle of the year on 18 July, with almost ninety sailors, including his brother Samuel, cousin John Franklin, artist William Westall, natural history painter Ferdinant Bauer, shipmaster John Thistle and naturalist Robert Brown.

Where did Matthew Flinders discover?

When his ship sailed into one of the most beautiful harbours in Australia he named it Port Lincoln, after his home county. His next major discovery was a large island off the South Australian coast. Here the crew obtained a good supply of salt and fresh meat by killing a large number of seals and kangaroos. It was for this reason that he named it Kangaroo Island.

What did Matthew Flinders chart?

Finally on 9 May 1802 Matthew Flinders reached Port Jackson, Sydney. While at Port Jackson he obtained seven convicts to replace the crew members drowned in South Australia. He left Sydney in July and charted the east coast of Australia, went through Torres Strait and continued the charting of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Here he lost one of his crew in a fight with the local Aborigines. By now his ship was in a very poor and sorry state but he continued west and south eventually returning to Sydney, after a full year at sea, on 9 June 1803, having circumnavigated Terra Australis Incognita, the Unknown South Land.

Where was Matthew Flinders shipwrecked?

In Sydney he learned of his father’s death and his wife’s serious illness. After two months he finally set sail for England but was shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef. After rowing back to Sydney he sailed back in October, in company of two other ships, and picked up all survivors, including his brother. Most of the survivors went to China to wait for transport home but Flinders went on in HMS Cumberland with all his books, journals, maps and the latest mail from Australia for England.

Why was Matthew Flinders detained on a tropical island?

With HMS Cumberland rapidly deteriorating, Flinders was forced to call in at Mauritius (Ile de France) for repairs, unaware that Britain and France were at war. He was interned by the French authorities and kept a prisoner for six and a half years. As time went on Flinders was moved from jail and confined to the private residence of Madame D’Arifat and her daughter Delphine. He was finally released from his imprisonment in June 1810 and arrived back in England in October.

When did Matthew Flinders write before he died?

In very poor health and with little assistance from the government and even less pay he started to write his massive narrative, A Voyage to Terra Australis. In April 1812 Matthew and Ann had a daughter, Anne. She would never remember her father. Flinders’ health continued to decline and he died on 19 July 1814, the day after the publication of his books and maps. He was interred in the St James burial ground near where Euston station would be built. Following the expansion of Euston station westwards into part of the burial ground in 1849, his headstone was removed and it was thought that his remains had been lost. For a long time, there was an urban myth was that Captain Flinders was buried under platform 15.

How are Matthew Flinders, and his cat, commemorated?

 

Ten years after his death his widow and daughter were voted a pension by the Government of New South Wales. It arrived too late for his widow, who had already died, but his daughter Anna announced that she would use the money for the education of her son Matthew Flinders Petrie. He went on to become Sir Flinders Petrie, one of the earliest and most prolific Egyptologists and archaeologists.

At the bicentenary of his death in 2014, a memorial statue of Captain Matthew Flinders was unveiled by the Duke of Cambridge at Australia House and later installed at Euston Station. Beside Flinders is a statute of his Trim, his beloved cat, who accompanied him on voyages.

 

Where will Matthew Flinders be buried?

Captain Matthew Flinders will be reinterred, with the buried population of the St. James burial ground, at a location to be announced.