As It Happens

Remains of explorer who circled Australia unearthed next to London train station

British Explorer Captain Matthew Flinders is getting renewed attention now that his remains have been discovered next to London's Euston Station.

'Really amazing' to find remains of famous captain amid 40,000 unmarked graves, says archaeologist

Archaeologist Helen Wass poses next to a statue of Capt. Matthew Flinders, whose body has been unearthed in London. (HS2 Ltd.)
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According to an old urban legend, the remains of Capt. Matthew Flinders — the first European explorer to circumnavigate Australia — was buried under Platform 15 of London's Euston Station.

Not quite, but close: they were discovered last week on the grounds of a former cemetery abutting the station.

The rail hub sits on top of what was the church and graveyard of Saint James of Hampstead Road. The cemetery closed in the mid-1800s, and the 18th-century chapel was finally demolished in the 1950s.

Now those sacred grounds are being disturbed again to make way for a new high-speed rail link. The project expects to exhume the remains of tens of thousands of people.

Helen Wass, the lead archeologist on the HS2 rail link, told As it Happens host Carol Off how she and her team were able to identify Flinders' remains among so many unmarked graves.

Here is some of their conversation.

When your team discovered [Flinders] was in this particular site where the new rail link is going to be, what was it like to be able to identify that grave?

It was really amazing. The St. James burial ground was a very densely populated burial ground. Originally, it had some 60,000 people, and we're going to be excavating about 40,000.

So really, to find one named individual, you have to have either a monument above the ground — which there wasn't — or a coffin plate naming the individual.

Otherwise, it could've just been a skeleton and we would have never known.

Researchers excavate a breastplate at a burial site at the Euston Station in London, which is soon to be home to a new high-speed rail link. (HS2 Ltd.) 1:21

And how much better was Capt. Flinders' grave than the others?

His coffin had a lead nameplate on it screwed down to the lid of his coffin. Lead doesn't deteriorate in the soil, so this is over some 200 years ago. And, obviously, the soil conditions means that sometimes metal disintegrates and rots, as does wood, as do lots of other things. 

So because he was buried with a lead nameplate, that stayed exactly the same and you can read it today.

He died in 1814 at the age of 40, so he was born in 1774.

He grew up in Lincolnshire, England. He went to sea at age 15, against the will of his father who wanted him to be a surgeon — but then proved himself, obviously, to be an extraordinarily good and adept navigator. 

This breastplate marked Flinders' coffin. (HS2 Ltd.)

And he had some companions with him, is that right?

Well, yes, obviously he had a ship full of men, and then people he met in Australia. He attributed the [title] of 'Australian', to an Aboriginal person, Bungaree.

But he also had a cat, if that's what you're thinking of, called Trim, who was born on ship and then sailed with him for a number of years — and then disappeared in Mauritius, where Capt. Flinders was imprisoned for about six years by the French.

Pedestrians pass by the Matthew Flinders statue at Euston Railway station in London. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

His era is not looked kindly at by Indigenous people in Australia. Was Capt. Flinders different in that he did have a friend, an Aboriginal man?

I can't particularly comment in great detail. It's a matter of record that he had an Aboriginal companion who helped him on his missions. But he came from another culture and was exploring for his country, so, different times.

Was he celebrated in Great Britain?

He's not very well-known in the U.K. We're perhaps more familiar with Capt. Cook, and it's really quite strange that Flinders doesn't receive the attention that he certainly does in Australia.

I believe that Queen Victoria has the most statues in Australia, but I believe that Capt. Flinders has the second-most.

This timelapse video shows the construction of a protective canopy over a burial site at London's Euston Station, where the remains of an ancient British explorer have been discovered. (HS2 Ltd.) 0:23

Who else is buried in this graveyard?

A significant portion will be the men, women and children of London of that era.

The burial ground was opened in 1793 and closed in the mid-1800s. And so that was a time of great economic, social and political change.

A lot of our study will focus on who those people were — how healthy they were, where they came from.

But we also know that we have other named individuals in the burial ground, though we haven't found them yet.

We have an American boxer who came over, called Bill (The Terror) Richmond, who taught Lord Byron to box.

We have Lord George Gordon, who was infamous for instigating the Gordon Riots during the 1700s.

We have François Philidor, a chess player and musician from France, who has a bust, I understand, on the Paris Opera House. 

So quite a lot of people who help us understand our history at that time.

Interview produced by Tracy Fuller. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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