History Stories

Captain Matthew Flinders is famous for circumnavigating Australia and putting the continent on European maps for the first time. He’s also the subject of urban legends because of the fact that, for over 200 years, nobody has known exactly where his body is buried. But in January 2018, archaeologists finally identified his remains behind a train station in London.

Flinders died in 1814 just one day after publishing A Voyage to Terra Australis, a written record of his journey around Australia that included maps. His maps showed that Australia was one single continent, rather than two land masses that Europeans had previously called “New Holland” and “New South Wales.” Before that, he also circumvented Tasmania and proved it was separate from Australia.

He was buried with a headstone at St. James’ burial ground in London. But his headstone disappeared in the 1840s, when the Euston train station expanded into the graveyard. Since then, no one has known where exactly he was, Though urban legend has placed him under platform 15 (among others).

It turns out he wasn’t under any of the platforms at all. Instead, archaeologists discovered his remains behind the train station, at the site where they are exhuming some 45,000 graves to make way for a controversial high-speed railway station known as HS2. Archaeologists in London had been hopeful they’d find Flinders among the tens of thousands of exumations and luckily, they were able to easily identify his grave thanks to a lead breastplate on top of his coffin.

“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,” said Helen Wass, the head of heritage for HS2, in a government press release.

Matthews Flinders Map of Australia

A map of Australia showing the parts explored between 1798 and 1803 by Matthew Flinders.

Flinders was a prisoner of war when he drew one of his first maps of Australia. It had been peacetime when the British naval officer began his circumnavigation in the summer of 1802. Yet by the time he completed his journey the next summer, his nation was at war with France in a conflict known as the Napoleonic Wars. Occupying French forces arrested the captain on the East African island of Mauritius in late 1803, while he was sailing back home.

It was as a captive in 1804 that he drew what is perhaps the first map to use the word “Australia” to the continent, then occupied by British colonial forces. Flinders remained a prisoner until 1810, and was able to publish a full account of his journey along with maps right before he died. His maps proved that Australia was its own continent, and helped give it the name we still use today.

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