In the very first years of the 19th century, Matthew Flinders heroically piloted a leaky ship all the way around Australia, earning a place in history books as the first person to circumnavigate the continent and prove it was a single land mass. When he died in 1814, at the age of 40, Flinders was buried in St. James’ Gardens, a churchyard in north London next to today’s Euston Station. Now, archaeologists are hunting for his remains ahead of the biggest exhumation in British history, when up to 61,000 bodies will be removed from St. James’ burial ground to make way for the planned £56 billion construction of the High-Speed 2 railway.
Today, visitors to Australia will spot Matthew Flinders’ name in all sorts of places, from Flinders Station in Melbourne to the town of Flinders in Victoria. Such tributes make sense, when you consider Flinders is the one who gave Australia its name. As master of the HMS Investigator from 1801 to 1803, the Lincolnshire-born Royal Navy captain became the first man to circle the continent, and chart its southern coast.
For centuries, people believed the giant landmass in the southern hemisphere (known as “terra australis incognita,” Latin for “unknown southern land”) was actually two continents. But after his explorations, Flinders would argue that since it was actually a single landmass, the southern continent should have a single name. Though he had used “Terra Australis” in his charts, he wrote in the report of his discoveries that he preferred “Australia,” as it was “more agreeable to the ear.”
Flinders ran into some trouble when he headed back to England after his Australian adventures. His first return ship, the HMS Porpoise, broke apart on the Great Barrier Reef on its way to India. On his second return attempt, aboard the too-small and damaged HMS Cumberland, Flinders was forced to put it at Ile de France (now Mauritius) to find a new vessel. Unfortunately for him, England and France were now at war, and Flinders spent the next six years in a French jail on the island.
By the time he finally made it back to England in 1810, he had been separated from his wife, Ann Chappelle, for nine years. (The couple had been newlyweds when he headed off to the Southern Hemisphere, but the British Admiralty barred Ann from accompanying her husband.) Their daughter, Anne, was born in 1812, while Flinders was working on the three volumes of “A voyage to Terra Australis.” On July 19, 1814, just one day after this report of his discoveries was published, Matthew Flinders died at the age of 40, the victim of an undiagnosed kidney infection he contracted during his time abroad.
Now, more than 200 years later, Flinders’ name is back in the headlines. Archaeologists working with High-Speed 2 (HS2), a planned railway linking London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, are planning to exhume up to 61,000 bodies from the former burial ground located next to Euston Station in north London. From 1789 to 1853, the site was used as an overflow cemetery for St. James’ Church, in Piccadilly. Flinders, who is believed to be buried somewhere near the station, is among those bodies that may be disturbed.
There’s some debate over where Flinders was actually buried. Experts from the Matthew Flinders Memorial Committee believe he was interred at St. James’ burial ground. Thanks to the committee, a statue of Flinders stands outside Euston Station, depicting the explorer with his beloved cat, Trim. The trusty feline was at Flinders’ side during his Australian adventures, but sadly disappeared while he was imprisoned on Mauritius.
But back in 1852, Flinders’ sister-in-law, Isabella Tyler, visited the St. James’ cemetery and reported that his grave was gone. In a letter written years later, Flinders’ daughter reported that her aunt “found the churchyard remodeled, and quantities of tombstones and graves with their contents had been carted away as rubbish, among them that of my unfortunate father, thus pursued by disaster after death as in life.” Research shows Flinders’ remains were almost certainly moved to an unmarked grave (or possibly just dumped) just a little to the east of their original spot.
What’s the upshot of all this? Well, it seems Flinders is buried in one of two places: either under the actual Euston Station (platforms 12-15, to be specific) or in the remaining portion of St James’ Garden, along with thousands of other Londoners.
The lead HS2 archaeologist, Helen Glass, has admitted that finding the famed explorer’s remains will not be easy. Glass told the Sunday Times (London) that in the best possible scenario, she and her colleagues will be able to find an intact coffin with a metal nameplate or other identifying decoration.
Though the project at St. James’s Garden is said to be the biggest exhumation in British history, it’s certainly not the first. During construction of the Crossrail project (aka the Elizabeth Line) set to open this year, workers uncovered a mass grave of 14th-century plague victims. And back in the 1860s, St. Pancras Station (Euston’s close neighbor) was built on the grounds of a churchyard that once served as the primary burial ground for all of north London.
In the hopes of making the exhumation process as respectful as possible, the Church of England is working with HS2 to make sure the remains are removed by hand digging, rather than by mechanical excavation. The Church is also advising the project on reburials, though it remains to be seen where Flinders’ remains (and those of more than 60,000 others) will make their permanent home.