Many of London railway stations are said to be built over the resting place of momentous names from times gone by. Just like now, people in the 19th century didn’t really want big developments right next door and so train stations and train lines were often built amongst and on top of cemeteries, plague pits, battlefields etc and so when it is said that people are walking on the graves of such and such, lost to time then there is more than a grain of truth to it.
Such is the case with Captain Matthew Flinders who it was said by some to have been buried under platform 4 at Euston Station. Nonsense of course as if he were buried anywhere then it would on the western side, some people suggested he might be buried under Platform 15 though 18 or just outside it would make the most sense.
When a statue of Captain Matthew Flinders was installed at Euston in 2014, the only regret of those who had campaigned for a memorial to the explorer who led the first circumnavigation of Australia was that his final resting place was unlikely ever to be known.
Five years later, that mystery has been unexpected solved by archaeologists working on the new HS2 rail link. The remains of the British navigator who has been buried over 200 years have now been discovered in a graveyard being excavated to make way for the high-speed line between London and Birmingham.
As you can see from the map below, a large area of London around Euston is to be engulfed by the new train station with the cemetery where Captain Matthew Flinders was found in the patch of green to the left of the present station.
Last March I took one last round some of the old streets that I have been walking around since I went to my University at SOAS nearby in the 1990’s. The buildings had already been abandoned with several streets closed off and a beautiful old cemetery all ready transformed into an archaeological building site as you can see below.
Below are some of the abandoned streets of Euston which in 2026 will be a massive enlarged high speed railway station.
The photo above is of an abandoned London Underground Station, abandoned since about 1914 and for the last century used to house power generators.
Only a small proportion of the 40,000 bodies being exhumed from St James’s cemetery, behind the station, have been identified so far, making the discovery of Flinders’ remains earlier this month a “needle in a haystack” find, according to HS2’s lead archaeologist, Helen Wass.
While some of those buried in the cemetery had tin name plates on their coffins, many of these have not survived. But when Flinders died in July 1814, aged only 40, the plate on his coffin was made of lead, meaning it was still legible.
All the records showed that he was buried there, but actually finding someone with a breastplate confirming their name is really amazing,” said Wass. “It is so exciting.” The find is more remarkable because when Flinders’ sister-in-law visited the cemetery in 1852, the location of his grave was already lost.
As the first person to circumnavigate the continent and the explorer who popularised its name, Flinders is a figure of national importance in Australia, where a mountain range, two national parks, a university in Adelaide and one of the main streets of Melbourne, among many other things, are named after him.
As such, said the country’s high commissioner to the UK, George Brandis, the discovery of his remains is “a matter of great importance to Australia”.
In his native Britain, however like so many others, he has been largely forgotten, despite a biography that could almost compete with Robinson Crusoe, the novel that first inspired him as a child to go to sea.
Born in Lincolnshire in 1774 to a family of surgeons, Flinders joined a navy ship aged 16 and a year later was sailing with the notorious Captain William Bligh, formerly of the Bounty, who taught him navigation and chart making. By 24 he had charted Tasmania and been the first to prove it was an island.
Five years later Flinders had circumnavigated the entire continent, and charted much of its coastline, accompanied by his beloved cat Trim and an Aboriginal man called Bungaree – notably the first person ever to be described as an “Australian”.
Forced to dock in Mauritius on his way home in 1803, Flinders was arrested by the French, with whom Britain was by now at war, and held on the island for seven years. Trim, his companion in captivity, disappeared the following year, likely stolen and eaten by a hungry slave; years later Flinders was still mourning “the best and most illustrious of his race”. In many of the statues of Flinders in Australia – and at Euston – he is accompanied by the faithful Trim.
Rebekah Higgitt, a historian of science at the university of Kent, said that like Captain James Cook and Bligh, Flinders was one of “the great explorer-surveyor-commanders” of the intense period of navigational advances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As well as being a talented navigator, she said, he was clearly an impressive character in other ways.
“He wants to go to sea, and the way to do that is to get to grips with mathematics and trigonometry, which he does really, really well. I think he must also have had quite a lot of charm, as he is promoted and supported by people quickly.”
Along with many of the other skeletons excavated from the St James’s site, Flinders’ remains will now be examined by osteo-archaeologists. They will be looking for lessons as to how his life at sea affected his health. With excavations due to continue until late next year, Wass hopes the site has more secrets to reveal.
“We are going to be able to tell so many stories about the life of London … we will look across the spread of the burial ground, the rich, poor and everything in between, so we can try to tell as holistic a story as possible about who is buried there.”
Once they have been examined, the bodies will all be reburied in a site yet to be confirmed.
Though it is no longer possible to visit the cemetery in question, visitors to Euston Station can find the ‘recent’ memorial to the man himself just outside the station where he is captured along with his beloved cat.
If you want to read other recent posts on Victorian burials in London then do snatch a glance at Dancing on the Dead at Enon Chapel – The Victorian Sensation!