Flinders ahoy!

Archaeologists excavating near Euston Station in London prior to the construction of the HS2 rail link have found the grave (right) of Captain Matthew Flinders, the first man to circumnavigate Australia.

The news will be welcomed especially by those in his native county of Lincolnshire and also in Australia – Flinders is the man who gave the continent its name.

Born in Donington in 1774, Flinders joined the Royal Navy at 15, after reading Robinson Crusoe, sailed with Captain Bligh to Tahiti in 1791, and saw action in the battle of the Glorious First of June, 1794, the first between the French and British in the French Revolutionary Wars.

On his first voyage to New South Wales, Flinders explored part of its coast with naval surgeon George Bass in a small open boat. Later, he and Bass established that Tasmania was an island. Supported by his patron, the renowned naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, Flinders returned to Australia again in 1801, on HMS Investigator, charged with charting the coast of the southern land as, although part of it had been explored by the Dutch and by Captain Cook, large areas of it remained unknown.

Flinders' three-year voyage presented him with huge navigational and personal challenges, but he endured it with great skill and determination. It was Flinders who proved Australia was one great landmass and succeeded in producing a highly accurate map of the country. With him on the HMS Investigator was Bongaree, an Aboriginal whom he admired and who helped ease contact with the local peoples he encountered during the voyage; and his faithful cat, Trim, who survived several falls overboard.

On leaving England to undertake the voyage, Flinders left behind his new bride, Ann. On his return journey he was first shipwrecked, then, unaware that England and France were at war, was suspected of being a spy and detained for six and a half years when he called in at the French colony of Mauritius. He finally landed in England in 1810. On 19 July four years later, aged 40, Flinders died in London, leaving a wife and infant daughter – but not before, his great work, A Voyage to Terra Australis, had been published. The book is a lucid account of high adventure and Flinders' remarkable achievement in circumnavigating Australia and charting its coastline. The map that he had made of the southern continent bore the name he chose for it – Australia. A decade later,
the Admiralty finally accepted his name for the southern continent in place of 'New Holland'. After this Flinders was largely forgotten in England although his grandson, the famous Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, gained national renown.

In Australia, though, where more than 100 places are named after him, Flinders was always remembered and also revered as an outstanding navigator.

Flinders was buried in St James's Gardens by Euston Station, between Cardington Street and Hampstead Road. The gardens were used as a burial ground for the parish of St James Piccadilly between 1790 and 1853. Most of the monuments and tombstones were removed in 1887 when St James's Gardens opened to the public and Flinders' final resting-place was lost.

Knowing his grave lay in the vicinity, a group of Australian and English admirers erected a statue of Flinders and his cat in Euston Station in 2014, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his death. But, when excavation work for HS2 began, hopes were high that his grave would be found – even though 40,000 people had been buried in St James's Gardens. Luckily, Flinders' coffin bore a lead plate bearing his name (above). Now his mortal remains will be reinterred in consecrated ground.

Diana Bentley