Archaeologists working at a former burial ground in London hope to find the remains of Matthew Flinders, who led the first circumnavigation of Australia and proved it was a continent.

In what is believed to be the largest ever exhumation in Britain, about 61,000 bodies will be dug up from the site next to Euston Station, with the body of the Royal Navy captain believed to be among them, The Times newspaper reports.

The dig is being undertaken as part of London's HS2 rail project in which St James' Gardens, a former cemetery, will be destroyed.

A statue of Matthew Flinders. Photo / 123RF
A statue of Matthew Flinders. Photo / 123RF

Flinders circled mainland Australia as commander of HMS Investigator between 1801 and 1803, charting the coast in detail to make the first full map of Australia. The navigator and cartographer also came up with the name of Australia for the continent.

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Lead HS2 archaeologist Helen Glass told The Times that discovering Flinders' remains would not be easy given the large number of bodies. She said her team's best chance would be if an intact coffin with a metal name plate or other identifiable decoration was found.

Heading back to England in 1803, while England and France were at war, Flinders called at French-controlled Mauritius as his vessel needed urgent repairs. He thought the scientific nature of his work would ensure safe passage but a suspicious French governor kept him under arrest for more than six years.

Flinders finally reached home in 1810 after a nine-year absence from his wife, but he died in 1814 a day after the publication of his greatly acclaimed work, A Voyage to Terra Australis. A statue of Flinders is at Euston Station and another is outside the State Library of NSW in Sydney along with his cat, Trim, who accompanied him on his Australian explorations.