Robert Hartle worked as a Senior Archaeologist on the MOLA Headland excavation of St James’s burial ground, Euston, on behalf of Costain Skanska Joint Venture (CSjv) and HS2.  

Robert examines the burial of Captain Matthew Flinders, based on archaeological and documentary evidence, and describes why and how he set about trying to make a replica of Flinders’ coffin - the centre piece of his reburial.

photo Paul Braham

The excavation of the burial ground of St James’s (in use 1789 to 1853) was an extraordinary opportunity to study contemporary life and death in London, since it contained thousands of individuals from all walks of life; men, women and children, paupers and nobility, artists and musicians, soldiers and sailors, inventors and industrialists (https://molaheadland.com/why-do-archaeologists-get-excited-by-named-burials/). 

However, in January 2019, one individual’s burial which I helped identify and excavate received international interest - that of Captain Matthew Flinders.[1] 

   [1] Flinders is also notable to archaeologists because his grandson, Sir Flinders Petrie, the British Egyptologist, pioneered the systematic methodology which forms the basis of modern archaeology.

Fast forward several years and plans were announced for Flinders’ reburial in Donington, Lincolnshire. Reading the BBC’s report (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-66405752), a thought struck me; wouldn’t it be wonderful for Flinders to be reburied in a replica of his original coffin? 

This was swiftly followed by another thought; I could make it.  So, with a plan forming in my mind, I contacted the church of St Mary and the Holy Rood, Donington, and offered my expertise and labour. After a flurry of emails back and forth, the church and the Flinders family happily accepted my proposal and I set to work.  

It has long been speculated that the grave of Captain Flinders had been removed by the late 19th century expansion of Euston station. This assumption seems based on a letter written years after Flinders’ death by his daughter, Mrs. Anne Petrie (1812–1892), which read:

 ‘Many years afterwards, my aunt Tyler went to look for his grave, but found the churchyard remodelled, 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’ (Ernest, 2011 (1914): 396).

Nevertheless, the burial ledger of St James’s Chapel, Hampstead Road, clearly records his burial in the ‘second ground’. An area unaffected by the expansion.

[1] There is no record that the Flinders family ever purchased a memorial, and it was probably this lack of a marker which led to the later confusion, especially once other landmarks in the ground had become overgrown or been removed. In 2019, contrary to decades of speculation, excavation showed that Flinders’s burial had never be moved and was still in the same spot recorded by the burial register. 

   [1] The coffin of ‘Captain Matthew Flinders RN’ was brought from ‘London Street, St Pancras’ on 23 July 1814 and buried in plot 2 J 70 (second ground, lot J, number 70) (City of Westminster Archives (CWA), SJC/0494/1/328)).   

The undertaking trade, as we know it today, first emerged in the 17th century and was firmly established by the early 18th century, when all burials would have been coffined (Litten, 1991). 

Since the level of coffin decoration directly reflected the cost, the post-medieval coffin quickly developed into a status symbol, indicating the wealth and status of the deceased (or, at least, of the person paying for the funeral). Centuries old coffins looked markedly different to modern ones. 

However, they are not the sort of things you see in museums or something you would expect to stumble across, for example, stored in the family attic. Rather, the coffin is a prime example of ephemeral material culture, destined to be constructed and buried within weeks or even days. 

photo Paul Braham

In the past, very few people besides sextons or grave diggers would have ever glimpsed them post-burial, and then only as decayed remnants, found during the day-to-day business of grave digging. Although there are some historic images (including trade cards and funeral illustrations), very few undertaker’s catalogues survive from the Georgian era. 

An understanding of coffin decoration and construction of this period, therefore, requires a combination of both history and archaeology. The past 40 years has seen a surge in interest in burial practises of the 17th to 19th century. This research has been prompted and sustained by development, for which the law now requires the meticulous and professional recording of archaeological remains. 

London’s church crypts have perhaps made the largest contribution to our understanding historic coffins, but considerable knowledge has also been gained from excavating earth-cut graves in parish, non-conformist, and private churchyards.

The replica coffin was made to look just as the original would have done two centuries ago and was constructed with largely the same methods. The design was based on both the remains of Flinders’ coffin and better-preserved contemporary examples. 

Preservation of coffins in archaeologically excavated churchyards, although sometimes varied, is usually poor. Although some decayed fragments of wood survived from Flinders’ coffin, it was mostly represented by dark brown organic staining, and its original form discernible through little more than rusted iron studs and nails.

Flinders’ coffin, like so many at St James’s, was also greatly distorted by the collapse of its wood. This being a direct result of rot and decay slowly compromising its ability to resist the pressures of the overlaying and surrounding soil.

Well-preserved coffins, as seen at Euston and other London sites, show a general conformity in carpentry techniques and proportions. English coffins of the 18th and 19th centuries were almost exclusively of the flat-lidded shouldered form. 

Flinders’ coffin was no exception. This form, very recognisable to modern eyes as a ‘coffin-shape’, first emerged in the last quarter of the 16th century but was ubiquitous by the early 18th century. 

My replica, just like the original, has been constructed with six pieces of wood – two sides, two ends, a base, and a lid.[1] However, this design was not entirely straightforward. The shoulders of a Georgian coffin were typically rounded, rather than formed with a sharp butt joint. It also tapered in both width and height and the foot end was sloped.

   [1] Although various woods were used, including conifer and oak, most of the coffins in the post-medieval period were made of elm because it is less prone to splitting and offers water-resistance.   

After the basic shape was achieved, then came decoration. Generally, modern coffins are not as ornate as 17th to 19th century examples. By 1814 (the year Flinders died), there was an array of coffin fittings and decorative styles available, which could be purchased according to fashion, as well as the taste and pocket of the customer. 

The records show that the Flinders' family chose a plot in the second burial ground and did not purchase a grave marker. Similarly, the coffin they bought wasn’t the most expensive available but still, nevertheless, of good quality. 

Photo Paul Braham

The principal features of an early 19th century coffin were decorative plates and handles (aka grips). Flinders' breastplate (name plate) had survived in good condition because it was made in lead, but the coffin’s other fittings had rusted almost to nothing because they had been made with thin sheets of iron. 

However, the most striking difference between Flinders' coffin and a modern one was its external fabric covering, which would have probably decayed and disappeared within a year of the burial. Prior to waxed and polished woods being introduced and becoming the dominant style from the late 19th century, coffins were covered with fabrics, such as baize or velvet, and decorated with hundreds or thousands of upholstery studs. These studs were set in rows and clusters to form a wide variety of patterns.

Due to the absence of a convenient large workshop, my garden and living room were commandeered for the work (although, not without some complaints and much bemusement from my wife and children…). 

While I was able to replicate the decorative plates and handles with resin, modern upholstery studs proved an exact match for their 18th and 19th century counterparts. Nearly 1600 studs had to be applied individually, a process which took several days. 

Still, it could have been worse; Lord Nelson was buried in 1806 in a coffin decorated with ‘no less than 10,000 double gilt nails!

When I started this project, I wanted to provide a contribution to the reburial of Captain Flinders. An individual I had helped find and archaeologically excavate. 

However, I also hoped to revive an obscure part of the past. Very few people appreciate how different and striking coffins used to be.

Although each was a small artwork, they were all destined to have only a fleeting time on display before burial. 

Photo Paul Braham

It took several weeks to finish, but I’m confident that an early 19th century undertaker would not be able to tell the difference between his work and my finished replica. 

Hopefully, the coffin will be a fitting tribute this summer when it returns an eighteen-century British explorer home to rest with his ancestors.

  References Ernest, S. (2011 (1914)) The Life Captain Matthew Flinders, Cambridge University Press. Litten, J. (1991) The English way of death, London