It was a difficult time to be alive in 1848 London, and worse still to be dead. A cholera epidemic had just swept through the city killing nearly 15,000 of its inhabitants, and bodies were literally pilling up besides churches waiting to be buried. But there was one problem: there was no space to bury.
The population of London was soaring. In 1801, the city had less than a million people living. In 1851, that figure had more than doubled to almost two and a half million. But the 300 acres allotted for burial space remain unchanged, requiring old graves, and some relatively fresh ones, to be regularly exhumed to make room for new burials. The old corpses were crumpled and scattered contaminating the soil and water supply resulting in fresh bouts of epidemics. Cholera, smallpox, measles, typhoid were pervasive in Victorian London.
A third class coffin ticket issued to passengers of the London Necropolis Railway. Photo credit: qi.com
Eventually, a decision was taken —there were to be no more burials in London’s graveyards. Instead, a series of new cemeteries were to be established far outside the city. One such cemetery, in Brookwood, 37 km away from London, became the largest in the United Kingdom. Covering 1,500 acres, the site was designed to last, by a conservative estimate, over 350 years to fill just a single layer. In order to ferry the dead and their family of mourners the long distance, a dedicated railroad was built, named the London Necropolis Railway.
Everyday, starting November 1854, a single train carrying coffins and the family of the dead left London for Brookwood from a dedicated station in Waterloo. The 37-km journey had no stops and took 40 minutes to cover. Mourners would reach Brookwood shortly after mid-day, bury their dead, have a funeral party at one of the cemetery’s two train stations, and then take the same train back, returning to London by 3:30 PM.
Like regular passenger trains, the Necropolis train had classes. A first class ticket allowed the family to choose where they wanted to inter the dead within the cemetery. They could also erect a permanent memorial over the grave. A second class ticket gave some control over the choice of the grave site, but erecting permanent memorials cost extra. The third class was for pauper funerals. Compartments, both for living and for dead passengers, were also partitioned by religion —as was the custom at the time— to prevent people from different social backgrounds from mixing.
A map showing the location of various cemeteries planned outside London to tackle the burial crises. The red line indicates the route of the London Necropolis Railway from London to the Brookwood Cemetery. Image credit: iridescent/Wikimedia
Proposed solutions to the burial crisis, 1852. A ring of new cemeteries had opened or were under development outside the built-up area of London, but were only a temporary solution. Edwin Chadwick planned two large new cemeteries just outside the boundaries of the Metropolitan Burial District, while the promoters of the Necropolis scheme planned a single large cemetery far enough from the metropolis so as never to be affected by urban growth, to be reached by railway.
The necropolis railway never took off in the way the London Necropolis Company had hoped. At its peak, from 1894 to 1903, the train carried only about 2,300 bodies a year, far less than the 50,000 the promoters hoped it would carry. In 1902, the daily train service was ended because of lack of passengers, running only on demand. By the 1930s it was unusual for the trains to operate more than twice a week.
The railway’s death knell came on the night of April 16-17, 1941, in one of the worst air raids on London, when bombs ripped through the London Necropolis Railway Station and made much of the tracks unusable. After the war, the company decided that reopening the Necropolis Railway was not financially worthwhile, and closed the line. By then, the trains had run for 87 years transporting slightly over 200,000 dead bodies.
Only a few reminders of this morbid railway service remain today. The two stations in the cemetery were demolished during the 1960s and the ruins later caught fire. The tracks were long since lifted away to be melted or reused elsewhere. In London, the entrance building to the private station at 121 Westminster Bridge Road remains largely intact, but the name LONDON NECROPOLIS RAILWAY that was once inscribed in the awning’s stone is no longer there.
Although unusual, the London Necropolis Railway wasn’t the only railway in the world dedicated to dead passengers. From 1867 until 1948, the Rookwood Cemetery near Sydney was serviced by a similar railway line called the Rookwood Cemetery Line. Likewise, in Melbourne, transfer to the Springvale Necropolis was carried out through the dedicated Spring Vale Cemetery railway. In Berlin, the Friedhofsbahn (Cemetery Line) operated from 1913 until 1952. There was a similar railway in Finland.
North Station was one of the two cemetery stations where passengers could relax and refresh themselves after the ceremony (Credit: Private collection of John Clarke)
The Westminster Bridge Road entrance to the first London Necropolis Railway station, built in 1854. It was demolished after the new station was built in 1902.
The necropolis railway train, shown here in 1907, approaches North Station at Brookwood Cemetery. Photo credit: John Clarke
Aftermath of the bombing of the London Necropolis Railway's buildings in London, night of April 16–17, 1941. Photo credit: John Clarke
The entrance to the ‘new’ station shown in 1902, left, and today, right
The section of track outside the present Brookwood Station that commemorates the Brookwood Cemetery Railway run by the London Necropolis Company. Photo credit: Nedueb/Wikimedia
The overgrown ruins of Brookwood North station. Photo credit: iridescent/Wikimedia
Brookwood Station, opened in 1864, still serves train passengers today. Photo credit: Paul Smith/Wikimedia
South (cemetery-side) entrance to Brookwood railway station, Surrey. The raised embankment which formerly carried the Necropolis Railway rises behind the tall fence to join the main London–Salisbury line. Photo credit: iridescent/Wikimedia
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