Final destination

E&T catches a gruesome ride back in time - into the history of London's Necropolis Railway, the world's one and only railway for the dead.

In today's image-conscious marketplace, the name 'Necropolis Railway' would never make it to the top of the timetable. It sounds too much like something a horror writer might conjure up: a train company bearing corpses through the city at dead of night. Not the kind of branding rail companies aspire to: death is the last thing they want on passengers' minds.

But the Victorians weren't accustomed to being so precious. The 19th century Necropolis Railway was designed with one simple function in mind: to carry the dead of London to a cemetery in Surrey. Nor did it operate under cover of darkness; the fact that a significant number of its passengers were on a one-way trip was trumpeted as a public good. The famously black London humour ensured the service garnered some grisly nicknames: the 'dead meat train' and 'the stiffs express' among others. But it was useful, and it worked, and it was the first of its kind.

Of course, the service was born of necessity. Between 1800 and 1850 London's population doubled, and the city was running out of places to bury its dead. The dangers to public health were clear: cramming too many bodies into too little space raised the prospect of decomposing corpses contaminating the water table. With the cholera outbreak of 1848-49 which killed 15,000 in the capital, it became clear that something needed to be done, and quickly.

The solution, as propounded by Sir Richard Broun, was that burial land be bought outside London, far enough away not to pose a threat to the city's health. As for the problem of transporting the bodies, that too was easily solved, declared Broun. The dead could go by train.

This wasn't as obvious as it now seems. Train travel was then in its infancy: passenger services had only been in operation since 1830, and Waterloo Station had been completed as recently as 1848. It was not yet a natural mode of public transport. Besides, there were other misgivings, voiced by, in particular, the Bishop of London. A common mode of conveyance would mean respectable churchgoers sharing carriages with "profligate spendthrifts". Dead or alive, this would be an embarrassment to many.

Nevertheless, Broun's suggestion was taken up. In 1852, an Act of Parliament created the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company, which went into partnership with the London and South Western Railway. Some 2,000 acres were purchased near Brookwood in Surrey, and 500 acres of this was earmarked for the cemetery's first phase.

As for those potential threats to dignity and health, various measures were taken to address them. Carriages on the Necropolis line, it was declared, would be dedicated to its use; passengers on other routes needn't worry that their compartments had previously carried corpses. Moreover, trains would be segregated into Anglican and non-conformist sections. In this, they would match the cemetery itself, where two stations were built in the autumn of 1854. North Station was to be the disembarkation point for Roman Catholics, Jews, Parsees and other dissenters, and South Station was the end of the line for Anglicans.

Most importantly of all, the class system would be rigorously imposed. Profligate spendthrifts and respectable churchgoers need never meet.

A class service from terminal to grave

True to Victorian form, the class system was ingrained from the journey's very beginning. The original London station was York Street, next to Waterloo, but the increasing popularity of rail travel led to congestion there, and in 1902 a replacement opened at 121 Westminster Bridge Road. This private station, part of whose entrance can still be seen today, was designed by Cyril B Tubbs, whose vision encompassed a luxury service for those who could afford it. 

First-class funeral parties sat in individual waiting rooms while the coffins they accompanied were transported by lift from street level to the platform. They could then watch as the coffin was loaded into the hearse carriage, before taking their place in a private train compartment for the journey to Brookwood.

By this stage, third-class mourners would have been at the station a while - they were expected to turn up half an hour before departure time and wait in a communal waiting room. An opaque glass screen shielded this from view. They were thus spared the sight of the more opulently arrayed first-class mourners and vice versa. On the other hand, they weren't allowed to watch the coffins being loaded onto the train.

For their dead, the distinction was less pronounced, largely down to the amount of decoration on the hearse-car doors. Arguably, at 2/6 a ticket, the lower-class bodies were getting the better deal. Third class was invariably for those buried at parish expense, and most London cemeteries at the time consigned pauper-class bodies to a communal pit. The first-class dead, meanwhile, were charged £1 for their one-way trip, and it's unlikely that they noticed many additional comforts for that extra 17 shillings and sixpence.

As for the living, the six-shilling return fare for first-class mourners undercut the rate on the normal service by two shillings. Brookwood, as it happens, was popular for other reasons: a near neighbour was the West Hill Golf Club. Penny-wise golfers were known to take advantage of the cheaper service, dressed as mourners and looking suitably solemn - all this of course in the days before plus-fours.

VIP treatment

Perhaps the Necropolis Railway's most famous passenger was journalist and explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley, who caught the train in 1904. But, in death as in life, he travelled a little further than most, and continued his journey beyond Brookwood to a family vault at Pirbright.

Another of the interred came quite close to having been buried at sea. Cosmo Duff Gordon survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, largely through having been a first-class passenger, and thus berthed closest to the lifeboats. He presumably rode first class on the Necropolis Railway too, though this didn't offer the same opportunity for escaping the inevitable.

As for Mr Tubbs, he now lies in Plot 32 at Brookwood, so it's safe to assume he made use of the station he designed.

The end of the line

Though it began the 20th century in fine fettle, the service declined in popularity over the next few decades. Road travel, among other things, drew customers away. But it was war, which might have been expected to increase demand for funeral services, put paid to the Necropolis Railway: a bombing raid in the spring of 1941 destroyed most of the Westminster Bridge Road station, and the line was never used again.

In Brookwood, the two stations became licensed bars, though neither survived for long. North Bar closed in the mid-1950s and was demolished a few years later. South Bar continued to serve refreshments until 1967, following which it was used as a mortuary. But in September 1972 it partially burnt down and was subsequently bulldozed. The platforms remain, but no matter how long you wait, no train will turn up to bear you away. 

Further reading

Those wanting to learn more about the Necropolis Railway should turn to J.M. Clarke's study The Brookwood Necropolis Railway (Oakwood Press) or Andrew Martin's historical crime novel, The Necropolis Railway (Faber and Faber).

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