Londoners once bought train tickets to visit the City of the Dead

The original London Necropolis Railway Station that operated from 1854-1902. Image Credit: John Clark via Wikipedia.

The original London Necropolis Railway Station that operated from 1854-1902. Image Credit: John Clark via Wikipedia.

On November 13, 1854, the London Necropolis Railway Station opened its doors. Like Charon ferried souls to the Underworld in Greek mythology, the London Necropolis Railway carried the corpses to Brookwood Cemetery, known as London’s city of the dead, which was 25 miles away in Surrey. Brookwood Cemetery, the largest burial ground in the United Kingdom, was an aggressive solution to London’s grave shortage of the 19th century.

London’s buildings and streets sit on top of layers of dead bodies-Victorian graves on top of medieval graves on top of Roman graves. When London’s population more than doubled the early 19th century, the number of city’s corpses started to surpass available burial space within the city. The shortage of graves soon caused sanitation problems and a contributor to the outbreak of disease.   In response to this crisis, the Parliament passed the Burial Act of 1852 that banned new burials within London. Luckily England’s railway boom in the 1830’s and 1840’s coincided with London’s problem of limited cemetery space.

In 1852, Sir Richard Broun and Richard Sprye proposed purchasing a large tract of land for a cemetery in Brookwood near Woking in Surrey, for the Brookwood Cemetery or the London Necropolis. Broun and Spyre did some macabre math and determined that with a death rate of 60,000 people each year, they needed at least 1200 acres for the London Necropolis. This would allow close to six million individual graves and would take more than 350 years to fill. Because Brookwood was about 25 miles from London, Broun and Spyre planned to use the London South Western Railway from London to Woking, built in 1838, to connect the deceased and mourners to the future cemetery.

The Westminster Bridge Road offices of the LNC and the first class entrance to the 1902 terminus.  Image Credit: David M. Pye via Wikipedia

The Westminster Bridge Road offices of the LNC and the first class entrance to the 1902 terminus. Image Credit: David M. Pye via Wikipedia

The proposal was approved by Parliament in 1852 and the London Necropolis Company (LNC) was formed to manage construction of the railway station and the London Necropolis. The LNC purchased a considerable 2000 acres for the Brookwood Cemetery near Surrey. But Brookwood Cemetery stood out for its policies as well as its size.   The LNC was forbidden from using mass graves for the poor, so no matter how destitute the deceased was they were still allowed the dignity of a separate burial. The cemetery was also one of the few that accommodated people of all faiths including Muslims and Sikhs.

In London, LNC leased land for a private station from the London South Western Railway, near Waterloo station on Westminster Bridge Road.   The original London Necropolis Railway Station was a three-story brick structure lined with ornate gates and a not-so-subtle “Necropolis” sign on the roof.   Operational from 1854 to 1902, it housed a ticket office, a mortuary, chapels, and waiting rooms.

Third class coffin ticket, issued between April–September 1925 for Brookwood Cemetery.  Image from Wikipedia.

Third class coffin ticket, issued between April–September 1925 for Brookwood Cemetery. Image from Wikipedia.

In 1902, the station was moved to permit the expansion of the Waterloo station. The London South Western Railway relocated the London Necropolis Railway Station to a four-story building at 121 Westminster Bridge Road. This new station, opened from 1902-1941, had a ticket office, LNC offices and boardrooms, mortuary, storage rooms, waiting rooms, and a chapel.

The London Necropolis company sold three classes of funerals: first class allowed a person to choose a specific grave in the cemetery and a permanent memorial; second class allowed a person to choose the area for the grave and the right to place a permanent memorial for an additional cost; third class funerals were paid for by parishes and bodies were placed in graves reserved in an area reserved for that parish.  Mourners attending first class funerals had separate waiting rooms, while mourners attending a third class funerals were assigned communal waiting areas.

The London Necropolis Railway and Station closed after the building and its tracks were devastated during a German air raid in 1941. The station at 121 Westminster Bridge Road was converted into an office building and the “London Necropolis” sign was covered.

By the time the London Necropolis Railway closed in 1941 it had ferried more than 200,000 bodies to the Brookwood Cemetery. Brookwood Cemetery is still a functioning cemetery and accommodates different kinds of burials: woodland, green, and cremated internments.

References:

London Necropolis Railway. Transport Heritage. Retrieved from: http://www.transportheritage.com/find-heritage-locations.html?sobi2Task=sobi2Details&sobi2Id=862

Arnold, C. (2007). Necropolis: London and its Dead. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd.



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4 replies

  1. Oh my….. train for the dead ….wonderful story love the photos

  2. wow who would have thought. such an incredible throwback. this whole deal with buying plots and actaully “frequent” (can I use that word?) cemeteries was a big deal in society back in early days hey, i remember doing a study here in Auckland, NZ on the positioning of graves (mostly British migrants) in relation to the city plan, all nicely determined by social hierarchy, power and status…anyway. very cool article. thanks for sharing.

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