Between 1854 and 1941 – a total of 87 years – London’s spookiest and strangest railway line ran an almost daily service from a quiet annex of London Waterloo station to Brookwood Cemetery. At its peak, 2000 people a year made the one-way journey, accompanied by their mourning relatives, and segregated according to the strict Victorian rules around class and religious persuasion.
Little remains now of this unique railway innovation – although an innocuous building façade along Westminster Bridge Road hides the history of this attempt to industrialise the process of death in London.
So: what was the story of the London Necropolis Railway?
London’s overcrowding situation
Post-medieval London was growing at an incredible rate. In just 50 years, London’s population more than doubled, and by 1851 the number of people living in the city had reached nearly two and a half million. But what to do with these people when they died?
Traditionally, deceased Londoners would be buried in one of the hundreds of churchyards in the city, but, unable to cope with the demand, the churchyards were – quite literally – starting to burst. Fortunately, city authorities had a solution – reuse the graves, and displace the earth. The problem?
‘Many times in our walks about London we have noticed the grave-yards attached to the various churches, for in almost every case, they are elevated considerably above the level of the sidewalk, and in some instances, five or six feet above it. The reason was clear enough—it was an accumulation for years of human dust, and that too in the centre of the largest city in the world’.
David Bartlett, London by Day and Night, 1852
That’s right – graveyards were often found to be growing in height, until sometimes they towered above the people walking past them. In the words of Charles Dickens, they were "conveniently and healthfully elevated above the level of the living."
Of course, so many bodies in the same churchyards presented a different problem – effluvium. The decaying corpses leaked into the City’s water supply, contaminating it and causing disease and death, starting the cycle again.
The 1851 Burials Act – and the rise of the Necropolis
Parliament was spurred to action by a devastating cholera epidemic. More than 14000 Londoners were killed by the disease, overwhelming the already struggling burial system.
1851 came, and Parliament passed the “Burials Act” – or to give it its proper title, “An Act to Amend the Laws Concerning the Burial of the Dead in the Metropolis”.
Of course, this did nothing to stop death itself – and Londoners kept on dying. Fortunately, private enterprises had been encouraged to develop and open a series of huge cemeteries where Londoners could be laid to rest, surrounded by green landscapes and far away from the centre of London.
Enter the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company (the LNC) in July 1852. Formed with one overriding ambition: to become London’s one and only burial ground forever. Developing the former Woking Common at Brookwood, the company went to great efforts to make the new cemetery so attractive – designed to appear in a perpetual spring – that Londoners wouldn’t consider burying their loved ones anywhere else.
Making the final journey
Brookwood was 23 miles from London, and the horse-drawn hearses of the day meant that the journey would take an eternity – up to 12 hours in each direction at the respectful walking pace the event required.
Luckily for the founders of the LNC, the newly established railways provided a convenient and efficient method of transport, and the South Western Main Line ran alongside the border of the Brookwood Cemetery.
The location wasn’t a complete accident; the cemetery was built in tandem with the railway and the route passed scenic Richmond Park and Hampton Court. This was no mistake – one of the railway’s masterminds noted that the route’s “comforting scenery” was an influencing factor in choosing it. Unlike most other railways leaving London, the south of the city was largely fields and parks, providing a rural landscape to travel through rather than built-up city areas.
The London and South Western Railway, operating out of the newly-finished Waterloo Bridge station (as it was then known), were not convinced. Lending the LNC carriages was one thing – but asking their own passengers to travel in the same carriages that were part of a funeral train earlier that day was a step too far. Terrified that passengers would abandon the railway in droves, it was decided that the Necropolis trains would be an entirely separate service, with their own carriages and timetable.
There were social and religious objections too. The Bishop of London Charles Blomfield decried mixing the railway and burial services to a House of Commons Select Committee, stating:
“At present we are not sufficiently habituated to that mode of travelling not to consider the hurry and bustle connected with it as inconsistent with the solemnity of a Christian funeral.”
And then there was the mixing of the social classes – how could conformist Anglicans and other religions mix, or the upper and lower classes of society? This awful prospect, that of the remains of those who had led decent and wholesome lives travelling alongside those whose lifestyles had been morally lax was too much for the bishop to bear.
So, it was decided: in these separate trains would be six different classes for both the living and the dead. First-, second- and third-class travel was provided for conformists, and another section with the same classes for non-conformists. Even the coffins were segregated; the bodies of Anglican worshippers travelled behind the carriages for Anglican mourners, and the same for those of all other religions (and none).
Once it was all agreed, railway operations could begin. Waterloo station’s north side played host to the offices, morgue and chapels of the London Necropolis Railway, based underneath the arches on Westminster Bridge Road. The arches underneath the station were convenient not just in location, but their natural ability to stay cool for the storage of bodies, and Waterloo’s close proximity to the Thames meant that transporting the dead to the station was quick and convenient (by the standards of the day).
The LNC offered a “full-package” service, covering the cost of buying a grave site, a memorial and the transport for the funeral ceremony; first class allowed you to select a site anywhere in the ceremony at a cost of £2 10 shillings (around £220 today). A permanent memorial (which had the additional benefit of ensuring the LNC lost the right to re-use the grave in the future) could be erected for 10s more (around £45 today). Second class funerals limited the choice of location, but cost just £1 (around £90 today). Third class was reserved for pauper’s funerals and those buried at parish expense.
Trains ran seven days a week; at 11:35 (11:20 on a Sunday) the train would leave London for Brookwood, arriving a little after 12:20. In the early days of operation, owing to the lack of a station and facilities to move the locomotive around the train at Brookwood (promised but not yet delivered by the London and South Western Railway) a team of black horses would haul the carriages down the slope into the cemetery and to the North (for nonconformists) and South (for Anglicans) stations. Meanwhile, the locomotive would be turned around for the return journey that started at 14:15.
Fares for the London Necropolis Railway were limited by the Act of Parliament establishing the LNC, and the fares didn’t change in the first 85 years of its 87-year operation. This led to some interesting tactics noted by golfers to the course based on the land owned by the LNC (which hadn’t yet been incorporated into the cemetery) who would disguise themselves as mourners to take advantage of the (significantly) cheaper fares available compared to the LSWR tickets, which ran at about twice the cost of the LNC equivalent.
A new home for the LNC
Waterloo station and the areas it served had grown significantly in the first 50 years of operation, and the LSWR were anxious to expand the ever-busier Waterloo station. The space the LNC occupied on the north side of the station blocked any increase in the number of railway lines heading into Waterloo, and so the in 1896 LSWR proposed to provide a new home for the London Necropolis Railway.
The LNR were nothing if not opportunists; in return for the inconvenience of having to relocate they demanded new carriages, control in designing the new station & a peppercorn rent for the new site in perpetuity, free carriage of machinery and equipment for use in the cemetery, travel for mourners returning from funerals on LSWR services, and the removal of limits on the number of passengers on LNR trains. Desperate to expand Waterloo station, the LSWR were somewhat over a barrel, and eventually capitulated in 1899, giving in to every demand. The LSWR also paid £12,000 (around £1.25 million today) in compensation for the inconvenience of relocating the station and offices.
In 1902 the new station opened, south of the existing side site on Westminster Bridge Road. Designed for attractiveness and modernity, it was a step away from the traditional gloomy décor associated with the funeral industry. The new building held private and communal waiting rooms, mortuaries, storerooms and workshops, as well as a Chapelle Ardente sumptuously panelled in oak for mourners who couldn’t make the journey to Brookwood. There were also lifts, accesses to the two platforms and the ticket office here.
Destruction and closure
The LNR ran on until World War II, when, in 1941, tragedy struck for its owners. The Thames bridges were a significant target for Axis bombers, with several near-misses on the station during the Blitz. During the night of 16-17 April – one of the last major air raids on London – the station was struck by multiple incendiary and high explosive bombs.
The office buildings and platforms survived, but the workshop and Chapelle Ardente were destroyed along with the communal waiting room and all of the rolling stock stored in the siding.
The Southern Railway’s Divisional Engineer’s inspection report was short, stating simply “Necropolis and buildings demolished”. The 11 May 1941 saw the station officially declared closed by the Southern Railway.
By this time, funeral trains had ceased to become a timetabled event, and the advent of the motor car meant that more convenient ways of getting to Brookwood had become available. Trains without first class passengers were cancelled (leaving second- and third-class coffins to wait for the next train), and eventually the trains were run when a funeral was taking place, rather than with any regularity.
The end of hostilities saw the directors of the LNC make the difficult decision not to reopen the railway. The branch line from Brookwood into the cemetery was effectively unused since the destruction of the London terminus in 1941, and the gravel soil that made the site so cheap initially had meant that the line was effectively unusable without major repairs too. The railway-related portions of the terminus site were passed to the Southern Railway, while the office block was sold to the British Humane Association in 1947.
The Necropolis Railway today
Parts of this remarkable piece of railway history survive today. The Westminster Bridge Road terminus building still stands as Westminster Bridge House (although deprived of any signage indicating its former owner), and the track bed and platforms still remain at Brookwood Cemetery along with a section of track provided by Network Rail behind the Basingstoke-bound platform at Brookwood station.
You can also spot a glimpse of the track leading to what was the former London terminus outside of Waterloo station; the sidings on the south side of the station throat have a solitary spur that curves to the right rather than following the main line to the left, disappearing between the music studios and the substation providing power to the trains leaving London Waterloo.