All Aboard the Train for the Dead

Large cities all share one problem; what to do with the bodies of its dead citizens? Churchyards and cemeteries soon become full and over the centuries, plagues such as the Black Death in Europe killed off millions.

    London was no exception and in the nineteenth century, after an outbreak of cholera killed over 14,500 people, it was decided to build a number of very large cemeteries outside the metropolis. One of these was Brookwood located in Surrey, twenty miles south-west of London. At its height or “depth” it was considered to be the largest in the world.

    But there was still one problem remaining. How to transport the expected 50,000 bodies from London to Brookwood? The answer came when a number of businessmen set up the London Necropolis Railway. This was a private train which took corpses and mourners from its base near Waterloo Station to one of the two specially built stations within the cemetery. One station was for arrivals of the Church of England whilst the other was for Non-Conformists.

    The rail link opened on the 13th November 1854 and believe it or not, offered passengers three classes of service which was reflected in the prices charged. First class cost £2-50 and allowed you to choose your own burial plot. Second class was £1. You could choose a plot but you had to purchase a memorial for 50 pence extra. If you didn’t pay the extra, your plot could be reused in the future.

    Third class was for those who had no funds and were paupers. If their relatives could not help out, then the local parish church would foot the bill. However you only received an unmarked plot in a reserved part of the cemetery.

    Now these charges were for the plot only. The train ride was extra and the class system even applied to the corpse. A body in first class paid £1 and in third 13 pence. Mourners paid 30 pence in first, 17 pence in second and 10 pence in third. If a famous person died, then extra trains would be put on to carry the mourners. In fact, on one occasion one of the mourners aboard the train was a young Gandhi.

    However, over time, the number of bodies and mourners did not reach expectations and in May 1941, the service was discontinued. But there can still be seen some traces of the Necropolis Railway. The building containing the offices is still standing at 121 Westminster Bridge Road and if you walk behind that building you can see the steps leading up to where the platform once stood. The cemeteries are all still in existence and some still used.

Remains of the old ticket office and entrance

%d bloggers like this: