Forgotten – The London Necropolis Railway

The London Necropolis Railway

London Necropolis Railway

It’s hard to conceive, but 1848 was an even worse time to be dead than usual. A cholera outbreak had recently swept through London, killing almost 15,000. Burial space was non-existent; as little as 300 acres had been allocated for the capital’s needs and space was tight even without an epidemic. During the winter of 1848, the graveyards reached saturation point. With nowhere to bury them, the dead began to pile up; corpses lay stacked beside churches, giving off an unholy stench. Recently-interred cadavers were dug up and discarded to make more room, while toxins seeped into the water supplies, increasing the chance of another outbreak. Simply, there was nowhere left to put the dead.

Boom Town

London Necropolis Railway Seal

The first half of the 19th century had seen a rapid expansion in London’s fortunes. The industrial age ushered in an era of unparalleled growth: rural workers flocked to the city seeking work; factories mushroomed up across the East; and railway lines began to snake out from the capital, criss-crossing the length of the country. With this explosion of economic growth came one of population. In 1801, London boasted slightly under a million inhabitants; by 1851 it claimed nearly two and a half. Inexperience, disinterest and a certain laissez-faire attitude left the city ill-equipped to deal with such sudden expansion. Slums sprang up, poverty and disease became rife and cemeteries began to fill. By the time the 1848 cholera epidemic came along, it was clear something needed to be done: the city needed a cemetery to suit the times, operating on an industrial scale. It was at this time the problem came to the attention of Sir Richard Broun.

The Railway of the Dead

Broun was fascinated by the recently-emerged technology of steam trains. In 1848, Waterloo Station had only just been opened, and the railways themselves were still considered something of a novelty. Broun, along with his partner Richard Sprye, concocted a plan to ease the overcrowding issue with the help of this new invention. Buying up a 1,500 acre site outside Woking, they proposed the creation of a dedicated railway of the dead: a line (serviced by London & Southwest Rail) used for the sole purpose of transporting the deceased from London to ‘Brookwood Cemetery’ for burial. If all went to plan, the new site would be capable of serving the capital for around 350 years; giving the two a monopoly, as it were, on death.

Heyday and Decline

The railway was inaugurated on 13th November 1854, with its own dedicated platform at Waterloo Station. A timetabled service would transport coffins down at night and mourners by day, delivering them to one of two stations: the Conformist station on Brookwood’s sunny side; or the non-conformist station on its dark north face. To prevent upsetting any delicate Victorian sensibilities, each ‘coffin train’ was divided into classes to separate the dead from their poorer neighbours. Even in death, it seemed, the idea of sharing a carriage with a pauper was anathema.

Even from the outset, it was clear the service would never be as popular as envisioned. While Broun had estimated shipping around 50,000 corpses a year; the actual figure was around 3,000. Yet the LNR limped on for almost a century, throwing up a few oddities along its way. Chief among these was a trend for golfers to take advantage of the cheaper fares to Woking by dressing up as mourners for the journey down. Until the 1940s it remained a weird London institution, a ghoulish Victorian hangover that resisted time, social change and falling demand. Ultimately, it took the Luftwaffe to close it down: during the heavy bombing raid of 16th April 1941 the Waterloo terminus was obliterated. The LNR had shipped its last cadaver.

Today, little remains of this morbid slice of London history. Only a fraction of the Brookwood terminus and the Cemetery itself; now a minor tourist destination. Long gone, largely forgotten, the service that was meant to last 400 years survives only as a bizarre footnote; a reminder of a distant time, when men tried to monopolise death and failed.

Featured images:
  •  License: Royalty Free or iStock source: commons.wikimedia.org
  •  License: Royalty Free or iStock source: commons.wikimedia.org

Thanks to George from spooky holiday destination Alton Towers Breaks for sending us this look at London’s forgotten transport history.

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Author: Channel Voyager

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