The Railway for the Dead – Halloween Special

For Halloween

London’s Necropolis Railway

Devoted to carrying corpses, the London Necropolis Railway was the spookiest, strangest train line in British history ai??i?? but also possibly the most useful.

  • By Amanda Ruggeri
18 October 2016

For 87 years, nearly every day, a single train ran out of London and back. It left from a dedicated station near Waterloo built specifically for the line and its passengers. The 23-mile journey, which had no stops after leaving London, took 40 minutes. Along the way to their destination, riders glimpsed the lovely landscapes of Westminster, Richmond Park and Hampton Court ai??i?? no mistake, as the route was chosen partly for its ai???comforting sceneryai???, as one of the railwayai??i??s masterminds noted.

How much comfort a route gives passengers isnai??i??t a usual consideration for a train line. But this was no normal train line.

Many of the passengers on the train would be distraught. The others ai??i?? those passengersai??i?? loved ones ai??i?? be dead. Their destination: the cemetery.

A rare view of the first London Necropolis Railway station

A rare view of the first London Necropolis Railway station, built in 1854; it was demolished after the new station was built in 1902 (Credit: SSPL)

In operation from 1854 to 1941, the London Necropolis Railway was the spookiest, strangest train line in British history. It transported Londonai??i??s dead south-west to Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking, in Surrey, a cemetery that was built in tandem with the railway. At its peak, from 1894 to 1903, the train carried more than 2,000 bodies a year.

It also transported their families and friends. Guests could leave with their dearly departed at 11:40am, attend the burial, have a funeral party at one of the cemeteryai??i??s two train stations (complete with home-cooked ham sandwiches and fairy cakes), and then take the same train back, returning to London by 3:30pm.

I consider it improper” ai??i?? Bishop of London, 1842

The pairing of grief and efficiency may seem a little jarring. It did then, too. ai???I consider it improper,ai??? sniffed the Bishop of London, testifying on the proposal before a House of Commons Select Committee in 1842. ai???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.ai???

But people became accustomed to it, says John Clarke, a historian who has written a book on the railway ai??i?? so much so, some failed to see what was odd about it at all. During his research, Clarke says, he asked one of the railway companyai??i??s former stonemasons if he had any photographs of the train. The stonemason, surprised, asked, ai???No ai??i?? why would I have that?ai???

Clarke explains: ai???For the people who worked at the cemetery, and for the [railway] company, it was what they did ai??i?? and it wasnai??i??t unusual.ai???

Still, thatai??i??s not to say that the idea of operating a train that exclusively transported dead bodies and mourners to a cemetery seemed ai???normalai??i?? when it was first proposed. Critics claimed that a train was too mechanical, too perfunctory, for the delicate work of funeral rites. They also worried that trains carrying corpses would later carry passengers ai??i?? a mix of living and dead riders would make for an unpalatable commute. That was one reason that the line had its own dedicated train stock.

Others expressed concern that different social classes would mix. There were separate carriages for each class, as was the custom at the time ai??i?? and continues to be the case on many British trains today. Even so, the fact that both banker and beggar would ride the same train and alight at the same cemetery station was somewhat egalitarian. So was the cemetery itself, which was divided not by class or status, but by religion ai??i?? Anglican burials, for example, were separated from other Christian denominations.

Brookwood Cemetery, also called the London Necropolis

Opened in 1854, Brookwood Cemetery, also called the London Necropolis, remains the largest cemetery in Western Europe today (Credit: Peter Lane/Alamy)

Despite trepidation, the government went ahead with the plan anyway. In many ways, it had to.

By mid-19th Century, Londonai??i??s cemeteries were notoriously overcrowded. And as the cityai??i??s population grew, more than doubling from 1801 to 1851, the situation only worsened. Every year, London was burying another 50,000 dead ai??i?? but burial space remained less than 300 acres. That left gravediggers to turn to some particularly distasteful solutions, like digging up previously-buried bodies and cremating them at night. (Find out more about Londonai??i??s abundance of human remains and how they affect even modern train lines in our recent story about London rail and mass graves of plague victims). Only those who could afford spots in new, exclusive burial grounds like Highgate Cemetery, Londonai??i??s most famous cemetery, were exempt from possibly being exhumed and unceremonially cremated.

For the rest of the story……….

Comments

One Response to “The Railway for the Dead – Halloween Special”
  1. Haveacow says:

    Now that was a good train story for Halloween!

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