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The Brookwood Necropolis Railway by John M.Clarke

Like the writer of this book I came across the Necropolis railway quite by accident. A few years ago we took all our Railway books to the Signal Box at Tintern Old Station, to set up a temporary Railway bookshop for a couple of weeks. 

Whilst displaying the books, I came across a chapter in a book about the London Necropolis Railway - before then I had never given it a thought as to what happened to the dead of London.

The London Necropolis railway was established for two main reasons, a growing London population and a lack of burial space. The railway enabled the dead of London to be quickly and efficiently transported to new burial grounds far outside the city, in Surrey.

Before 1848 graves were being used over and over again with bodies crammed into graves, coffin wood being used for firewood and old bones crushed and used for fertiliser.

However, nothing was really done to alleviate the problem until the cholera outbreak of 1848, which resulted in over 14,000 deaths. Something had to be done and so the London Necropolis Railway came into being. Not everyone thought the idea of using a railway for burials was a good idea, the Bishop of London was reported to have said:

"I consider it improper... At present we are not sufficiently habituated to that mode of travelling, not to consider the hustle and bustle connected with it as inconsistent with the solemnity of a Christian funeral."

In spite of the protestations, the work on the first site of the Necropolis railway started in 1854 in an area near Waterloo station called York Street. The station comprised many things including a grand entrance hall and staircase for mourners attending the 'better classes of funerals' and another entrance, not so grand, for the 'lowest classes of funerals'.

Above: The Waterloo 'A' Box and York Street Station, c. 1867; and North Station, c. 1907.

Eventually the York Street station proved unsuitable and another station was built in Westminster Bridge Road.

The land for the cemetery itself at Brookwood consisted of 2000 acres of Surrey heathland, stretching from Woking to Brookwood and bought from Lord Onslow.

The embankments along the cemetery branch were planted with Wellingtonia, rhodedendrons and azalea bushes.

In the early days of the Necropolis railway, London undertakers assisted with the funeral arrangements, however, eventually the London Necropolis railway conducted their own funerals.

Above: An engraving showing the proposed London necropolis and national mausoleum, c. 1852; and a coffin being loaded into a hearse van, c. 1905.

The coffin would arrive by horse-drawn hearse and was sent up to platform level by lift. Name cards were put on waiting rooms, railway compartments and hearse railway carriages, so there would be no awkward mix-ups at the funerals. Everything was separated by class and religion, including the dead!

In 1941, the London Terminus was badly hit in an air raid and in May of the same year was declared officially closed, this effectively marked the end of the London Necropolis Railway.

Contributed by Theresa.

(Published 4th Dec 2014)

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