London Necropolis Railway: Trains For The Dead

It’s very easy to walk past this building on Westminster Bridge Road and never give it a further thought. It has no obvious clues to its past, but it once used to be the terminus station of the London Necropolis Railway.

London Necropolis Railway

A Novel Idea

1850s London was bursting. The population had doubled between 1801-1850.

There was simply no more space to bury the bodies. And with cremation still taboo, the London Necropolis Railway was founded. The idea was to transport dead bodies and their accompanying mourners out to Surrey by rail for funerals and burials, so everyone in the party (but one) would have a return ticket back to London.

The first Necropolis station was actually nearer Waterloo Station (about where Leake Street is now) but the only remaining building (121 Westminster Bridge Road) was the second one, built in 1902 after Waterloo station expanded.

A smooth operation

The 23-mile trip to Brookwood Cemetery took 40 minutes and the living passengers could enjoy what was intended to be a ‘comforting’ view of green scenery; whizzing past Richmond Park and Hampton Court.

Not Everyone Was Happy

As you can imagine, the proposal was met with shock and disgust at first. One common concern was that carriages carrying dead bodies would later come in contact with living commuters, this was solved by the railway having its own special train stock.

Another concern (typically Victorian) was that there would be a mix of social classes. So carriages were separated in terms of social class and also religion. There was a reserved space for ‘non-conformists!

London Necropolis Railway

This used to be the entrance for ‘First Class’ mourners 

“Possibly this is the most peaceful railway station in the three corners of the kingdom — this station of the dead. But this is a sad station, the saddest in our islands. For every time it is used means an occasion of grief and pain to those who tread its platforms.” Railway Magazine (1904)

The railway lasted for 87 years until 1941, running nearly every day, and at its peak it carried 2,000 bodies a year. In total 203,041 people were buried in Brookwood Cemetery during that time.

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London Necropolis Railway

7 Comments

  • Graham

    Reply

    Great little write up here Kate!

    I work trying to upgrade London Underground, so these stories are always welcome and good to find out about.
    So much history!

    Have a good day

    May 18, 2019 at 10:20 am
  • Karys Fearon

    Reply

    Thanks Katie – We meet as descendants of The First Fleet – convicts and marines to Australia in 1788. Last week’s excellent talk was by one of the staff from Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery and the beautiful stone railway station that took the train from Central to Rookwood in earlier years. There were two such stations built and one was transported to Canberra, stone by stone to build it in its form and filled in to create the church that the station resembled. A lovely story of yours, and in comparison, may I use your story to go with the write up of the Rookwood talk I will put in our next newsletter? I can also send you a copy of the newsletter when it is done for December meeting. Thank you,

    August 14, 2019 at 1:58 pm
  • Mark Roberts

    Reply

    Nice article! DO you have any idea where the first Necropolis Railway station was? Wikipedia says it was on York Street (now Leake Street) and I assume there’s nothing at all left of it but I’m still curious. I’ve been interested in the railway and the station ever since the 80’s prog rock band UK did a song called “Rendezvous 6:02” featuring it (at least I’m pretty sure that’s what they’re referring to).

    June 1, 2020 at 8:14 pm
  • Peter Bates

    Reply

    Brookwood is indeed a very large cemetery. I went in search of the grave of Joshua Jebb; the man who designed Pentonville Prison. I found it after a great deal of searching and much help from mobile cemetery staff. Do you happen to know if Jebb was carried on the Necropolis Railway. Best wishes Peter Bates

    May 2, 2021 at 12:14 pm

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