Once, London had a train line that was so special you could only reserve a ticket by paying the "ultimate price", you could only ride it if you were dead, and - if you were one of the chosen few - you could only make one trip, in one direction, from Waterloo... to your final resting place. It was called The Necropolis Railway and it was London's very own railway of death.
With the ever-expanding city of London's space in short supply, with burial plots being brought at a premium and mortuaries fit to bursting with a backlog of bodies stacking up, following the Cholera outbreak of 1856 (as recounted in my affectionately titled blog - "the man who stopped Soho eating its own poo") as well as smallpox, measles, typhoid and the numerous plague epidemics (in 1343, 1593, 1665-6, 1673 and 1692, to name but a few) which decimated the population by as much as a sixth, London needed somewhere to bury its dead.
Surely they could simply have built another Central London cemetery? Unfortunately not. In 1851, the Burials Acts (an Act to Amend the Laws Concerning the Burial of the Dead in the Metropolis) was passed. Previously to accommodate the growing city, new burial plots were created by excavating old graves and scattering the decomposing remains to free up space, the effect of which exacerbated the cholera, plague and typhoid outbreaks. Therefore, under the Burials Act, new graves were prohibited in any built up areas of London.
Upon completion of the stylish, spacious but "not exactly local" Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, Sir Richard Broun and Richard Sprye strived to find a way to make this new site accessible, popular and profitable, whilst also treating the recently deceased with a sense of style, class and occasion but - more importantly- keeping the corpses at a safe distance given the city's current queasiness over the many communicable diseases associated with death.
Keen to make the most of the latest innovation in modern engineering - steam trains - The London Necropolis Railway was established, its aim to build a train station, train track and terminus dedicated solely for the transporting of the dearly departed (complete with coffin, flowers and grieving relatives).
Two temporary stations were opened at Brookwood; the 'South Station' for Anglican burials and (in a truly "Christian" move) the 'North Station' for all "other religions", with London's main 'Necropolis Station' opening in 13 November 1854, sited in Waterloo. Unfortunately these stations no longer exist, although both the South & North stations were cheerfully used up until the 1940's as refreshment kiosks. in the late 19th century, to cope with demand and following the rapid expansion of Waterloo Station, The Necropolis was resited in an especially designed building on Westminster Bridge Road, complete with waiting rooms, a chapel for funeral services, lifts to raises the coffins up to the platform, and (in the railway arches) a mortuary to store the bodies.
Although its popularity waned in the early 20th century (as London and it's populous expanded further beyond the city limits, with new towns springing up and transport to and from the city became quicker, cheaper and easier) an yet during its operation 'The Necropolis Railway' transported over 200,000 Londoner's to their last resting places. But it wasn't until 16th April 1941, when a bombing raid by the German Luftwaffe decimated the Waterloo terminus, that 'The Necropolis Railway' ceased.
The last recorded funeral to be carried on 'The Necropolis Railway' was of the Chelsea Pensioner Edward Irish on 11th April 1941, and on the 11th May 1941, the London Necropolis Railway was closed. Although the vast majority of the Necropolis (below/right, as architecturally splendid as it was) is now dead and buried, the only parts of 'The Necropolis' which still exists are the railway arches and its side entrance (seen below/left), situated at 188 Westminster Bridge Road.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 18 murderers, 3 serial killers, across 21 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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