London Necropolis Railway: The Train For The Dead

It was a difficult time to be alive in 1848 London, and worse still to be dead. A cholera epidemic had just swept through the city killing nearly 15,000 of its inhabitants, and bodies were literally pilling up besides churches waiting to be buried. But there was one problem: there was no space to bury.

The population of London was soaring. In 1801, the city had less than a million people living. In 1851, that figure had more than doubled to almost two and a half million. But the 300 acres allotted for burial space remain unchanged, requiring old graves, and some relatively fresh ones, to be regularly exhumed to make room for new burials. The old corpses were crumpled and scattered contaminating the soil and water supply resulting in fresh bouts of epidemics. Cholera, smallpox, measles, typhoid were pervasive in Victorian London.
Eventually, a decision was taken —there were to be no more burials in London’s graveyards. Instead, a series of new cemeteries were to be established far outside the city. One such cemetery, in Brookwood, 37 km away from London, became the largest in the United Kingdom. Covering 1,500 acres, the site was designed to last, by a conservative estimate, over 350 years to fill just a single layer. In order to ferry the dead and their family of mourners the long distance, a dedicated railroad was built, named the London Necropolis Railway.

Everyday, starting November 1854, a single train carrying coffins and the family of the dead left London for Brookwood from a dedicated station in Waterloo. The 37-km journey had no stops and took 40 minutes to cover. Mourners would reach Brookwood shortly after mid-day, bury their dead, have a funeral party at one of the cemetery’s two train stations, and then take the same train back, returning to London by 3:30 PM.

Like regular passenger trains, the Necropolis train had classes. A first class ticket allowed the family to choose where they wanted to inter the dead within the cemetery. They could also erect a permanent memorial over the grave. A second class ticket gave some control over the choice of the grave site, but erecting permanent memorials cost extra. The third class was for pauper funerals. Compartments, both for living and for dead passengers, were also partitioned by religion —as was the custom at the time— to prevent people from different social backgrounds from mixing.