The gruesome sounding  'London Necropolis Railway' was opened in 1854 as a purpose built railway to serve the needs of dead! It was a reaction to severe overcrowding in London's existing graveyards and cemeteries. It aimed to use the recently developed technology of the railway to move as many burials as possible out of the city to the newly built Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.

In the first half of the 19th century the population of London more than doubled, from a little under a million people in 1801 to almost two and a half million in 1851. The city's dead had been buried in and around the local churches and despite the rapid growth in population, the amount of land set aside for use as graveyards remained unchanged. Even relatively fresh graves had to be exhumed to free up space for new burials, their contents being unearthed and scattered. Decaying corpses contaminated the water supply, and the city suffered regular epidemics of cholera, smallpox, measles and typhoid, so in 1851 new burials were prohibited by law in the built up areas of London.

As a result a proposal was drawn up to use the emerging technology of mechanised transport to resolve the crisis. The scheme entailed buying a single very large tract of land around 23 miles from London to be called  the London Necropolis (now Brookwood Cemetery). At this distance, the land would be far beyond the maximum projected size of the city's growth. If the practice of only burying a single family in each grave were abandoned and the traditional practice for pauper burials of ten burials per grave were adopted, the site was capable of accommodating 28,500,000 bodies. Even with the prohibition of mass graves it would take over 350 years to fill a single layer of this monstrous cemetery!

Using parts of the existing London and South Western Railway, trains could ship bodies and mourners from London to the site easily and cheaply. Its founders envisaged dedicated coffin trains, each carrying 50–60 bodies, travelling from London to the new Necropolis in the early morning or late at night, and the coffins being stored on the cemetery site until the time of the funeral. Mourners would then be carried to the appropriate part of the cemetery by a dedicated passenger train during the day.

The scheme found widespread support, although the Bishop of London considered it inappropriate that the families of people from very different backgrounds would potentially have to share a train, and felt that it demeaned the dignity of the deceased for the bodies of respectable members of the community to be carried on a train also carrying the bodies and relatives of those who had led immoral lives.

The Westminster Bridge entrance to the first London terminus. The gates were originally made for The Great Exhibition

On 7 November 1854 the new cemetery opened, at the time it was the largest cemetery in the world.  On 13 November the first scheduled train left the new London Necropolis railway station (today the site of London Waterloo). The building was specifically designed for the use of mourners. It had many private waiting rooms, which could also be used to hold funeral services, a hydraulic lift to raise coffins to platform level and existing railway arches were used (somewhat atmospherically)for the storage of bodies.

The London Necropolis Company offered three classes of funerals, which also determined the type of railway ticket sold to mourners and the deceased. A first class funeral allowed the person buying the funeral to select the grave site of their choice anywhere in the cemetery; at the time of opening prices began at £2 10s (about £236 in 2020 terms. Second class funerals cost £1 (about £95 in 2020 terms) and allowed some control over the burial location. The right to erect a permanent memorial cost an additional 10 shillings (about £47 in 2020 terms); if a permanent memorial was not erected the LNC reserved the right to re-use the grave in future. Third class funerals were reserved for pauper funerals; those buried at parish expense in the section of the cemetery designated for that parish. The trains were divided both by class and by religion, with separate Anglican and Nonconformist sections and separate first, second and third class compartments within each. This separation applied to both living and dead passengers!

The Necropolis Train passing Wimbledon in 1902

The  trains were capable of transporting large numbers of mourners when required; Charles Bradlaugh, Member of Parliament for Northampton, was a vocal advocate of Indian self-government and a popular figure among the Indian community in London, many of whom attended his funeral on 3 February 1891. Over 5,000 mourners were carried on three huge special trains, one of which was 17 carriages long. The mourners included the 21-year-old Mohandas Gandhi, who recollected witnessing a loud argument between "a champion atheist" and a clergyman at the cemetery station while waiting for the return train.
A site for a bigger terminus was bought by the LSWR in 1899, south of the existing site and on the opposite side of Westminster Bridge Road. It was completed on 8 February 1902, and the LSWR viaduct was widened to serve a greatly enlarged Waterloo station, destroying all traces of the original LNC terminus.

The new building was designed for attractiveness and modernity to contrast with the traditional gloomy decor associated with the funeral industry. A narrow four-storey building on Westminster Bridge Road held the LNC's offices. Behind it was the main terminal; this held a communal third-class waiting room, mortuaries and storerooms, the LNC's workshops, and a sumptuous oak-panelled Chapelle Ardente, intended for mourners unable to make the journey to Brookwood to pay their respects to the deceased. This building led onto the two platforms, lined with waiting rooms and a ticket office.

Sadly the necropolis railway never achieved the capacity its founders had envisaged, most people still aspired to being buried near to where they lived and worked. The idea of being buried nearly 30 miles out of central London was never an easy choice to make. Coupled with the invention of the motor hearse in 1909, passenger numbers (living and dead) steadily declined across the first half of the century. 

During the night of 16–17 April 1941, in one of the last major air raids on London, bombs repeatedly fell on the Waterloo area with multiple high explosive bombs striking the central section of the terminus building. While the office building and platforms survived, the workshops, driveway and Chapelle Ardente were destroyed, along with the third class waiting room. On 11 May 1941 the station was officially declared closed.

The offices of the LNC at 121 Westminster Bridge Road today, including the first class entrance to the 1902 terminus.

In September 1945, following the end of hostilities, the directors of the LNC met to considerwhether to rebuild the terminus and reopen the London Necropolis Railway. Although the main line from Waterloo to Brookwood had remained in use throughout the war and was in good condition, the branch line from Brookwood into the cemetery had been almost unused since the destruction of the London terminus. Even before the outbreak of hostilities increased use of motorised road transport had damaged the profitability of the railway for both the LNC and the SR. Faced with the costs of rebuilding the cemetery branch line, building a new London terminus and replacing the rolling stock damaged or destroyed in the air raid, the directors concluded that "past experience and present changed conditions made the running of the Necropolis private train obsolete". In mid-1946 the LNC formally informed the SR that the Westminster Bridge Road terminus would not be reopened.

The last recorded funeral party carried on the London Necropolis Railway was that of Chelsea Pensioner Edward Irish (1868–1941), buried on 11 April 1941.

Most of the site of the second station was sold by the LNC and built over with new office developments in the years following the end of the Second World War, but the office building on Westminster Bridge Road, over the former entrance to the station driveway, remains relatively unaltered externally although the words "London Necropolis" carved into the stone above the driveway have sadly been covered and the Westminster Bridge Road building is the only surviving part of the London Necropolis Railway in London.

Memorial at Brookwood to the London Necropolis Railway, erected in 2007

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