The title of this blog isn’t your new favorite fantasy series or the name of a nu-metal band. Instead, it is the very real train for the dead that was used to ferry the dead to their eternal resting place. This station was erected in the mid-1850s to combat a very real and very morbid problem: the cemeteries filling up. The London Necropolis Railway Station would run every day for nearly 90 years before fading gently into its own death.
Today, a beautiful red building stands on 121 Westminster Bridge Road in London. It’s elegant design and eye-catching front door may ensure a passing glance of interest but it is hard to tell the dark history of this building. One would hardly believe that thousands upon thousands passed through that large entryway, a former train tunnel, for over eight decades.
This building is all that remains of the London Necropolis Railway Station. This railway company was created for one purpose and one purpose alone: getting corpses out of city center.. By the 1850s, London’s inner-city cemeteries were full and despite trying to maximize space...there was simply no more room.
So, a cemetery were built in nearby Surrey. But, in a bustling city like London, carting out the dozens that died each day to Surrey efficiently seemed an almost insurmountable task. Planning began with the living in mind. The station was very beautiful and included lovely waiting rooms for mourners to wait until the one train of the day stopped by. The rail route would take the deceased’s family through a scenic journey and would catch views of Westminster and Hampton Court as they traveled with their loved one’s corpse. The journey was a little over 20 miles and took less than an hour.
According to Look Up London, Railway Magazine wrote in 1904, “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 scheduling was also very considered. The train would leave at 11:40am, plenty of time for mourning family members to make their way to the station while staying out of the way of rush hour hustle and bustle. They would arrive at about half-past noon and be able to have a funeral service on the cemetery grounds before taking the train back to London at 3:30pm, which would have the mourners arriving before the end of the work day. It was almost as if the mourners were shuffled in and out while the city was busy at work so that other citizens wouldn’t be confronted with the awful truth at how close death really is.
According to BBC, during its peak years from 1894-1903 the trains would carry over 2,000 bodies per year. By its close it would carry over 200,000 bodies to Brookwood Cemetery, the end of the line.
The London Necropolis Railway would begin to slow with the introduction of a motor hearse in 1909 which, by 1920, would far outpace the train. Many preferred death to remain private and taking a private vehicle instead of a train filled with other mourners (and bodies) seemed preferable to many. The train’s schedule changed from once daily, to every other day, and finally by the mid 1930s to just once or twice a week.
I find this, in some ways, a little strange. One would think that being near to other mourners might make the whole strange process of death feel a little more universal. Perhaps a person mourning alone would find comfort that they were not alone in their struggle of sadness. However, there were issues especially regarding classes during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Unfortunately, separate entrances to the train station were created and one could buy first or second class tickets. In fact, even the corpses could have first or second class tickets, one way of course.
However, the true death of The London Necropolis Railway occurred in 1941. During the Blitz, bombs dropped on April 16th caused huge amounts of damage and death, including to the station. Most of the main station was destroyed, although the gorgeous Victorian facade would remain. Instead of reconstructing, the railway company decided to completely close down the line.
Although it still stands today, the inscription of LONDON NECROPOLIS RAILWAY has been etched out of history and out of many people’s memories.
The blog image is of the Westminster Bridge Road entrance to the first London terminus. The ornate gates were originally designed for the Great Exhibition.