The Necropolitan Line

As I’ve said before, Waterloo Station is a bit of a sprawling mess. You’ve got the main station, then you’ve got the Underground station, then you’ve got Waterloo East, and then you’ve got the abandoned station – sorry, did I not mention the abandoned station until now? Well, now, that’s an interesting one.

Come out of Waterloo Station, on to Westminster Bridge Road, and you’ll the entrance to it, pictured left. If you get a train out of Waterloo heading towards Wimbledon, and you look outside of the left-hand window, you can see where the railway branched off the main line to serve this station.

So what was the point of this station? Why was it kept separate? Why was it abandoned? Well, the traffic this station was designed for was, how can I put this? One-way. This was the London terminus of the Brookwood Necropolis Railway, the first regular train service for the dead. Yes, it’s another entry on the thorny subject of death in London! Hurrah!

As I mentioned in the entries above, 19th century Londoners were rather preoccupied with the subject of death and burial – not out of some morbid streak (although there was that too), but out of practicality. The fina, once-and-for-all solution to the burial issue was proposed by Richard Sprye and Sir Richard Broun – the creation of a 500-acre site at Woking, out in leafy Surrey. This was to be the Brookwood Necropolis, and it was envisioned to not only take care of all London’s corpse-disposal needs at the time, but to provide dying space for the entire city, forever.

And so in 1852, the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company was set up – Broun and Sprye weren’t involved. However, the London and South Western Railway were. That company served Woking on their line to Portsmouth, and so they backed the concept on the grounds that they could make a pretty penny running funeral trains. Actually, they reckoned £40,000 a year was a sensible estimate.

The Necropolis was opened in 1854, despite objections from the people of Woking and Waterloo. The LSWR built a branch running off the main line into the cemetery, with two stations – one for those belonging to the Church of England and the other for Nonconformists. The station at Waterloo was originally built in York Road, a single-platform affair privately owned by the London Necropolis Company. The Lost Property office doesn’t bear thinking about.

The LSWR originally anticipated three trains each way, even building special hearse vans to carry the bodies (neatly side-stepping the question of whether they should be classed as passengers or freight). As it happened, they only ran one per day. Philosophers might claim that death is the Great Leveller, but railway executives think rather differently. Therefore, each train was divided into First, Second and Third Class segments, as well as separate accommodation for Anglicans and Nonconformists. And yes, the segregation by class was carried over into the hearse vans. I can’t speak for the Victorians, but it seems to me that if you’re in a position to worry about the class your coffin is riding as you make your way to your funeral, you probably have other things on your mind.

Waterloo Station was rebuilt at the beginning of the 20th century, and that most terminal of termini was demolished to make way. The presently-surviving terminus at 121 Westminster Bridge Road was built in its place, larger than the old one to enable coffins to be loaded on to trains away from the eyes of the funeral party. It also incorporated state-of-the-art hydraulic lifts and fancy decor befitting this most solemn service. Not befitting the solemnity was the fact that railwaymen had bestowed the nickname of “The Stiffs Express” on the trains, one hopes out of earshot of mourners.

Oddly enough, though people in London were no closer to immortality, demand for the service dropped as the years went on, and by the 1930s there were only a couple of trains running per week. In 1941, a German bomb took out the station, and it was decided that it wasn’t worth rebuilding. The service was brought to an end, with funeral parties (and coffins) from then on travelling on regular trains to the main station at Brookwood.

Thus came to an end to what might have been the strangest train service in London. Perhaps the vision of Broun and Sprye was never quite realised as they had hoped, but at least some part of the old station survives. A monument to the deceased, as it were.

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3 Comments

Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Commuter belt, History, London, London's Termini, Transport, Waterloo and Southwark

3 responses to “The Necropolitan Line

  1. Interesting post! If you are at all interested in Steampunk/Alternative History, you might want to look at The Necropolis Railway by Andrew Martin.

  2. Cari

    Would you know if there is anything else left of the Necropolis Railway? It came up in The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross, and the main character mentions a cycle/footpath that is now where one of the lines used to be…only it’s hard to tell what’s real, a loose reference to real life, or complete fiction given the nature of the story. I find the whole concept facinating 🙂

    • TGW

      I believe a few bits of it survive at the Necropolis itself. In London, pretty much all there is is the facade of the station and a bit of a stump of viaduct off the main line out of Waterloo. It used the ordinary track for most of its route, so there wouldn’t have been very much track exclusive to the Necropolis Railway in the first place.

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