Is this Surrey's spookiest railway?
- Credit: Lens of Sutton Association
Stephen Roberts looks back at The Necropolis Railway - when Brookwood Cemetery in Woking really was the end of the line
The London Necropolis Railway, opened in November 1854, had the dignified and responsible task of conveying corpses and mourners from the capital to Brookwood Cemetery in Woking. Situated just 23 miles from London, it had opened in 1852 on what was common land. Today, this is a Grade I Listed site in the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, covering some 500 acres and more than 235,000 interments.
Brookwood Cemetery or the ‘London Necropolis’, provided the solution to the capital’s grave shortage. By the mid-19th century, it was clear that space in and around local churches was running out and the problem of where to bury the capital’s dead was becoming ever-more pressing. London’s population soared from just over one million (1801) to almost 2.5million a mere half a century later.
Every year another 50,000 needed laying to rest and cremation was not yet an option (the first official UK cremation was at Woking Crematorium in March 1885). The London Necropolis Company (LNC) came up with a plan – firstly to establish a cemetery large enough to cope with demand and also a transport system - London Necropolis Railway - for the conveyancing. It was a brilliant stratagem.
A special terminus, the London Necropolis railway station, was constructed next to Waterloo, while a dedicated branch line was built into Brookwood Cemetery, the junction just after Brookwood station. The LNC wasn’t being entirely beneficent with its scheme as it hoped to monopolise London’s lucrative burial industry, so planting and landscaping went on apace at Brookwood to make it a sylvan setting replete with American redwoods. Why would any self-respecting corpse want to end up anywhere else? The funeral trains even had their own rolling stock as commuters may not have fancied using the same carriages.
In Victorian times (and today to a slightly lesser extent) society was delineated by class. Religion too posed (as it does yet) its own barriers. In death, it was no different. The Necropolis trains had passenger and coffin carriages for different classes whilst the cemetery stations were similarly sub-divided.
The cemetery had two stations, North serving the Nonconformist cemetery and South the Anglican one. At Brookwood, the trains went beyond the mainline station, then reversed along the branch to the two cemetery stations.
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Business was ‘brisk’ for not only were there the expected bereavements but also some retrospective trade as the LNC transported large numbers of exhumations when London graveyards saw mass removals to Brookwood. There were also reports of golfers impersonating mourners to ride the trains to a nearby course ‘on the cheap’. Tut-tut.
Daily trains left London at 11.35am (11.20am on Sundays) arriving at the junction at 12.25pm (12.20pm on Sundays). Appropriately then, the mourning train was a morning train with the deceased having a slightly quicker journey in the week. The return train generally left South station at 2.15pm and the junction at 2.30pm.
The Sunday trains only continued until October 1900 while 1902 saw the timetabled daily weekday service discontinued in favour of running the trains ‘as required’, which was all evidence of the disappointing take up from the railway company’s perspective. Ticket prices were capped and constant: 1st Class return 6s; 3rd Class return 2s; 1st Class coffin £1; 3rd Class coffin 2s 6d. Return tickets were only available for mourners...
Some trains were so packed with mourners they took on the appearance of ‘football specials’ without the optimism or rowdiness, of course. One such example relates to the final journey of Charles Bradlaugh MP, who died in January 1891. A keen supporter of Indian independence, he was hugely popular with the capital’s Indian community and more than 5,000 mourners packed the three special trains, one of which was all of 17 carriages, scheduled for his funeral. Those paying their respects included one Mohandas (Mahātmā) Gandh. Then aged 21, he later recalled witnessing a heated spat between a clergyman and an atheist at North station while awaiting the return train.
The LNC’s hoped for monopoly of the London burial business never fully materialised: its business case had been based on transporting 10,000-50,000 cadavers per annum. Yet, when the end came during World War II, the total operation had shifted only 200,000 (which by my reckoning is around 2,300 burials per year). The idea of being buried in a leafy Surrey suburb did not appeal to the masses, preferring to be buried nearer to where they lived and worked.
A natural end
The end of the line for the railway came during the Blitz: the night of April 16/17, 1941 saw heavy bombing which resulted in the Necropolis Railway’s London terminus being badly damaged. It was left unusable and clearly, no one thought it worth the considerable overhead of repair. Although there were still occasional funeral trains from Waterloo to Brookwood, the actual Cemetery Railway was never used again. Not long after war’s end, what was left of the London terminus was sold and the tracks in the cemetery were lifted with almost indecent haste.
In a strange quirk, the North and South stations remained in use for a while as refreshment kiosks - although even this was in keeping as many wakes had been held at the stations complete with ham sarnies, fairy cakes and beer. I’d like to say they served spirits. The cemetery stations were subsequently demolished, the South station following fire damage in 1972.
The North station site is hard to discern today, being heavily overgrown, however, the South station site is in better shape as this is now the home of a Russian Orthodox monastery, and the station platform, which once played host to coffins and commiserates, is still in evidence. A memorial to the railway of the dead was installed at Brookwood station in 2007 and includes a section of track and metal plaque. A fitting final stop.
- 1854 – Opening of the Necropolis Railway between London and Brookwood (13th November).
- 1891 – Funeral of Charles Bradlaugh MP sees over 5,000 mourners head for Brookwood.
- 1900 – The last Sunday service from London Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery.
- 1902 – The daily timetabled weekday service is discontinued and replaced with ‘as required’.
- 1941 – Final day of service (11th April with official closure following in May).
- 1972 – Fire damages Brookwood Cemetery’s South Station which is then demolished.