It’s very easy to walk past this building on Westminster Bridge Road and never give it a further thought. It has no obvious clues to its past, but it once used to be the terminus station of the London Necropolis Railway.
The current building dates from the early twentieth century, but it replaced a station building opened on the same site in 1854. The station was the London terminus for the Necropolis Railway – a railway devoted entirely to the dead.
In operation from 1854 to 1941, the London Necropolis Railway was the spookiest, strangest train line in British history. It transported London’s dead south-west to Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking, in Surrey, a cemetery that was built in tandem with the railway. At its peak, from 1894 to 1903, the train carried more than 2,000 bodies a year.
Residents of what was then the world’s largest city were crammed into ever more crowded quarters. Suffocating smoke swelled from the sooty factory chimneys and hung in the air like a shroud. Horse manure coated the streets, and human sewage amassed in the River Thames.
By the mid-nineteenth century London’s churchyards were full to overflowing. There was simply no more space to bury the bodies, and with cremation still taboo. Bodies were stamped down into graves already too full, and in many cases just a few inches of soil covered the decaying corpses. The result was appallingly insanitary conditions and frequent outbreaks of disease.
To ease the problems London’s churchyards were closed and building began on a number of out-of-town cemeteries – Kensal Green and, more famously, Highgate. South of London, Brookwood Cemetery was opened some 25 miles from London, but the great difficulty was how to get corpse, coffin and mourners there. The solution was the Necropolis Railway.
The 23-mile journey, which had no stops after leaving London, took 40 minutes. Along the way to their destination, riders glimpsed the lovely landscapes of Westminster, Richmond Park and Hampton Court — no mistake, as the route was chosen partly for its ‘comforting scenery’ as one of the railway’s masterminds noted.
In the late 1940s the track from London to Brookwood was taken up but the station and track survived in the grounds of Brookwood Cemetery for a little longer. There were two stations in the cemetery – the north station served Nonconformists and the south station served the Anglican dead. The north station was demolished in the early 1960s but the south station survived until a fire in 1972. Today, the remains of the station platforms can still be seen at Brookwood – the only reminder of the thousands of dead who took their last journey on the Necropolis railway.
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