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London Necropolis Railway: London’s Railway of the Dead

Picture of Ruaidhrí Carroll
London Travel Writer
Updated: 4 April 2018
The Victorians gave us plenty to remember them by, but we don’t always hear enough about their darker side; the side that gave us things like death photography, Jack the Ripper and…a railway for dead people? Here’s everything you need to know about the London Necropolis Railway, London’s railway of the dead.

Anyone who’s been to London will know Waterloo, but few people nowadays are aware of the area’s morbid past. It was once home to the London terminus of the London Necropolis Railway (LNR), a transport system used exclusively to carry cadavers south from the capital to Surrey, where they were buried.

London Necropolis Railway former office building
Former offices of the London Necropolis Railway at 121 Westminster Bridge Road, London | © Tom Bastin/Flickr

Arguably the de facto capital of the 19th-century world, Victorian London was an imperial hub full of wealth and opportunity. The city’s population had doubled between 1801 and 1851 as people flocked to the city with hopes of staking a claim to some of the spoils that London had to offer. London’s graveyards were already filling up quickly and the population boom only made the problem worse. Approximately 50,000 people were being buried every year, yet London had a mere 218 acres of burial space. In 1854, with the risk of the city’s cemeteries overflowing, Parliament allowed the construction of the LNR to carry bodies from London to Surrey’s Brookwood Cemetery, where there was an expansive 1,500 acres of burial space.

Nearly every day for 87 years, trains embarked on the 23-mile, 40-minute journey from London Necropolis railway station to Brookwood Cemetery, passing Westminster, Richmond Park and Hampton Court – all places with beautiful scenery that were intended to calm mourners who were accompanying their dearly departed on the macabre journey. Every year between 1894 and 1904, more than 2,000 cadavers made their final journey aboard the LNR.

Russian Orthodox Monastery at Brookwood Cemetery
Russian Orthodox Monastery at Brookwood Cemetery | © Geograph

Grieving families would have their departed loved ones collected by horse-drawn hearse and a funeral procession would lead mourners to the station. For the living, trains cost six shillings for the upper class and two shillings for the lower and middle classes. Costs of passage for the dead were also determined by class: it was £1 for upper-class corpses and two shillings and sixpence for those of the lower and middle classes. At the station, coffins were hoisted into elevators and transported to platform level and onto the train, which departed daily at 11.40am. Brookwood Cemetery was divided by religion, with Anglican burials held near the South Station, while those of other religions took place near the North Station. Mourners would arrive back in London by 3.30pm after the funeral, but not before a funeral party, complete with sandwiches, fairy cakes and beer, at one of the Surrey stations.

Brookwood Cemetery and the LNR solved London’s burial woes by offering plenty of space to bury dead bodies and providing a means of getting them there – but there were a few things that limited the success of the project and ultimately saw the LNR terminated forever by the mid-20th century. First, the concept underestimated people’s preference to be buried near where they live and work. Second, the inflexible train times limited demand for the line because (apart from the Sunday service) they meant people had to take a day off work, which was impractical – often impossible – for most people in Victorian and Edwardian England. Third, introduced in 1909, motor hearses quickly became the preferred mode of funeral transport and horse-drawn hearses and the LNR fell into disuse.

London Necropolis Railway damaged during the Blitz
London Necropolis Railway damaged during the Blitz | ©

The final nail in the LNR coffin came in the form of the Second World War. A fire caused by a German air raid on the capital on April 16, 1941 tore through the London Necropolis Railway station and destroyed most of the building. Company officials decided to close down the line, which had by that point only been running one or two services a week.

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