My ‘culture’ gig this week was a rather strange one, because (as Michael Caine would say) “Not a lot of people know that”……and it concerns London’s ‘Necropolis Railway’ also known as the ‘Death Railway’!!!
Halfway between Lower Marsh street and Lambeth North tube station is 121 Westminster Bridge Road. As a building, it’s a lot more distinguished than the surrounding moden office blocks — as its constructed in red brick, with four pillars flanking the first floor windows — but it’s nothing outstanding.
What you wouldn’t know from the outside is that thousands of dead bodies have been transported through these premises.
The building is all that remains of the “London Necropolis Railway”, a railway company that was formed exclusively for transporting corpses out of London’s city centre in the 1850s, when inner London’s cemeteries were chock-a-block full.
Those who’d died in the overcrowded city were transported to be buried in leafy Surrey – their friends and family travelling with them for the funeral, before being brought back to London on a return journey the same day.
The railway ran from London to Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, a location which was thought to be close enough to the city for grieving relatives, but far enough away to avoid any threat to public health.
The London Necropolis Railway was very well planned. The route was chosen as the countryside scenery would be comforting to mourners, and the railway had its own dedicated trains and carriages, as it was thought that regular railway passengers wouldn’t be happy travelling in carriages that had previously been used to transport corpses.
The very first London Necropolis station was built next to Waterloo Station (then Waterloo Bridge station), and this and the Westminster Bridge Road Necropolis station shared railway lines out of the capital. The Necropolis station was a separate building, complete with waiting rooms for mourners, segregated by social class and religion, and the bodies were stored in the railway arches while awaiting transportation out to Brookwood.
By the late 1890s, Waterloo station had increased capacity and needed to expand, so the new Necropolis station was built on Westminster Bridge Road in 1902, and the old station knocked down.
The ‘death railway’ continued to operate out of the building at 121 Westminster Bridge Road until 1941, when the premises took a hit in an air raid and suffered severe bomb damage.
The London Necropolis Railway did however continue to operate out of platforms back at Waterloo station until 1945, albeit with a severely restricted service – but after the war it was decided that it wasn’t worth rebuilding the station or reopening the Necropolis line, and the operation/service was closed down.
Between the London Necropolis Railway opening in 1849, and the final train running out of the designated station in 1941 – it was estimated that over 200,000 people had been transported out via the Necropolis railway and buried at Brookwood Cemetery.
Surprisingly, there is no mention of the Necropolis railway on the official Brookwood Cemetery website – and coverage of its existence anywhere else is extremely low-key – but nevertheless, I feel it’s an interesting piece of London history, albeit a bit of a ‘dark’ subject – and I have posted some photos to accompany this piece to help bring it to life (excuse the pun!!) – which I hope you find interesting too