The London Ghost Train


Just outside Waterloo station in London stand the remnants of the city’s most unusual railway terminus. You might well ask why anyone would want to build a station right next to Waterloo. Furthermore, a casual glance at this railway’s books would reveal another mystery – an unusual number of single (and very expensive) tickets sold for the short trip to this line’s sole destination. The answer to these puzzles was once written in bold letters over the station entrance, although the sign has long since been removed. It read: ‘London Necropolis Railway’.
By the mid nineteenth century, overcrowding was becoming a real problem in London and not just for the living. With space at a premium, the tiny graveyards of the city’s mediaeval churches were overflowing, sometimes scandalously, with human bones being unearthed by accident and scattered about indiscriminately. What was needed was a new burial ground that was large enough and affordable enough for ordinary Londoners. The newly arrived railway service appeared to provide an answer.
Just four years after Waterloo station was finished in 1848, the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company was formed. It had bought 2,000 acres of land from Lord Onslow at Brookwood near Woking in Surrey, of which 500 acres were landscaped as a cemetery. Being so far out of town, the land was cheap, so that even the poor would be able to afford their own plot (as opposed to having to share communal ones in the City), but the coffins and mourners would still need transport to get there. This was where the railway came in.
The management of the London and South West Railway were unsure about having funeral parties on their trains, fearing that the new breed of train traveller that they were encouraging onto their still novel form of transport might be put off by sitting in a carriage that had previously held a coffin. Then there were the concerns of the bishop of London, who warned that it would be highly inappropriate to convey the coffins of working-class people in the same carriage as respectable folk. Similarly, the mourners from different classes should never be allowed to mix.
It was decided to address all these issues by creating special funeral trains with their own stations, so as not to spook ordinary travellers. Funeral parties, both living and dead, were to be divided up into three classes and two types (Anglican and Nonconformist).
At the London Necropolis terminal, first-class mourners could enjoy the privacy of their own dedicated waiting room, from which they could watch their loved one’s coffin being loaded on to the reserved first-class section of the mortuary car, whose more elaborate doors helped to justify the increased cost for carrying a first-class corpse. First-class Nonconformists could travel in similar luxury but in a different compartment.
After the fifty-seven-minute journey, the train would arrive in turn at each of two specially built stations, one on the south side of the cemetery for Anglicans and another on the north for Nonconformists. Here first-class mourners would disembark with their own chaplain, who would hold a private service in the station chapel before moving on to the interment. Afterwards there was time for a drink and perhaps lunch in the refreshment room, followed by a walk around the grounds, before the train returned the mourners to London.
For third-class mourners, there were less elaborate arrangements. They warranted only one communal service said at the chapel over all the coffins collectively, rather than over each one individually (although Nonconformists and Anglicans still had separate services). Third-class mourners also had to make do with a communal waiting room, rather than a private room for each funeral party.
The Necropolis railway opened on 13 November 1854 but was never the great success its founders had hoped. Other railways offered competing services, some with cemeteries much closer to London, and only 3,200 burials a year took place in the first twenty years of the service. At the turn of the century, the Sunday service was abandoned and by the 1930s there was just one Necropolis train a week.
Nevertheless the end of the line for the London Necropolis railway was not the result of its unpopularity. On the night of 16 April 1941 its London terminus was bombed, destroying the mortuary, workshops and entrance. The bespoke funeral carriages in a nearby siding were also wrecked. In the cold light of day it was realised that, even with compensation, it was uneconomic to revive the service. Today only the London frontage of the terminus remains. At Brookwood cemetery the railway tracks have been taken up, the station buildings have gone and only the platforms and station chapels survive as a last reminder of London’s ghost train.
***The London Necropolis Company, also London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company, was set up in 1850, and established by Act of Parliament in 1852. Its intention was to create a large metropolitan cemetery, big enough to hold all of London’s dead forever. Brookwood Cemetery was set up at Brookwood, Surrey, near Woking, landscaped by William Tite, and by 1854 it was the largest cemetery in the world. Funeral trains ran from London Necropolis railway station, adjacent to Waterloo station, directly to platforms within the cemetery itself. The London Necropolis Company relinquished its interest in the cemetery around 1975, but the cemetery remains privately owned.