Brookwood Cemetery, coffin trains, funeral trains, London Necropolis, London Necropolis Railway, Necropolis company, Richard Broun, Richard Sprye, Victorian Death, Victorian funerals
Readers of this blog might have guessed that I have a bit of a fancy for graveyards and the macabre…surely not I, hear you say! In my opinion, the Victorian’s definitely had the edge when it came to eccentric and OTT funerary practices. The London Necropolis Company with its railway service was a prime example of how the Victorian’s used a modern technology to revolutionise funerals for rich and poor alike.
A surplus of bodies
London in the nineteenth century was a burgeoning industrial and commercial centre, attracting in-comers from all over the country and the empire. Between 1801 – 1851 the population pretty much doubled. With this increase in the living, there came also in increase in the dying and soon London’s limited burial grounds were packed to overflowing. Reuse of burial plots resulted in bones and body parts being strewn about the cemeteries polluting the ground water and exacerbating the problem by increasing the risk of outbreaks of Typhoid, Measles, Smallpox and Cholera. When 15,000 Londoners were carried off by Cholera in 1848/49 it was evident that something urgently needed to be done.
A man with a plan
Into this festering scene stepped Sir Richard Broun, an entrepreneur with an eye for new technology and a fast profit. Sir Richard and his partner Richard Sprye had the innovative idea of out-of-town burials – a kind of suburbia for the dead. They hit upon the innovative idea of using the new-fangled and somewhat controversial steam-train as the method for shipping the dead out of London to Woking in Surrey.
They had done their sums and projected that up to 50,000 people a year would use the service, rich and poor alike; profits, like the dead, were sure to pile up. Their plan would help reduce the burial problem in London, hopefully reduce the risk of further outbreaks of Cholera, and help make funerals more affordable by basing them outside London.
There was some panic and frothing at the mouth amongst the steam-train phobic, who feared these noisy dirty mechanical thing-u-mabobs were hardly appropriate for the solemn dignity of a funeral service. Plus some objections from the privileged classes who feared their dearly departed might have to rub mouldering shoulders with the deceased hoi polloi; this was illustrated by Paul Slade in his article for the Fortean Times, where he quotes the Bishop of London, Charles Blomfield, in 1842, harumphing that, “It may sometimes happen that persons of opposite characters might be carried in the same conveyance,” [..] “For instance, the body of some profligate spendthrift might be placed in a conveyance with the body of some respectable member of the church, which would shock the feelings of his friends.” Quelle Horreur!
Nevertheless, despite the imminent fear of social anarchy propounded by the likes of the Bishop, Parliament gave the go-ahead and in 1852 The London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company was born. Not a name to trip off the tongue it was swiftly changed to the more succinct London Necropolis Company. The First Necropolis Train was puffing its way to Brookwood Cemetery by November 1854.
Brookwood Cemetery – London’s Necropolis
Broun and Sprye had bought huge tracts of Woking Common and created Brookwood Cemetery, at 500 acres it was the biggest cemetery in the country. Brookwood cemetery was integral to the London Necropolis Railway. The railway utilised the existing Waterloo to Southampton Railway Line, owned by the London and South Western Railway Company, and added a private branch line that went right into Brookwood Cemetery.
Londoners, both alive and dead, could alight the train at its own discreet private platform at Waterloo Station. Initially at York Street, with easy access to the Thames transport links, it was later moved to Westminster Bridge Road. The Station had to be moved to make way for the expansion of Waterloo Station, but it also allowed for a revamp of the Necropolis station to suit more modern tastes and to update its facilities such as mortuaries and to add a chapel of rest.
A Ticket to Ride
The Bishop of London need not have feared for his delicate sensibilities, the classes were tastefully kept apart and the distinction of rank preserved with both living and dead divided by religion and by class: Conformist (Anglican) and Non-conformist (everyone else); and first, second and third class.
A first class one way coffin ticket, priced at a princely £2.10 shillings, allowed the purchaser access to choose their own plot of land with a permanent marker.
A second class ticket cost £1 and allowed some choice of plot, and for an extra 10 shillings, the family could erect a permanent marker. The slight downside was that the London Necropolis Company could decide to reuse the plot.
A third class ticket cost only a couple of shillings and was often used by paupers and those being buried ‘on the parish’, they had no choice of plot, and no marker, but they did get an individual plot which was more than they could expect elsewhere. The LNC usually threw in a couple of free tickets for mourners as well (return of course – unlike the coffin).
In the station itself, First and Second Class patrons were also treated with distinction. They were given a grand entrance hall and staircase, elevators, and avenues lined with bay and palm trees. They also had the use of 5 private waiting rooms and were permitted to view the coffins being loaded onto the hearse car of the train.
The poor had to make do with a shared waiting room and they were not permitted to watch their loved ones being put on the train. Funeral cars were themselves divided by class, the more elaborate and decorated the more expensive the ticket.
Once at Brookwood Cemetery there were two stops, one for conformists on the sunny side of the cemetery and one on the north side for non conformists.
One of the interesting things is that the service had refreshment rooms that served spirits (but of course!) The living also seemed to have enjoyed this perk, often taking fortified refreshments while waiting for the return train. There are reports of some quite riotous behaviour on the return journey (I wonder which class was the worst?) The occasional driver got a bit to merry to operate the train, until the company introduced a free lunch and pint of beer as part of the drivers benefits in an attempt to keep them from the local pubs.
Death of the Necropolis Railway
Clarke indicates that the train service, right from the outset was never quite as popular or profitable as Broun and Sprye hoped. He notes that between 1854-1874 it fell far short of the estimate of 50,000 funerals per year, only managing about 3200, which Clarke calculates to be about 6.5% of the annual deaths in London. The London Necropolis Company had competitors in the form of other mortuary trains, and new cemeteries (such as Highgate Cemetery) that were built around the same time to alleviate the burial problem.
Another unforseen problem was that by the early 1900’s 1st class return tickets on the Necropolis Train were significantly cheaper than on the regular train – 6 shillings as opposed to 8. This was because Necropolis ticket prices had been set by parliament in 1854 an not amended. Clarke and Slade note that this led to many canny London Golfers dressing as mourners to get a cheap day out to their club near Brookwood.
Eventually the timetable was reviewed, Sunday trains were cut, then it reduced from daily to twice weekly. The decline was initially slow, but the final end of the London Necropolis Railway was dramatic and devastating. On 16 April 1941 in the worst night of the Blitz it was destroyed.
Reinforcing class divisions or democratizing death?
The London Necropolis Company was created to alleviate a very real social problem of burial space in a metropolis that barely had room for its living inhabitants. It used a revolutionary new technology – steam power – in an attempt to create a mass market funeral industry that aimed to monopolise the profits on death by capturing a huge inner city market.
It did not achieve its aims, other cemeteries built in London depleted its market share so it was never as profitable as intended. It probably did help to reduce health hazards in London, but so did the other new cemeteries.
What it did seem to do though, was offer the poor the opportunity to have a decent burial. They may not have been given all of the perks and privileges of the first and second class patrons: no private waiting rooms or coffin viewings and no permanent grave markers for the them; but they did get an affordable funeral and an individual plot rather than a communal pit. Plus, for the living, two return tickets for mourners were part of the package, as well as the added bonus that funerals could be held on a Sunday (until Sunday service were discontinued in 1900) so poor mourners did not have to lose a days wages if they wanted to attend a funeral.
As an example of Victorian entrepreneurship, innovative use of modern industrial technology, and with a dash of philanthropy, and a whole heap of snobbery, the London Necropolis Company and its Commuter coffin service stands out as a proud example of eccentric and morbidly practical Victorian ingenuity.
A Note on Notes & Sources
I first came across the London Necropolis Railway in Robert Wilkins wonderful ‘The Fireside Book of Death’, however as my beloved Wilkins tome is tucked away in a packing crate at the moment, I took myself to the internet and came across a plethora of articles on the London Necropolis Company – most of which used as their main source, works by the acknowledged expert on Brookwood Cemetery and the London Necropolis, John Clarke, author of ‘The Brookwood Necropolis Railway’ and ‘London’s Necropolis – a guide to Brookwood Cemetery’.
I also found the Fortean Times article by Paul Slade (who cites Clarke in his article) of great use in putting together this post.
As it seems that a great deal of the articles about this topic appear to rely on John Clarke’s research, I have not cited any sources directly in the post other than Clarke. However I have provided a list of the websites I visited.
Articles on the London Necropolis Railway