The stiffs’ express – Victorian London had a Death Train
The London Necropolis Railway

The London Necropolis Railway from Waterloo Station to Brookwood Cemetery was the most haunting train line in Britain.

In the 1800s, London was burying 50,000 dead each year — but burial space remained less than 300 acres.

A Royal Commission warned in 1842 that London’s burial grounds had become so overcrowded that it was impossible to dig a new grave without cutting through an existing one.

Unless you could afford a spot in a new, fancy burial grounds like Highgate Cemetery, you were at risk of being exhumed and unceremoniously cremated.

Dr. Walker, in “Gatherings from Graveyards” describes the situation in gory detail:

“A body partly decomposed was dug up and placed on the surface, at the side slightly covered with earth; a mourner stepped upon it, and the loosened skin peeled off, he slipped forward and had nearly fallen into the grave.”

The London Necropolis Railway

Necropolis

From 1854 to 1941, the London Necropolis Railway offered its dead customers first, second, and third-class service.

Even the dead paid more for first class.

It cost six shillings for a return first-class ticket (in 1854, this was worth about £25 in today’s terms), down to two shillings (about £8) in third.

For the dead, it cost £1 in first class and 2s 6d in third.

The London Necropolis Company justified the higher fares it charged for first-class coffin accommodation by pointing to the higher degree of decoration provided on its first-class coffin cell doors and the greater degree of care which first-class coffins were given at both ends of the journey.

Mourners were separated by class too, with a special smoked glass screen at the London station screening the first class passengers from third-class.

Finally, funeral parties were divided between conformist funeral parties and non-conformist ones.

In a train carrying two hearse cars, for example, one would be reserved for the Church of England’s dead, and the rest for everyone else.

On arrival at Brookwood, one station served the conformist area on the sunny south side of the cemetery, the other the chilly non-conformist graves on its north side.

This somewhat mollified the Bishop of London Charles Blomfield.

Respectable mourners, he sniffed, would find it offensive to see their loved one’s coffins sharing a railway carriage with those of their moral inferiors.

“It may sometimes happen that persons of opposite characters might be carried in the same conveyance,” he warned. “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.”

In London, York Street station was built near Waterloo station — but just far enough from the normal commuters so as to be discreet, notes George Nash in his essay Pomp and Circumstance: Archaeology, Modernity and the Corporatisation of Death.

Another perk of the location was Waterloo’s railway arches, which acted as “ideal temporary storage space of corpses”, Nash writes.

The station had mortuaries along with the more Along usual entrance halls (one for the upper class, one for the middle and lower), waiting rooms and platforms.

Alternative London – for the dead

Andrew Martin, who wrote the thriller The Necropolis Railway, says:

“When trains first came along, people had a very different attitude. Trains were regarded like cars are now, really. People were scared of them, they were thought of as dirty, noisy things. That was a very mid-Victorian attitude. Dickens hated trains.”

The idea was that it would take everyone who died in London,” says Martin. “It would simply be an alternative London – for the dead.”

As people got more used to the idea, they gave it affectionate nicknames: The Stiffs’ Express or the Dead Meat Train.

Along the way to their destination, at least riders got a glimpse of the lovely landscapes of Westminster, Richmond Park, and Hampton Court.

This was no accident, as the route was chosen partly for its “comforting scenery”, as one of the railway’s masterminds noted.

Guests could leave with their dearly departed at 11:40 am, attend the burial, have a funeral party at one of the cemetery’s two train stations (complete with pints, home-cooked ham sandwiches, and fairy cakes), and then take the same train back, returning to London by 3:30 pm.

There are reports of some quite riotous behavior on the return journey.

The occasional driver got a bit too 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.

By 1902, a first-class return ticket from Waterloo to Brookwood cost eight shillings on the normal service, but only six shillings on the Necropolis trains.

(The Necropolis ticket prices had been set by parliament in 1854 and never changed.)

Cheapskate golfers sometimes dressed up as mourners to ride the Necropolis train down, and so pay the lower fare.

The necropolis railway never took off in the way planners had hoped.

But the building of new cemeteries in London, the motor hearse, its own restrictive timetable, and the Luftwaffe all put an end to the Necropolis Railway and the station of the dead.

 

For more information, try John M Clarke’s wonderful The Brookwood Necropolis Railway (Oakwood Press, 1995). It’s available here.

Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.