The story of Waterloo #3: The Necropolis Railway

Local Blue Badge Guide Philippa Owen takes us on a virtual tour of one of London's more sinister lost railways...

Westminster Bridge House which was built as the entrance to the Necropolis Railway in 1900 - 1902.

In the 1850s, the burial of the dead was a major public health issue. Graveyards were overflowing with partially buried corpses. More space was needed as no further burials were allowed in central London.

Cemeteries were developed around the perimeter of London. A plot in Highgate Cemetery was prestigious but expensive and there was money to be made in developing these facilities for all. Two inspired entrepreneurs bought a plot of land at Brookwood, near Woking, 23 miles outside London and the plan was to use the new railway line from Waterloo to transport, both the deceased and their mourners, to the cemetery. Passengers would have been horrified to see corpses being loaded on to regular trains, so premises at 121  Westminster Bridge Road beside the railway were bought and rolling stock developed for the purpose. A spur was built from the undertakers' premises to the mainline tracks.

The Necropolis Railway after bombing in WWII.

The funeral cortege arrived at the Necropolis Railway station and all were taken up by lift to  board the train. Different social classes were welcomed but they didn't mingle; first class tickets were 6 shillings (£25 today) for each passenger and £1 for the corpse; in third class: 2 shillings (£8) and £1 respectively. The train dedicated solely to funeral parties, left the Necropolis station and joined the mainline railway, and trundled along through beautiful leafy Surrey. The only segregation was religious, Anglicans alighted at the South station and non Conformists at the North. After the burial, snacks and drinks were provided at the station bars before the whole party returned on the same train to Waterloo.  In its heyday in the last decade of the 19th century, 2000 burials took place each year but the Necropolis railway was never a financial success. People preferred burying their dead nearer home and as the funeral took a whole day, many couldn't afford to lose the pay. The development of the motor hearse posed a serious challenge to the business and it finally closed in 1941, after destruction in the Blitz. What can you see now? The premises have been restored, the signage has all gone but note the wide gates through which a hearse could pass. If you leave Waterloo on a train, look out of the window to the south and, just after you pass over Westminster Bridge Road, you can see where the spur joined the main tracks. And at Brookwood a reconstructed North Station survives. These are the only remnants to a fascinating piece of Waterloo history.