The London Necropolis Railway opened in November 1854 to carry deceased persons to a newly opened cemetery outside the city.
The railway ran along the existing tracks of the London and South Western Railway (LSWR). Every day, a single train carrying coffins and mourners left London for Brookwood in Surrey from a dedicated platform at Waterloo Station. The train reached the cemetery shortly after mid-day, allowing enough time for the burial and a funeral party at one of the cemetery’s two train stations.
The Necropolis train had classes. A first class ticket allowed the family to choose where they wanted to inter the dead within the cemetery. A permanent memorial could also be erected over the grave. A second class ticket gave some control over the choice of the grave site, but erecting a permanent memorial cost extra. Third class was for paupers.
The journalist and explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley (1841–1904) travelled on the Necropolis line. He is remembered for discovering Dr David Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika on 10 November 1871 when he may (or may not) have introduced himself by saying, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” Like Livingstone, Stanley was granted a state funeral in Westminster Abbey. After the service, his horse-drawn hearse went to Waterloo, where his coffin was put aboard the funeral train. Stanley was not, however, buried at Brookwood, but in the graveyard at Pirbright Church, near his family home.
The end of the London Necropolis Railway came on the night of 16-17 April 1941, during one of the worst air raids of the Second World War, when bombs destroyed the Necropolis Railway Station. After the war, the company decided that reopening the Railway was not financially viable. By then, the trains had run for 87 years and transported over 200,000 bodies.
In the years since 1941, almost all physical evidence of the Necropolis line has disappeared. The facade of the Westminster Bridge Road station is still there, although the words “London Necropolis” over its main entrance (not quite reminiscent of lasciate ogni speranza) have gone.
For some years, the two stations at Brookwood Cemetery remained open as refreshment kiosks but were subsequently demolished. The site of the northern station, serving the Nonconformist cemetery, is now heavily overgrown. The site of the southern, Anglican, station (photo below) is now the location of a Russian Orthodox monastery and a shrine to King Edward the Martyr, incorporating the surviving station platform and the former station chapels.
A controversial decision of the London Necropolis Company was that the refreshment rooms at its cemetery stations should serve alcoholic drinks. It is said that both rooms had a sign above the bar reading “Spirits served here”. If so, no doubt the concession was appreciated by Brookwood’s more permanent residents.