Once upon a time the population of London experienced exponential growth. Between 1801 and 1841 the number of people had swelled from just under 960,000 souls to a whopping 1.948,000 and some change. For the next 40 years, the trend continued until there were more than 3 million people populating the city.
More People More Problems
As you can imagine with such rapid human growth, there came a host of problems, not the least of which was an increased mortality rate and dramatic need for somewhere to lay the dead to rest. You must understand this is not an era that had embraced the idea and practice of cremation. Instead, the powers that be determined the best immediate answer was to exhume current occupants and re-use the graves!
Unfortunately, with a little over 300 acres dedicated to cemeteries, despite the doubling of the population, this meant they quickly worked through old graves and began exhuming relatively fresh ones containing corpses in varying stages of decay. Spreading this around the city resulted in water contamination that led to regular outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid, cholera and small pox.
One such outbreak that killed over 14,000 people led to changes in the laws and the way burials were to be handled in the city and built up areas.
1,500 Acre Cemetery
It was clear something had to change and, if at all possible, take into account the foreseeable future growth of London. Hence came the idea to purchase a 1,500-acre tract approximately 23 miles from London proper. The plan was to utilize the railway to transport the dead and subsequent mourners outside the city to their final resting place. This would prevent any further exhumations while at the same time protecting the populace from scattered corpses and disease.
Necropolis Railway- The Stiffs Express
Transporting the dead and their mourners in the manner expected during the Victorian era required a dedicated rail and platform at Waterloo station. From here, the corpses would be carried by night to the Brookwood Cemetery followed by the mourners the following day.
Interestingly enough, the class separation of this period was prominent even on the Stiffs Express, mourners could purchase 1st, 2nd or 3rd class tickets and even the coffins were transported according to this class division. Of course, there was also the separation along religious lines where Anglicans were deposited at one station while all others must use a different station at Brookwood.
The London Necropolis Railway operated until it sustained severe damage during WWII. During the last of the air raids, the railway’s long held luck finally ran out with Necropolis and buildings sustaining catastrophic damage. The Stiffs Railway would officially close on May 11th, 1941 and Chelsea Pensioner Edward Irish would be the last recorded funeral carried by the line.
After the war, the company never rebuilt the station and teh service was discontinued. Coffins though, were still carried in the Guards Van of trains right up until 1988 when it was banned!
Today, little remains of the original London Necropolis Railway. The site of the first and second stations have since been cleared or built over and the only remaining hint of this part of history are the iron columns at Newnham Terrace, a surviving section of the internal driveway (which is now a car park) and the office building over what used to be the Necropolis entrance.
Further information: http://www.planetslade.com/necropolis-railway1.html