In 1854, London inaugurated a rather odd railway track aimed at carrying dead bodies to their resting place. While, at the same time, unclogging the city’s morgues. Grab your ticket aboard the ghost train.
In the mid-19th century, London was a booming, freshly-industrialized metropolis. Its population bordered on three million souls. The urban landscape had radically changed: the Thames River slowly turned into an open-air sewer, noxious fumes invaded the capital city, and insecure accommodation became the norm. The poorer districts such as Whitechapel or East End were corrupted by vermin, criminality and alcoholism, and its inhabitants amongst the first victims of the devastating cholera, tubeculosis and typhoid epidemics. No wonder 50,000 Londoners died every year.
The largest cemetery in the world
Given rampant misery and galloping population, both the living and the dead became cumbersome for the municipal authorities. The dead, mostly. Because the graveyards were starting to overflow! Even packed into their graves, hastily-buried skeletons would sometimes break through the cellars of neighboring habitations. Others, inhumed a little too close to the surface, would be dug up by stray dogs or rainfall… A spooky sight for visitors!
The situation also worried hygienists, who were afraid that the ‘miasma’ released by the growing pile of dead bodies would threaten the locals’ health. “The ground is so densely crowded as to present one entire mass of human bones and putrefaction,” a Whitechapel man wrote in 1838. Lovely… To assist the cemeteries located within the city, full to breaking point, the city’s engineers dreamed big. They opened a whole new graveyard in 1852 at Brookwood, Surrey, covering 500 acres of farmland. According to their calculations, the surface should be enough to ‘house’ enough bodies for at least 350 years.
Enter the ghost train
There was just a little challenge left: finding a way to carry all bodies from the city morgues to their final resting place, thirty miles away from central London. Fortunately, the London Necropolis Company, a private entity wishing to revolutionize the mortuary business, had that covered. It created a railway track linking Waterloo Station and Brookwood Cemetery, enabling deceased persons to be quickly buried — and their grieving families to pay them regular visits.
Although the project was part of large-scale public works undertaken by the city of London (as construction of the London Underground, extension of the rail network and renovation of the sewer system were on their way), the London Necropolis Railway was at first criticized. “At present we are not sufficiently habituated to that mode of travelling not to consider the hurry and bustle connected with it as inconsistent with the solemnity of a Christian funeral,” the Bishop of London complained in 1842. Usually, bodies would be carried by horse-drawn carriages to their resting place… However, cemeteries’ overcrowding became alarming, so ethical or religious considerations eventually settled down.
The bizarre railway track was set up in 1854, and a forty-minute drive across the English farmland (“a comforting landscape” according to witnesses) was enough to reach Brookwood. Aboard, the living and the dead rode separate wagons. Interestingly, Anglicans and ‘Anticonformists’ did not mix up, either, since Brookwood Cemetery was split into parcels according to different faiths and social classes. Grief had its social order, too.
End of the line
The London Necropolis Railway remained active for a century, but could not meet the long-term goals it had set for itself. Brookwood only welcomed 200,000 bodies, much less than the five millions the original designers had anticipated. This was in part due to the popularization of motorized vehicles, which supplanted horse-drawn carriages in the early 20th century, and opened up the London outskirts to grieving families, who in turn had much more room to bury their deceased relatives…
What’s more, the relatively modest price of the ticket (two shillings for a third-class ticket, about £8 today) was not enough to cover the company’s costs. One could even spot golfers, wearing black suits and grief clothing, ride the Necropolis Railway to play the golf courses on the way… In 1941, heavy bombardments turned the railway and adjoining buildings into a heap of ruins. End of the line, everybody change, please.
- David Brandon, Alan Brooke, London: City of the Dead, Stroud: The History Press, 2008.
- John M. Clarke, The Brookwood Necropolis Railway, 4th ed., Oakwood Press, 2006.
- Lee Jackson, « Death in the city: the grisly secrets of dealing with Victorian London’s dead », The Guardian, January 22, 2015.
- Claire Cock-Starkey, « The Disgusting Victorian Cemetery That Helped Change Burials in London Forever », Mental_Floss, October 3, 2018.
- Jean-Christophe Piot, « Necropolis Railway : quand l’Angleterre ouvrait une ligne ferroviaire pour les morts », Déjà Vu, March 24, 2020.
- Katie Thornton, « This abandoned railroad was London’s train for the dead », National Geographic, October 29, 2020.
- Amanda Ruggeri, « The passenger train created to carry the dead », BBC, October 18, 2016.