At London’s Waterloo station, the trunk of the South West Trains line fans out into 24 separate branches and their corresponding platforms. But there’s actually a 25th. On the east side of the mainline, a row of sleepers peel off before the others towards a hidden passage snaking between the buildings.
The narrow front of this old terminus can be seen from Westminster Bridge Road, where gargoyles and skulls hint that it was built for a morbid purpose – a train station for the dead. ‘The Necropolis railway was built at a time when there was critical lack of burial space in London,’ says Mary-Ann Ochota, historian and writer of this Discovering Britain trail, ‘and the Victorians decided they needed to get the corpses away from the city.’
With a chapel for the living and private mortuaries for the dead, this building once operated a daily train service directly to a spacious cemetery 25 miles out of London. The station was used until the 1940s, when the Blitz destroyed the platform. However, a regular service can still be used to access the destination – Brookwood Cemetery.
The only lost souls at Waterloo station today are the thousands of commuters gridding their way across each other towards trains or exits. Others stand still, eyes on the departure boards, waiting for their number to come up. Once it appears, raised voices and faster footfall create a palpable change in background noise, as though the station inhales. The same crowd press up to the gated barriers until by osmosis they can get to the emptier platform of their train, a few individuals striding all the way to the last carriage just because they can. The station exhales. Londoners pride themselves on their ability to meet the rhythm of busy terminals like these. But this is a city of the living. I board a train towards Basingstoke to reach a less lively place, the ‘Necropolis’ – City of the Dead.
Minutes after leaving Waterloo, the train goes by the passage where the Necropolis train once joined the mainline. The small junction is lined with a row of colourful office buildings. By contrast, the train that ran here a century ago would have been black – a steam engine pulling hearse carriages behind it. Once past today’s concrete cores of skyscrapers being built around Vauxhall, it is striking how much of the view is owed to the Victorians. At Clapham and Battersea, the skyline opens out into the parallel furrows of red brick terraces. The rows of chimney pots would have been familiar to riders of the Necropolis railway.
During the 19th century, London’s population exploded from one million people, to nearly seven million. While the Necropolis railway was operating in Clapham, the Industrial Revolution was transforming it from a suburb of Georgian villas and farmland into busy dwellings for the Victorian middle class. Most of the railway infrastructure seen from the window today was the work of Victorian engineers.
The railway technology was so new, it put many people off using the Necropolis service. ‘Critics thought the noise and speed of the railway would be incompatible for a solemn funeral occasion,’ says Ochota. ‘Others were concerned that piles of bodies might cause health risks.’ In fact, the train company was highly organised about this – offering three classes of service: first, second and third. ‘Victorian Britain was a very hierarchical society. Careful management of the trains would mean that different “types” of people – both living and dead – would be kept appropriately separate,’ says Ochota. Occasionally the train served unaccompanied corpses too. It took exhumed bodies from London’s cemeteries to Brookwood in an attempt to free space in the capital’s cemeteries.
Advocates of the funeral train, meanwhile, thought the journey might help mourners come to terms with the death of a relation, ‘and that they’d find solace in the green landscapes they passed through,’ Ochota explains. As the route bends south towards Wimbledon, it becomes greener. After Woking, the suburbs become interspersed with fields and golf courses. ‘For many poor people, this may have been one of the few times they were able to head into the countryside,’ she says.
As the train pulls up to Brookwood, the cemetery appears from the train as an evergreen mass. The greenery was part of the plan. ‘Brookwood was meant to be like a place of perpetual life,’ says Ochota, so glades of rhododendrons, cedars, redwoods and giant sequoias were planted. The latter two are some of the tallest growing species in the world. Having matured for 150 years, the ones here are monumental, shaggy pillars that draw the eye upwards. Overall, the place feels spacious – helped by the fact it is not even one per cent full yet. There have only been 235,000 burials in enough land to inter 28 million.
The graves themselves are diverse. Walking south from the station, I come across Muslim burials, further along are Victorian plots with posing angel statues and intricate crucifixes. Then Roman Catholic headstones, military burial grounds, Zorastrian mausoleums and, at the cemetery’s southerly edge, Orthodox burial grounds. ‘Brookwood was designed to have burials for all different types and religions,’ says Ochota. Similarly, all social classes were treated with respect – while the quality of headstone corresponded to class, each corpse was allowed its own grave. This set Brookwood apart from inner London’s cemeteries, which still used mass graves for the poor. It became an essential part of the Necropolis’ philosophy. ‘Death is a great leveller,’ says Ochota. ‘The idea was that all of London’s people could rest in peace together.’
The final stop on this walk is also the final stop of the Necropolis train. The shape of a platform stands out of the grass where the cemetery’s ‘South’ station was located. In the railway’s heyday, trains would arrive at the main Brookwood station, only to reverse into the cemetery along a single track with two stations: the North for noncomformist burials, and this South station for Anglicans.
The Anglican church and chapel are now the home to members of the Russian Orthodox Church of St Edward the Martyr. Inside are remains nearly 1,000 years older than any of Brookwood’s graves. In an ‘unspecified place’ the church enshrines what is believed to be the relics of its namesake, Edward the Martyr, an Anglo-Saxon King of England. Perfumed flower petals are scattered across the floor of a candlelit grotto, adding to the smell of the incense used in daily services. Framed icons of saints glitter against dark, brick walls, many depicting Edward. Crowned King of England in 975, he is thought to have been murdered by his stepmother at Corfe Castle and buried in Shaftsbury Abbey, Dorset. In the 1930s, Shaftsbury site owner, John Wilson-Claridge, discovered a box of remains since dated to around the 900s. ‘He wanted them to be recognised as holy relics, that a shrine be built, and the Saint’s feast day celebrated,’ says Ochota. ‘The Russian Orthodox church honoured these terms, and the bones were enshrined here in 1984.’
The Orthodox monks also look after the remains of the Necropolis railway. Inside the monastery is a small exhibition with pieces of railway machinery and a ‘Coffin Ticket’ issued to the travelling dead – one-way. With London running out of burial space again, perhaps Brookwood will return as a desirable burial destination. ‘While many people are choosing cremation, central London cemeteries are pretty much filled up, or very expensive,’ says Ochota. ‘If you choose burial and the Necropolis, you’d be part of a great Victorian tradition.’ For now, I’m just glad to have a return ticket.
This was published in the June 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!