“Just a single please”

This is about a very bizarre one way journey that our London Ancestors could have taken during the Victorian period.

By the early 1850s, London had a problem with overcrowding. No, not as you would assume with housing or population or traffic, those go without saying. Victorian London had too many corpses and not enough burial land to put them in.

Something had to be done as London’s population in 1850 was around 2.6 million, and with an annual death rate of 3.6 percent, there were on average over 95,000 bodies to be found resting places for.

Step forward the London Necropolis Company (LNC), who in 1849 had drawn up plans for Brookwood Cemetery to house London’s dead. A great idea, but Brookwood Cemetery is roughly 36 miles away from central London, so how were the bodies of the dearly departed to get there? Those clever people at the LNC had all the answers; They would convey them by railway.

Brookwood originally was accessible by rail from a special station,the London Necropolis railway station which was near to Waterloo station in Central London. Trains had passenger carriages reserved for different classes and other carriages for coffins which also had different classes, and ran into the cemetery on a dedicated branch line. From there, passengers and coffins were transported by horse-drawn vehicles.

There were two stations in the cemetery: North for non-conformists and South for Anglicans. Both platforms still exist today, along the path called Railway Avenue.

Live passengers were charged 6s in first class, 3s 6d in second class and 2s in third class for a return ticket. The dead were charged £1 in first class, 5s in second class and 2s 6d in third class for a one-way ticket. As the railway was intended only to be used by Londoners visiting the cemetery or attending funerals, the only tickets ever issued to living passengers were returns from London.

A first class funeral allowed buyers to select the grave site of their choice anywhere in the cemetery. In the 1850s prices began at £2 10s (about £240 in 2021) The erection of a headstone was left to the deceased family to arrange at a time of their choosing.

The second class funeral cost £1.00 (£95) and there could be some discussion about where the plot could be situated. The right to erect a headstone could be provided by the LNC at a further cost of 10 shillings (£47), however, if a permanent memorial was not erected the LNC reserved the right to re-use the grave in future.

Third class funerals were reserved for pauper funerals, those that were buried at parish expense in the section of the cemetery designated for that parish. Legislation meant that the LNC could not use mass graves to bury these third class passenger, so each person received their own separate plot, but their families were not able to erect a headstone on these. LNC offered the right to upgrade these pauper plots to second or first class for a fee, but most lacked the means to do so, so upgrades were rare.

As the infrastructure of London was upgraded, with sewers and the underground railways, existing burial grounds came under threat, and in the latter half of the 19th century many bodies were exhumed and transferred to Brookwood.

The last recorded funeral party carried on the London Necropolis Railway was that of Chelsea Pensioner Edward Irish (1868–1941), buried on 11 April 1941.

The only reminder of the LNC that exists in London today is Westminster Bridge House on WEstminster Bridge Road, which was opened in 1902. It housed offices of the LNC and also the First Class entrance to the terminus.

Published by endean0

Hi, I'm Steve, a London tour guide and owner of A London Miscellany Tours, a guided walking tour company who specialise in small number tours of the greatest city in the world!

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