Posted by: Didapper PJ21 MAY 2014
Walking to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society from Waterloo Station I usually take a backstreet route. This involves crossing Westminster Bridge Road near a large, ornate archway that was once the entrance (for first-class passengers only) to another railway station. This was the terminus of the London Necropolis Railway, which carried corpses and mourners to Brookwood Cemetery, some 25 miles away near Woking, Surrey.
Brookwood Cemetery was established by a special Act of Parliament in 1852 because of the growing difficulty of finding burial space within London. When it opened two years later, it was the world’s largest burial ground. At 500 acres, it is still the largest in the UK.
The facilities at the London terminus included funerary workshops, mortuaries and a private chapel of rest. Initially funeral trains set off once a day, although by the 1930s they rarely ran more than twice a week.
After a 60-minute journey, the trains reversed into the cemetery grounds to deposit coffins and mourners at two stations — one for Anglicans, who occupy the major part of the cemetery, and one for non-conformists. Each station had its own licensed bar.
Death may be seen as the great leveller, but the necropolis railway preserved class distinctions even after death. Depending on the funeral package you bought, your deceased loved one could travel first, second or third class. The main distinction between the three grades of corpse was the amount of decoration on the doors of the train’s hearse carriages.
Well heeled mourners travelled in comfort in first class carriages. The more spartan third class carriages were used mainly by those accompanying deceased paupers who were being buried at parish expense. Mourners bought return tickets; coffin tickets were, of course, one-way only.
The London terminus remained in use until 16 April 1941, when, apart from the entrance archway, it was destroyed by a German bomb on the worst night of the Blitz. It was never rebuilt.
The Brookwood stations survived for a while, but one was demolished in the 1960s and the other in the early 1970s.