Trains of Death: The London Necropolis Railway

In 1837, King William IV died. William was a popular monarch. friendly, personable, level-headed, and considerably more restrained than his notorious older brother, King George IV, who blew the royal bank account on lavish building projects, expensive coronation ceremonies, clothes, women, food and pleasure.

When William died, his young niece, Princess Victoria, ascended the throne as Queen Victoria. She would reign over the British Empire for the next sixty-three years.

During this ‘Victorian Era’, as this long stretch of history is called, the lives of ordinary people changed forever. By the end of the century, you had the first canned foods, the first preserved and processed foods, the first lightbulbs, the first mass-produced, off-the-rack clothes, you had the first generation of motor-vehicles that could go faster than a horse. You had revolutions in transport with ocean-liners, steamships and bicycles. You had revolutions in communications, with telegrams, the telephone, and the beginnings of modern radio. In every conceivable way, the lives of people were changing year by year, from science, technology, health, fashion, homemaking, consumer-goods, transport, medicine, communications, and mankind’s understanding of the world in which they lived.

But as much as the Victorian Era was about the changes to people’s lives, it was also just as much about the changes of people’s deaths.

The Deadly Victorians

Every age has its obsessions. In the Medieval world, it was religion. In the Georgian era, it was the thought of empire and the power of the Royal Navy. In the 1920s, it was to live rich, move fast, and die young.

In the Victorian era, probably more than anything else, their obsession was that of mankind’s mortality and that death was the inevitable end to everything that ever lived, is living, or which will live after us. In the Victorian era, death was big business.

While the Victorian era saw great advances in medicine and science, such as the first antiseptics, the first X-rays, the first really effective hospitals and the development of modern medical practices still followed today, it didn’t come without an incredible amount of death and suffering. And it was this which would remain a fixation to the Victorians for the entirety of Queen Victoria’s reign.

The Industrial Revolution hit high gear in the 1800s. Increases in mechanisation, machinery and manufactury meant that mankind was, for the first time, mingling on a daily basis with some extremely dangerous contraptions. For the first time, the chances of dying from boiler-explosions, fires, burns, scalding, falling from height, losing arms, legs, hands, fingers, feet and even eyes, to the dangers of fast-moving and unguarded machinery, became daily hazards of working life.

On top of that, death came from the home as well. Poisons, poor food, poor sanitation, exploding stoves, household fires and disease from overcrowding and poor housing and epidemics of powerful disease caused death on an unprecedented scale, in some circumstances, not seen since the Great Plagues of the Middle Ages, or the London Plague of 1665.

With this abundance of death everywhere, it’s unsurprising that the Victorians learnt quickly about the fragility of life and the swiftness of death. And it was this swiftness of death brought up some rather interesting business opportunities.

From pallbearers, coffin-makers, gravediggers, undertakers, stone-carvers, enbalmers, jewelers, tailors, and even funeral mutes.

If you don’t know what a ‘funeral mute’ is, take a look at one of the most famous books of the Victorian era: Oliver Twist. Early on, Oliver is apprenticed to Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker, who employs him as a ‘mute’, a sort of stand-in mourner to walk behind the casket at children’s funerals. Such was the Victorian obsession with death that they could think up jobs surrounding it, for almost anybody at any time at all.

And then, there were other surprising business opportunities which the Victorian obsession with mortality brought. And they were a lot more lucrative than dressing in black, looking sad, and walking behind a coffin every day of the week. This brings us to one of the most famous of the Victorian industries of death…

The Necropolis Railway

Officially, it was called the ‘London Necropolis Railway’. And it is exactly what it sounds like: A train for the dead.

The Necropolis Railway was established in 1854, in response to the growing number of deaths which were the direct result of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution: Disease, overcrowding, malnutrition, poor sanitation, workplace accidents, accidents in the home, the result of a rising crime-rate and so-on.

As was the case in most cities, the dead were buried in local churchyards, or dedicated graveyards within, or immediately without, the city boundaries. If the graveyards were full-up, then the older graves, where the long-dead were buried, would be exhumed, and the bodies disposed of, to create new ground for more burials. This had worked fine when London’s population was small. But the Industrial Revolution caused a huge boom in the population and now, the dead were fighting with the dead, for space to be buried within London!…And the space simply wasn’t there!

By the 1850s, the situation had gone from bad to worse. Continued population booms had caused incredible pollution of London’s main waterway, the River Thames. This led to fantastic outbreaks of cholera. This lethal, waterborne disease was not fully understood in mid-Victorian times, and did not have a cure. The medical infection theory of the Miasma (‘My-az-mah‘) did not connect polluted water with infection and the spread of disease, believing instead that diseases were all airborne (“Miasma” literally means “Bad Air”).

The result of this misdirected thinking and theorising was that during the 1850s, there were huge outbreaks of cholera in London. Between 1848-1854, two cholera epidemics killed 15,200 Londoners. The death toll was so high that the graveyards within the city were quite literally overflowing with dead bodies. There were so man corpses that the city officials had nowhere else to dump them. People were keeping rotting, stinking corpses of their loved ones inside their houses for days…even weeks at a time…before they could be buried, for want of space.

Enter the Necropolis Railway.

The Necropolis Railway was established to deal with this incredible spike in deaths. In a few words, what it did was load the dead bodies onto trains, then transport the bodies far outside of what were then the boundaries of Greater London, to newly-established cemeteries.

So, how did this work?

Well, if your loved one died after 1854, and you needed to bury them somewhere, but no space could be found within the city of London to do so, you had two options:

The first was to have the body cremated and have the ashes either scattered, or stored in an urn for safekeeping and remembrance.

The second was to take the new, Victorian, high-tech solution to death, and use the Necropolis Railway.

If you chose Option 2, then your loved one would be prepared, dressed, placed in a coffin, and then the coffin would be carried to the London Necropolis Railway Station, in central London. The coffin (along with others, of course!) would then be loaded onto a train. The funerary train would then transport your loved one out of the Metropolis as fast as steam could take it. The station was very near to the more famous Waterloo Station in London,

The London Necropolis Railway Station. Built in the 1850s, the station was badly damaged during the Blitz in the early 1940s. The First Class entrance to the station is all that remains today

The Necropolis Railway is the truest sense of a one-way trip. Once the passengers got on, they were literally never coming back.

The train loaded with bodies would take a journey southwest. It was heading for the new cemetery, far outside of London…really far…even by today’s standards!

For it’s time, Brookwoods Cemetery was the largest cemetery in Europe! And some rather notable people are buried there. Perhaps you’ve heard of Dr. Robert Knox? He was famously connected to the two bodysnatchers, Burke and Hare. He’s buried there.

No? Then what about Mrs. Eleanor Smith? She died in 1931. Still nothing? Her husband died nearly twenty years earlier on the 15th of April, 1912…who was he? Captain Edward J. Smith, the first, last, and only…captain of the R.M.S. Titanic. Or perhaps an actual Titanic survivor? How about Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon? He’s buried at Brookwoods (and very close to Mrs. Smith!). Duff-Gordon famously got into a lifeboat on the Titanic with only twelve people inside it. For the rest of his life, he and his wife had to fight off allegations that he bribed the crew on the lifeboat five pounds each (a not inconsiderable sum in the 1910s) not to go back to the ship and rescue people in the water.

Working on the Railway

The London Necropolis Railway was more than just a train that you dumped dead bodies on to get them out of town. It was a highly regulated business. Passengers, both living (the mourners) and dead (the deceased) were segregated and categorised before they even got on the train.

Upon arrival at the station, coffins and mourners boarded the train according to class (even in death, Victorians were divided by class) and religion. There were two categories for religion: Church of England, and Nonconformist. ‘Nonconformist’ basically meant anyone who didn’t follow the Church of England, or who didn’t want a Church of England burial.

Passengers and the deceased were also divided by class. There were three classes: First, Second and Third. The class you selected (or the class that you could afford) affected many things. The type of carriage the mourners could travel in. The type of coffin in which the deceased was housed. Where the coffin was loaded onto the train. How it was loaded onto the train. How it was UNloaded from the train. How much care would be given to it, and its contents…all based on class, and how much money you were willing, or able, to cough up for the funeral.

Once the train left the station in London, it would reach one of various branch-lines near the Brookwoods Cemetary, depending on their passengers’ class and religion, so that burial services in line with the person’s financial status and religion could be carried out accordingly.

The London Necropolis Company, which owned and operated the railway and cemetery, had hoped to provide efficient, high-speed funerals for up to 50,000 people a year. Even after nearly ninety years of operation, however, it only achieved 200,000 burials in all, an average of about 2,200 burials a year, far below even its lowest target (10,000 a year).

Despite this, the railway and its peculiar cargo eventually became accepted by the London population. It was popularly called “The Stiffs’ Express”.

The Necropolis Railway ran trains which were strictly for the deceased, religious leaders, and for mourners attending funerals. But there were people who used the railway for less somber reasons.

Located near to Brookwoods Cemetery is the West Hill Golf Club. Wealthy golfers wanting to travel there had to take a train from Waterloo Station to the nearby town of Woking. First class, return, this cost 8 shillings.

Now, compare that to a ticket on the Necropolis Railway, running the same route, which cost just 6 shillings, return, in first class.

To take advantage of the cheaper fares, golfers would dress in black, the traditional colour of mourning, buy cheaper tickets from the Necropolis Station, hop on the Necropolis Train, and head off down south for a day of golf…

The End of the Line

The Necropolis Railway was dreamt up in the late 1840s in response to the first cholera outbreak in 1848. It wasn’t until 1854 that the service got underway properly. It continued plying its grisly trade for nearly a hundred years. In 1941, the Necropolis Railway Station in London (see photo, above) was bombed in the Blitz. It was a nearly direct hit on the station. Much of the building was badly damaged and the rail-tracks were blown to pieces in the explosion. The damage was so bad that when the war was over, much of the station was pulled down and the tracks torn up. The owners of the Necropolis Company deemed it too expensive to continue running the service, despite its successes, and so the company was officially closed in May, 1941.

Today, very little evidence remains of the London Necropolis Railway, or of the events that inspired this rather unique approach to handling death in a truly Victorian manner: By using the latest technology to get a big job done in a hurry. The station building that remains doesn’t even have a plaque or a nameplate or an engraving on it anywhere. If you walked by it in the street, you’d hardly notice it. And yet, it, and the place it led to, and the events that caused it to be there, are one of the great stories of history.

Interested in finding out more? A lot of information can be found from this article:

“The Last Train Home: The Necropolis Railway”, and the links and books that lead off from there.


The Great Crossword Panic of 1944

This posting will chronicle one of those little, forgotten stories of the Second World War. It is one of the greatest examples that I can think of, where the old saying that ‘Truth is stranger than Fiction’, was never more true in the history of the world.

What Happened?

It is Mid-1944. The Second World War is reaching the beginning of the end. In just weeks, the Allies will make their great push towards France, blasting through Hitler’s famous line of defenses known as the “Atlantic Wall”. Spearheading the way is their mighty invasion force and their grand battle-plans, collectively known as “Operation Overlord”.

Joseph Stalin had been begging the Western allies to open up a Western front on the German war for years now, as the Red Army was being decimated by the rapidly advancing Germans. Although the Soviets had held off the Germans and forced them back from the city of Stalingrad in 1943, the Russians could not hope to take on the full force of the German war-machine on their own. To aid them, the Western powers had to divide and conquer the Germans, by splitting their forces. To do this, they had to force them to fight on two fronts at once: The Eastern Front, against the Russians, and the Western Front, against the British, American, French, Commonwealth and various free forces and resistance-groups in Europe.

Hence the necessity for Operation Overlord and all that it entailed.

The invasion was of course, a closely guarded secret. People who didn’t need to know about it were kept strictly in the dark. People who were working on it were never told what it was. And the people who knew what was going on were never allowed to tell anybody anything about it. As they say: “Loose lips sink ships”.

So…onto the Panic of 1944.

Across and Down

So closely guarded were all the aspects of the Invasion of Normandy, that it was inconceivable that anyone apart from the king, the prime minister and top military officials would know anything more about it than what the king, the prime minister and top military officials were want to tell them.

So, imagine their horror when the following chain of events took place…

May, 1944. Counter-espionage agents working for the British Security Service (more commonly known as ‘MI-5′, not, please, to be confused with the British Secret Intelligence Service…’MI-6’) could get incredibly bored on the job. Sometimes there just wasn’t anything to do around the office! So…what do you do when there’s nothing else to do? You read the newspaper.

By chance, some of the MI-5 chaps decided to have a shot at a few crosswords. After all, it was important to keep their minds sharp, and what better way than to test themselves with a few puzzles from the local papers? The papers which they had close to hand were those of the Daily Telegraph, a prominent London newspaper. Picking out the crosswords page, they started to solve the clues…

To their great alarm, the agents found that the answers to many of the clues were the codenames given to vital D-Day operations! Names such as…

‘Utah’ (Landing beach).

‘Juno’ (Landing beach).

‘Gold’ (Landing beach).

‘Sword’ (Landing beach).

‘Utah’ (Landing beach)

‘Omaha’ (Landing beach)…appeared in Daily Telegraph, 22nd May, 1944.

‘Overlord’ (Codename for the Invasion)…appeared in Daily Telegraph, 27th May, 1944.

‘Mulberry’ (Floating harbour)…appeared in Daily Telegraph, 30th May, 1944.

‘Neptune’ (Naval support for the invasion)…appeared in Daily Telegraph, 1st June, 1944.

Unsurprisingly, these results set off alarm-bells throughout MI-5! It now seemed that a German spy was using the newspaper crosswords to send vital information back to his masters in Berlin! Or possibly to other enemy agents working in Britain! If the enemy put two-and-two together, they could piece together the entire invasion-plan!

The Crossword Culprit

Acting swiftly, but most importantly, discreetly, MI-5 agents launched an investigation. The Daily Telegraph accepted crosswords sent into it by its readers. The agents tracked down the contributor who had sent in all the crosswords with the offending answers, and traced him to the quiet (just under 10,000 inhabitants as of 2012) town of Leatherhead, in Surrey.

The man they were seeking turned out to be Leonard Dawe. Dawe was a schoolmaster. In his spare time, he kept his mind active by writing up crossword puzzles and sending them to the Daily Telegraph as a way to earn a bit of extra money. He was interrogated relentlessly by the agents who captured him, and when they asked him why he chose those particular answers for his crosswords, he indignantly asked why he shouldn’t! There wasn’t a law against words…was there?

Well alright then…The agents then asked him who had supplied him with those words! Dawe had no idea what was going on, but told the truth anyway…his students from the local schoolhouse had suggested them!

As to where they heard them from, if they did at all…that’s anybody’s guess!

Dawe was found not guilty of any charges that the agents could try to pin on him and lived out the rest of the war. He died in January, 1963 at the age of seventy-three.

An amazing case of truth really being stranger than fiction…


Warmth and Comfort – Keeping Warm Throughout History

In these days of central-heating, electric blankets, household insulation and increased stores of bodyfat, keeping warm and toasty at night is more of a privilege, a treat, an extra, added bonus, rather than an absolute necessity. But how did people snuggle up and keep warm at night, after the sun went down, before we had all these wondrous things such as insulated, centrally-heated homes, electrically-warmed blankets and fat, rustling wheat-bags infused with lavender?

This is a History of Household Warmth and Comfort.

Here in Australia, where the land is upside down, the weather is backwards, dogs miaow, cats bark, fish fly through the air and pigeons are not found at a depth below the natural penetration of sunlight through seawater, it is winter.

…Yes, we have winter here.

And it’s this nippy weather that has inspired this toastiest of all toasty subjects. So, how was it done?


No, don’t laugh. Really. Tapestries. Those pretty things that hang on the walls. What, you thought they were just there for decoration?

In the days before central heating, people hung tapestries on the walls of their rooms. Enormous, embroidered sheets of fabric, lavishly and beautifully and brightly decorated.  The fact that they were patterned and pictured to within an inch of their lives was a bonus. A delicate and decorative addition. But tapestries were not just hanging on the walls for the sake of art and beauty.

What people tend to forget is that, in winter-time, especially in the countries which experienced exceptionally heavy snowfalls, the interior of a house or building was often not much warmer than the temperature outside! The point of tapestries was to trap heat inside a room and act like a crude form of insulation. Where-ever possible, tapestries were hung to keep warm air in, and cold air out.


Curtains did more than just keep out unwanted light. They have important insulating properties, keeping in warm air, and keeping out cold air, much like the tapestries that covered the walls. Curtains also stopped any unwelcome breezes or drafts from blowing in between the cracks and openings in early windows, from between the frames, or from between the shutters…don’t forget, please, that in medieval times…glass was a luxury!

Canopy Beds

You’ve probably seen these things in historic houses, museums, or in the ‘Harry Potter’ films. Large beds with canopies and curtains on all four sides. Again, they served the same purpose as the tapestries on the walls and the curtains in front of the windows. They kept in warm air, blocked drafts, and kept out cold air.

But all this passive warmth and heating doesn’t really do much, if you don’t already have  a source of heat which requires controlling. What were some of the ways in which our ancestors kept warm on cold winter nights? What did they use and how did they do it?


A bedwarmer is kinda like a big saucepan or frying-pan. You fill the pan of the bedwarmer with burning charcoal or ashes from the fireplace in the bedroom, close the lid, and then, holding the pan with the long handle, you slide it under the covers, between the blankets and the mattress, and there you left it, until it warmed up the bed. A bedwarmer looks like this:

The handle is so very long so that the bedwarmer can easily be slid to any part of even the largest bed. It’s also a precaution against burns.

Hot-Water Bottles/Water-bedwarmers

While coal-filled and ash-filled bedwarmers were very popular, there was always the potential risk of fire. A safer and more portable option was the hot-water bedwarmer or hot-water bottle.

A classic for centuries, the hot-water bottle is a simple and effective way to keep warm at night. Before more modern rubber bottles were invented, most people used sturdy copper bottles instead.

Copper is rustproof and an easy conductor of heat, and so was the natural metal for manufacturing hot-water bottles. Copper was used for any vessel where heating was involved, such as pots, pans, kettles…and of course…hot-water bottles.

Copper hot-water bottles came in a variety of sizes and shapes. Most took the shape of pillows or cushions, having circular, oval or cylindrical profiles. These were easy to hold and compact in size.

There were numerous benefits to a hot-water bottle over a bedwarmer. To begin with, you could take the hot-water bottle to bed with you, and keep it with you all night. They were smaller and more compact, and they were safer and easier to use.

Now you may have seen just such a bottle at a flea-market, or in antiques shop. They’re small, round, circular or oval-shaped objects with threaded caps at the top, in the middle, sometimes with a small metal handle on top.

Of course, if this was filled with boiling water, the metal would heat up so fast that the bottle would be impossible to hold without burning your hands. One of the first things the owner of a copper hot-water bottle did was to make a bottle-cosy.

A cosy or a bag, a pouch, if you will, was an absolute necessity to effective use of a hot-water bottle, and most of them were made at home, using available fabric and sewing-equipement. The fabric used for the bag had to be just right. If it was too thin, the heat would penetrate through it too fast, leading to burns. If it was too thick, then no heat would penetrate it, making it virtually useless.

Once the bag was made, the bottle was placed inside it, and the bag was closed with a simple drawstring. The bag, with the hot-water bottle inside, could now be safely carried to bed, with minimal danger of burns.

This ancient technology is surprisingly effective. These old bottles have no seams. So there’s no danger of anything splitting, ripping or tearing open. There’s no fear of punctures. The caps screw on tightly and securely and there’s no worries to be had about leaks.

This is my hot-water bottle which I regularly take to bed with me on cold winter nights:

It has a diameter of about 24 inches, and a height of about 4 inches. Its capacity is 1.75L (about three and a half pints) of water. How long does this water last?

I’ve had it remain warm to the touch for nearly 24 hours, wrapped up in bed. But effective warmth is about 9-12 hours, long enough for a good night’s sleep. After that time, the temperature of the water drops markedly, to a point where it’s not really useful for keeping your bed warm…But the water is warm enough to pour into the shaving-mug or scuttle in your bathroom, if you’re a guy and like traditional wet-shaving. And yes, that is what happens to the leftover water in my hot-water bottle. It ends up as shaving-water!


I don’t know many people who wear dressing-gowns. I think some people believe they’ve got some sort of feminine air about them, possibly. Whatever the cause, I don’t think people wear them very often anymore. And the dressing-gown has been a tradition in Europe, and other parts of the world where cold climates are to be found, for centuries. It’s that extra, snuggly layer of warmth that we all want to have.

Dressing-gowns were more common back in Victorian times, when clothing etiquette was much stricter than it is today. Dressing-gowns were worn at night, over pyjamas, or a nightshirt for extra warmth in houses without insulation and central heating, or were worn during the daytime over your everyday clothes, if you were half-dressed and had unexpected visitors.

Victorian manners and social etiquette meant that you NEVER entertained guests dressed in your shirt and trousers! If their unexpected arrival caught you in such a state, the options were to finish dressing, or to throw on your dressing-gown to cover up your incomplete state, and then greet your guests. Keeping the gown on was acceptable, or you could excuse yourself and complete dressing before returning to the reception-room. At no time was it acceptable to remove the gown if dressing was incomplete. Greeting or entertaining close friends and family dressed in your dressing-gown (usually over day-clothes or evening-wear) in a more casual and relaxed home-environment was acceptable.

If you’re looking for a comfortable way to keep warm this year, during the colder months, perhaps it’s time you started looking to history for a few ideas? They don’t use electricity and they’ll keep you just as warm as anything made today.


Singer Attachment No. 160990 – Automatic Zigzagger

I never thought I’d get my hands on one of these, but wonders never cease. This is a Singer Automatic Zigzagger which I purchased today:

As sewing-machine technology improved significantly in the postwar years of the mid-1950s, with the the end of rationing (which in the United Kingdom, lasted twice as long as the war itself!), countries like America and the United Kingdom could start producing better and more advanced consumer-goods than ever. One of the new improvements was sewing-machines that could produce decorative zig-zag, slanting stitches, something unheard of before the war, with all prewar machines being ‘straight-stitchers’, performing a standard, straight lockstitch.

These newer, postwar machines worked by having the needlebar jerk back and forth, from left to right as the machine stitched from front to back. The side-to-side motion of the needle and the front-to-back motion of the machine allowed various types of decorative zigzag-stitches to be created. The machines were popular, but still very expensive. And Singer still had thousands of old-fashioned straight-stitch machines leftover from before the War. How to sell these older, increasingly out-of-date but still reliable machines to a public hungry for the newest postwar technology, not some dated, 1920s piece of junk?

Enter the automatic zigzagger.

A wide variety of zigzaggers, just like a wide variety of buttonholers, were produced by Singer, to be sold all over the world. This particular model, the 160990 (which also came in a 160991 variation), was manufactured for the European and British market (and by extension, the British Commonwealth) in Switzerland. It’s fitting that a country long-famed for its expertise in chocolates and watches, should manufacture an attachment of this quality. It’s exposed, it’s bare, it’s naked, it looks half-complete and you’re probably wondering where the rest of it is…but it is all there.

The beauty of this is that it’s very simple. The parts move freely and smoothly and won’t jam or seize up when the machine is in operation. It has a loose-ish feel to it, but that’s important when anything tighter would cause operational problems.

This zigzagger comes with its original cream box:

And it’s original manual:

It also comes with a dog-plate and all the necessary bits and pieces that go along with it. But most importantly, it comes with these:

These steel discs, roughly the size of a penny, are the cams that you insert into the zigzagger before commencing stitching. The cam you insert will determine the type of stitching that the zigzagger will produce. As the zigzagger operates, its arm will move over the ridges on the cams. The length and depth of each ridge determines the length and size of the stitch, and therefore, the pattern left behind by the zigzagger as it moves across the cloth.

They came in sets of five and ten cams (there’s eight there, so this would be a ten-cam set. Two of them are missing) as well as the zigzagger itself having a default cam set into it to produce a standard back-and-forth zigzag stitch.

Zigzaggers like these, with their cams, were simply fastened onto the machine via the presser-foot bar, in-place of the standard presser-foot. The arm or fork on the right of the zigzagger (in the photo above) went over and under the needle-clamp, moving up and down with the needle as the machine operated. These worked with all old-fashioned Singer straight-stitch machines and were very popular. For a couple of dollars more, you’d purchased a hardware upgrade to your machine and it could now compete with those newfangled “slantomatic” Singers that were just coming off the production-line.