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.