I heard about the Necropolis on a British radio station my friend Zell recommended to me.  The narrator described a kind of strange Victorian death train that was built in response to the dangerous overcrowding of the cemeteries in London.  Seems to be a theme running through so many of the places I’ve visited – Paris’s Catacombs, Haworth’s wells contaminated by the thousands of decaying bodies in their own graveyard.  In London finding a plot to bury your loved one became so difficult that graves were dug up and reused, often leaving bones and body parts strewn over the ground.

Things became desperate when a cholera outbreak killed 15,000 people in the mid-1800s.  But the proposal to build a cemetery in the countryside and link it by a train service was highly controversial.  Train travel was still very new and considered to be dirty and unrefined, not appropriate to the dignity of a proper burial.  Charles Dickens himself hated trains.  Nevertheless, The London Necropolis Company was formed in 1852 and the first train rumbled down the track with its unusual cargo in November 1854.  The people gradually came to accept The Necropolis, even jokingingly referring to it as “the stiff express.”  But what I find most amusing is that even the coffin tickets for the train were divided into classes!  Each “hearse” was split into 3 sections, and the most expensive section was more highly decorated, a greater degree of care taken with the coffin at both ends of its journey.  Even stranger, while the dead were offered three classes of accommodation, their living relatives were afforded only two!  It’s easy to think of this as completely ridiculous, but we all practice it in varying degrees when a loved one dies, don’t we?  After all, what difference does it really make how nicely-dressed the dead are?  Makes you think.

One great story from the time of The Necropolis involves none other than Mohandas Gandhi - later the Mahatma.  He was 21 years old at the time and studying law at University College in London.  He attended the funeral of Charles Bradlaugh, a controversial free-thinker who championed unfashionable causes like birth control, atheism and anti-imperialism, including Indian independence from Britain.  After the funeral, while waiting for his return train, Gandhi overheard a noisy argument between an atheist and a clergyman who were deep in furious debate over the existence of God.  There are also stories about golfers who would take advantage of the Necropolis’s lower train fares by dressing up as mourners to get a cheap ride to the golf club!

But it was the German Luftwaffe that finally killed The Necropolis.  On April 16, 1941, thousands of bombs rained down on London, killing thousands of people and badly damaging the Westminster Bridge terminus where the Necropolis train was berthed.  After the war, rebuilding it was deemed too expensive, and the advent of the motor hearse had made it obsolete.  The Necropolis became Brookwood Cemetery.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I boarded the train at Waterloo to visit Brookwood.  Something more than just a cemetery, I suppose.  I got off the train at Brookwood and walked about half a mile through an extension of the cemetery that was developed in the 20th century.  Out of this section and down a busy road to the original Necropolis gates.  Walked through part of the sprawling cemetery and saw many older graves mixed with newer.  There are lots of wooded areas.  All very peaceful and deserted.  I only saw 3 other people during my entire visit – a groundskeeper busily working, a man who marched past me as if he was in a hurry to meet someone – living or dead, I don’t know – and one of the monks from the St. Edward Brotherhood who now reside in the South Station Chapel.  This chapel is one of only two of the original Necropolis chapels to have survived.

In the end, what once made this place special is now gone.  You can still see bits of the tracks from the old railway line that used to run straight into the cemetery, but the demise of the train service has transformed The Necropolis into Brookwood - just a cemetery like any other.

You can view a short documentary by Adam Leats on The Necropolis and learn more about it on Planet Slade.

Brookwood Cemetery

      South Station Chapel, now
      home to the St. Edward
      Brotherhood - this is
      where the Necropolis train used to pull in

            Brookwood Cemetery


09/16/2013 5:53am

What a shame about the necropolis! Not bombing historical and World Heritage sites should be in the Geneva Convention.... (Like that would help.)


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