In the end, everything that lives will die. Sometimes even a funeral business dies.
London’s most famous funeral business in history snuffed it on the night of 16 April 1941 when 685 German bombers caused more than 1,000 deaths. Among the deceased was the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company.
Necropolis stems from the Greek word for “city of the dead”. So how did a
city of the dead appear in London?
Well, in the first half of the 1800s Londoners had difficulty burying
their dead. After the battle of Waterloo in 1815 London mushroomed into the
commercial capital of the world. The city’s population expanded from one
million to over two and a half million by 1842. Unfortunately London’s
cemeteries did not grow. Yet the dead had to be buried.
In her book, Necropolis,
Catharine Arnold wrote that almost half of the funerals at that time were for
children under the age of 10. The life expectancy of a professional man was 30
years and that of a labourer 17. People lived on top of one another. Dead
bodies followed suit.
Corpses were often dug up, burnt or thrown away to make place for newly
deceased people. Cadavers were buried on top of one another in graves that
became dangerously shallow. Dead bodies buried in the vaults of churches
decomposed and spread gases so pungent that lighted candles passed through the
entrance of vaults were often instantly extinguished. In 1840 it was alleged in
the House of Lords that 12,000 bodies were found stacked on top of each other
in London’s Enon Chapel in a space measuring 59 feet by 12 feet (18 by 3.6
Interestingly, 15 years later Enon Chapel was a dancing saloon with posters advertising Enon Chapel – Dancing on the Dead – Admission Threepence. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings. Yes, it was not good etiquette to dance barefoot on the dead.
Graveyards and burial grounds were jammed in between shops, houses
and taverns. Unscrupulous undertakers threw quicklime over dead bodies in
shallow graves to speed up decomposition. London smelled of death.
London Punch stated: “A London
churchyard is very like a London omnibus. It can be made to carry any number.”
Human putrefaction leaked into the city’s water system and so it was no
wonder that 15,000 Londoners died of cholera in 1848-49.
Even though seven magnificent London cemeteries appeared between 1833
and 1841 there was a growing health need for burial space further away.
The solution was an Act of Parliament in 1852 which incorporated the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company with its own private rail line and its own stations connecting London to a new 2000 acre cemetery, Brookwood, 25 miles away near Woking in Surrey.
Brookwood became London’s necropolis, its alternative city of the dead –
for a long time the largest cemetery in the world.
The London Necropolis Company opened on 13 November 1854. By 1902 its terminus moved close to Waterloo station.
According to the Bishop of London respectable church-going mourners
would have been offended if their dead had to share a carriage or area with
So, living and dead customers were offered six travel and accommodation categories: first, second and third class tickets spread over two groups – Church of England and Nonconformists.
At Brookwood there were separate stations, North station for Dissenters
and South for Anglicans.
Nonconformists and Anglicans had separate mortuaries, waiting rooms,
rail carriages and catering facilities because these groups had to be separated
to avoid arguments as well. The 1891 funeral of Charles Bradlaugh, an atheist
politician who strongly supported Indian self-rule, attracted 3,000 mourners
including a 21 year old Mohandas (later Mahatma) Ghandi who reported overhearing
a furious row between an atheist and a clergyman.
However solemnity sometimes creates absurdity and it did not take long
for the Necropolis train to become known as the “dead meat train” and “stiff’s
express”. To me it seems like it was a “loophole choo-choo” as well because ticket
prices were fixed by price control through the Act of 1852 and, by 1902, a
Necropolis ticket cost only two-thirds of the price of a regular passenger
train ticket from London to Brookwood. Ripe for misuse.
West Hill Golf Club lay right next to Brookwood. It still does today.
Golfers from London took the gap, dressed up as mourners and bought the cheaper
Necropolis train ticket. According to John Clarke, who wrote a book on the
Necropolis, the golfers’ scamming footpath can still be seen today.
In 1918 the railway company abolished second class passenger tickets but
forgot to also abolish them for dead bodies and, so, for the next 23 years the
dead were offered three classes of travel but the living only two.
The joke at Brookwood Cemetery was that there was a bar offering mourners
alcohol with a sign stating “Spirits served here”.
Mourners sometimes approached the death train too literally and would drink themselves half to death, dancing in the carriages all the way back to London. In 1867, after a particularly liquid lunch at the cemetery bar, a Necropolis train driver became too incapable to take the train back to London.
After that, the company provided train drivers with a free ploughman’s lunch and a pint of beer to keep them away from the cemetery bar. Amazing that Tommy Train Driver was fed beer for safe driving. A far cry from today’s drink driving rules.
Seventy years ago, on that fateful night of 16 April 1941 over London,
German bombs wiped out the Necropolis train and most of the Necropolis
terminus. The company closed down the station to wait for the end of the war
but the business never revived. After 83 years the Necropolis line died on that
night. A wonderful going-away party business ended. Sigh.
The facade of the terminus can still be seen today at 121 Westminster Bridge Road but the
Necropolis sign at the front has gone.
It is still today the largest cemetery in the UK – a place where Dodi Fayed,
who died with Princess Diana, was buried but then dug up later and moved to a family
Sometimes there is no rest even for the dead.
Rhynie Greeff has a doctorate in commerce and a background in international business related to diplomacy, chemicals, minerals and telecommunications.
Also read: On Caster Semenya J’Accuse…