London Necropolis Railway Opens

On 13 November 1854, the Victorians combined their love of heavy industry and heavy mourning, with the opening of the London Necropolis Railway.

The London Necropolis Railway station at Westminster Bridge Road from Living London Vol. III by George Sims, 1903. Public Domain.

Death in Victorian London was problematic. ‘London graveyards are all bad’, the Board of Health reported, ‘differing only in degrees of badness’. There were 200 of them covering some 218 acres and by 1842 they were having to absorb over 50,000 new residents a year. ‘A London churchyard is very like a London omnibus’, joked Punch. ‘It can be made to carry any number.’

Except they couldn’t. After a cholera outbreak in 1848, the Burial Act of 1852 closed the existing churchyard. It was, the Illustrated London News wrote, ‘the embodiment of foregone conclusions’. The government then contracted a railway company to ferry the dead and their loved ones from central London to a new 2,000-acre site, 20 miles away in Surrey.

The Necropolis Railway was born, bringing together two things at which the Victorians unarguably excelled: heavy industry and heavy mourning. Funeral prices varied, ranging from £21, 14s for first class to £3, 9s for fifth, the ‘Walking Funeral’.

The service started on 13 November 1854, running out of a purpose-built annexe at Waterloo. It had two platforms, one for the living, one for the dead. The journey took half an hour. You could be there and back in two hours, interment included. Time, for the living, was still precious.