1879: Stuff That Wouldn’t Fit: The Dead Train

While we spoke briefly about the horrific cemetery overcrowding, and the resultant opening of large cemeteries on the perimeter of London, we didn’t address how the bodies got there. Trying to take a hearse from Chelsea up to All Souls in Kensal Green would exhaust multiple teams of horses, never mind the mourners who would be spent before they even got half-way unless they could afford a steam-coach or hired omnibus to carry them. As with any other problem involving the movement of freight and large numbers of people, London looked to the railways for a solution.

The London Necropolis Railway went into business in 1854, running from a special platform at Waterloo Station in Lambeth down to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. While the facilities were well appointed, with private waiting rooms available and affordable to the middle class, the cemetery only allowed Anglicans and Nonconformists to be buried. The trains and stations were clearly segregated by faith and social class, and remained so until well into the 20th Century. The train would only run if there was a first-class corpse to transport, or more than one second or third class coffin, so the funerals of the less well off were often postponed until someone more important died, or the bodies accumulated. The LNR also transported a considerable number of exhumed corpses from the central London kirkyards, as they were cleared out, for reinterment in Brookwood, the contracts with the boroughs for this effort bringing in considerably more profit than the funerals for the recently deceased. An exhumation van would justify a run out to the Necropolis, although nobody wanted to be downwind of the train. While the black-enamelled passenger coaches of the LNR did present a certain somber dignity, with their silver trim, and the company emblem featuring a skull and crossbones and an hourglass whose sand had run out, the line never achieved the popularity its founders had hoped for.

Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus had to go elsewhere for their burials or cremations, and other rail lines sprang up to provide the necessary service. Dead trains ran from a number of stations, sometimes from special platforms or reserved areas on the public platform, sometimes from freight terminals to make it easier to transfer the coffins from the hearses (usually horse-drawn) to the hearse vans, for second and third class just a freight wagon draped in black crepe to give it an air of solemnity. Rail lines ran up to Golders Green with its Jewish cemetery and crematorium, out past Hampstead; to St. Marylebone Cemetery next to the cricket ground in East Finchley; and up to Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, just across Stamford High Street from Stoke Newington Station. To the south, the trains rolled out to Deptford and Lewisham Cemeteries in Brockley, separated only by a wall and a faith with Anglican on one side and Roman Catholic on the other; to Nunhead Cemetery, again hard by a cricket field and with the Nunhead Waterworks on the other side; to Norwood Metropolitan Cemetery, across Knight Hill Road from the Jews Hospital of West Norwood; and the complex of Streatham, Wimbledon, and Lambeth Cemeteries surrounding Summers Town, along the same stretch of the London and South Western Railway that carried the LNR.

Facilities varied wildly according to the railway. The LNR had set a fairly low bar with the Brookwood stations, which had neither gas nor electricity, being equipped with coal stoves for heating and cooking, and oil lamps for lighting, but were fully licenced. The rooms initially used for receiving coffins from the freight vans, and sorting them into the hearses and wagons heading out to the gravesites, were converted after a year or so into paupers’ waiting rooms, and cellars dug to hold the coffins, partly because they would be cooler and help hold down the smell of decomposition, and partly to keep the stink away from the paying customers. Yes, the corpses of the more well to do were embalmed, but the methods were still a bit crude and not all that reliable, and the poor had no such treatment available, so getting the body into the ground quickly was a concern. See above regarding the schedule of the trains – by the time the third class corpses got to the end of the line, the pong could be rising considerably.  Between the smell, the drunken mourners taking advantage of the waiting room bar, and the drunken train crew who’d gotten soused waiting for the mourners to be done with the graveside ceremonies and be ready for the return trip, spending the night at a cheap gin palace full of sailors and prostitutes could be a lot more enjoyable than going to a funeral.

So when the locomotive with the short train of black-painted wagonlits and black-draped freight vans goes by, bow your head and hold your nose. The Necropolis Railway is doing what it can to keep inner London free of the overflowing corpse-pits its graveyards had turned into, and trainloads of corpses becoming, shall we say fragrant, after a few days’ delay waiting for the next train are a price we all pay for living in a city with a population counting into the millions.

Tally Ho!