‘The dead-space we find in our living environments’ – this is a great description by Sheldon of what we do here at Cemetery Club and of what captures our interest. I’ve been using our time off to step back and see what unexplored dead spaces come to me instead of actively looking for them. While Sheldon has been working hard to qualify as a Westminster Tour Guide – an achievement he should be extremely proud of – I’ve been resting in the wake of my 15-week, all out London Marathon life overhaul, which involved a lot of training and fundraising and the eating of boring protein-rich meals, and culminated in the 26.2 mile battle to the finish line itself. I’d love to say that I spent that day taking in the historical sights of London but in truth, all I could think was ‘am I there yet?!’ And so after it was over, and once I regained the ability to walk like a human being again, I decided to have a long rest from all things extra-curricular. A period of work/sleep/work followed. There was nothing else for a while.
But as is usually the case, your interests will find you. I was walking along Westminster Bridge Road in SE1 one overcast day in April, when quite by chance I looked up and saw the old entrance to the London Necropolis Station, cleverly disguised as just another boring London office building. I knew of the existence of the station from a book I had recently read, and I thought ‘I’ll bank this knowledge for future blogging use’. When it was suddenly in front of me, I thought it a happy coincidence. I also couldn’t believe we have overlooked the subject for so long, as a railway for the dead seems the perfect topic to cover here. And so here goes.
As we know, by the mid-19th century, London was overrun by the dead and there was nowhere to put them. This is how the Magnificent Seven came about, paving the way for the modern cemeteries that we know today (soon, probably, to be replaced by the iCemetery). But there was another grand cemetery that we haven’t discussed here yet – Brookwood Cemetery, which lies near Woking, some 25 miles outside of London to the south. It was opened in November 1854 and originally known as the London Necropolis Cemetery, or Woking Cemetery. It was the largest cemetery in the world. And it had a station. A train line ran to it from London, carrying the dead that were to be buried there, because, well, how else were you going to get fresh bodies down there before they decomposed and became all unpleasant? There was no M25 in them there days of old. And the London end of this line ran into the Necropolis Station that was part of Waterloo station. The site was somewhere between Westminster Bridge Road and what is now Leake Street. In 1902 it was moved to the site at what the facade now stands – 121 Westminster Bridge Road. In 1941 the station was bombed, and that was the end of it.
Eventually the line was taken up and all that remains is a part of the station at Brookwood and the facade of the London terminus in SE1. But during it’s heyday, between 1854 and the early part of the 20th century, the line was used frequently – every day if there was a booking. Brookwood Cemetery was far enough away from London and safely out in the country enough that it proved a solution to the hygiene problems the capital faced as a result of overcrowded graveyards in it’s centre. Back then, the railways were a relatively new and powerful technology, and utilising their speed and convenience for getting bodies out to the location at which they were to be interred made absolute sense.
I’m told that the remaining visible station at Brookwood has now fallen into such disrepair and been overgrown by so much foliage that there is hardly anything left to see (there were originally two stations at Brookwood – an Anglican and a Nonconformist) Having said that, I’d like to go down there one of these days and check it out for myself. When I do, I’ll learn more about the history of Brookwood Cemetery and share it here.
When the London Necropolis Station first opened on the original site in 1854, it was a grand affair – a large building with a main entrance and also a private access road that allowed mourners to arrive discreetly. There was a grand entrance hall and staircase (and a slightly less grand hall and staircase for all lower class mourners), two mortuaries, an adjacent room that had space for 300 coffins, boardrooms and waiting rooms, and an upper floor for the station platform. The station was designed by Archtect William Tite and Engineer William Cubitt (both buried at Norwood Cemetery) and built at a total cost of £23, 231 14s 4d. The first train left for Brookwood on 13 November 1854 (only a fortnight after Halloween!). And so London’s original ghost train was born.
It’s location was important – close enough to the Thames that bodies could be transported using the river from just about anywhere in London, and done so cheaply. It was also close enough to three major Thames bridges of the era that there was easy access by road from both north and south. The arches of the huge brick viaduct at London Waterloo station were easily converted into mortuaries. It was all about space – although by 1899 it became apparent that the station would have to move, as it was blocking the expansion of Waterloo station (which had been named Waterloo Bridge Station until 1886) and so it did – to the location at which I find myself standing on this particular day. The facade survived the air raid bombings of 1941 but the rest of the building was destroyed, and the railway line itself rendered unusable. On 11 May 1941 the London Necropolis Station was declared closed and while attempts were made to relocate the service to one of the platforms at Waterloo station itself, there were concerns from the living about rubbing shoulders so closely with the dead, and it never happened.
Road became the primary form of transport for bodies being taken for interment and now, staring up at the red brick building that now houses offices, it’s clear that the building USED to be something important, and traces of it’s former use remain. If you know what a Tube station looks like (and in London, who doesn’t?) you can just about recognise the building facade as having possibly been one once, or something like it. The words ‘London Necropolis’ apparently used to be carved into the stone above the entrance way, but these have been covered over.
The original site of the station was completely cleared to make way for viaducts into Waterloo at the beginning of the 20th century and no traces of it remain. I took a walk down to have a look. What was once named York Street is now Leake Streek and most of it is now a tunnel that is a well known spot for graffiti artists to get creative. There’s always something new to see and the smell of spray paint is always hanging in the air.
On this day I stood amid the brightly painted walls and railings and watched an artist engrossed in his work nearby. 150 years ago I would be standing at the site of a real live London ghost train. What was once all about the dead is now so alive that the art on the walls fairly jumps out at you. A complete and startling juxtaposition of past and present.
The book responsible for bringing this ghost story to my attention is London’s Strangest Tales by Tom Quinn and is excellent for learning bizarre and spooky London facts to impress people with. I managed to find a couple of things that even Sheldon didn’t know!