Necropolis, meaning ‘city of the dead’, oft used in steampunk nowdays, and before that to refer to Egyptian excavations. Except, it is not a fantasy of steam fancy, this was an actual place, a cemetery of grand Victorian vision and a exclusive steam train line starting in Londonand offering first, second and third class carriages (for both the living and the dead). Necropolis literally sprang up with the start of the Victorian Era and a symbol of the British Empire.
In a time when opera boxes were sold for “99 years”, the idea of a British Empire not growing ever and ever more powerful was unthinkable. But London, the Metropolis of this new World had significant problems on how to get rid of the dead. Unlike the ‘colonists’ (Americans), there was no embalming, nor cremation for until 1880’s. And the problem in the 1840’s grew and grew, causing the kind of desecration, which ironically is happening again (for example, under current proposal, if you can’t identify your relation to a grave in the Brompton Cemetery, famous by its inspiration to writer of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter, the body will be disinterred).
A crisis occurred in 1849-1849 when a cholera outbreak killed 15,000 of those in London. Sir Richard Broun proposed a solution which was visionary and of course, profitable: a 2000 acre area of land 25 miles south of London in the village of Brookwood, right along the newly laid Waterloo Station railway lines.
The hold up was....the trains. First, they were very new, less than 10 years in that area and people viewed them as loud, dangerous, and like a big carriage/station waggon. So in debates, the worry was, what if a good church man (dead) was in one part of the train while he had to share it with another (dead) man who womanized and drank himself to death. And….would the trains be ALLOWED to take Atheists? (Ironically Ghandi records in his visit to the Brookwood Cemetery in 1891 a debate between an Atheist and a Church Man on the Necropolist platform) Then, the problem of the rolling stock, how could they carry the dead, then be put in service for regular Waterloo Transport?
The problem was solved by offering SIX different types accommodation of transport for the dead in a rail service on a separate rail line and rolling stock for the LCN ('London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company' later shortened to the London Necropolis Company) established in 1850. An act of Parliament passed making them official in 1852 and 500 of the 2000 bought acres was set aside for the dead, the ‘Consecrated’ (Church of England) would have the Southern part and station stop (sunny), and the ‘Unconsecrated’ (any other religion or athiests) would have the chilly north. A special station was built and by 1854 the rail line was in full service. The Necropolis Station (later moved to Waterloo), partially seen here (destroyed in 1941) not only had a separate loading line, but a full service mortuary, and services area.
It wasn’t just filling a need, it sold shares, it made a profit, ran the train daily and in 1854 had a vision of a bright future of profit, creating a land boom of property surrounding Necropolis: the Brookwood Cemetery. 1854 was also the year it became the largest cemetery in the world, a title not surpassed for 100 years. And a train line exclusively for the dead, and those connected to them. In traditional Victorian style, the lease for the Waterloo Station was for not ’99 years’ (after all, the dead keep dying), but for ‘999 years’. Which is why parts of the station still exist today.
So, what could you expect at the Necropolis Station and on the Train? First, you needed to buy your coffin ticket (1st, 2nd, and 3rd class and either the ‘consecrated’ or ‘unconsecrated’ coffin car). All of those tickets were ONLY sold as one way. Then tickets for you and your funeral party, who were recommended to arrive early, in either first, second, or third class. The LCN did offer an entire service which included a first, second and third class funeral, complete with carriage (number of horses, style of carriage determined by class), service room, transport and burial. The horse and carriage would look like this, which is referred to in song as a ‘Black Mariah’ (Actually it is just a Hearst, ‘Black Mariah’ was the name of the Hearst in Deadwood, shown here, likely because the term usually means ‘Paddy Wagon’ or Black Police collection van – I guess in deadwood, problems got sorted before arrests were made, if you know what I mean).
The trip took and hour and third class was usually for paupers who would be buried at the Parish expense. Each hearst rail car was divided into three classes and had 4 coffin spaces for each class. The justification of the expense for charging first class for a casket and dead was the decoration, particularly on the coffin cell doors and promises that the higher the class, the better and more carefully the coffin would be treated (a wee threat there?).
Due to only having one train to take back and a ‘public house’ in each station (really liquor owned and profited entirely by LNC, a full service profit making company), incidents of drunken behavior occurred. Not to mention wakes. It is reported on one train conductors could not stop an entire car of passengers from drunkenly dancing around. Also due to a train driver showing up far too drunk to drive back in 1867, Jan. 12 the LNC decided to avoid possible visiting of off-site public houses by staff by having a ‘standard lunch’ where all future train crews received a free ploughman's lunch and a single pint of beer. (those little problems in new start up business’)
The LNC expanded believing that they were offering an alternative London, for the dead, and would be expanding for centuries. The first year, in 1855, they expanded the stations with cellars, turning coffin areas into third class waiting rooms and offering bar service at both stations (with the sign “Spirits Served Here”). By 10 years after opening service in 1864 they got the regular rail Waterloo service to build a station called Brookwood alongside the cemetery for those who wanted to visit. Then seeing the original rail station was too small, they got Waterloo to built them new and larger station at 121 Westminster Bridge Road and traded leases, getting a ‘999 year lease’ on that station (shown here). It opened in 1902.
John Clarke’s book Brookwood Necropolis Railway available on Amazon.co.uk, and from other booksellers, like the one linked, has made him the Necropolis expert. In an interview for Fortean Times he said the highest number he could find was 60 coffins transported for funerals on a single day train. A large industry, and a permanent fixture to London and society, with slang like ‘the meat train’ or ‘Stiff’s Express’ showing up.
They expanded into cremation in 1885, built by the Northern station. For a history of the cremations which started in Necropolis/Brookwood at the special built crematorium off the North station in 1885, I recommend this article from the International Cemetery, Crematory and Funeral Association.
At the turn of the century the Brookwood Cemetery became surrounded by Victoria/Edwardian Villas and a swathe of golf courses by 1890, the closest golf courses to London. This caused irritation to the rail line later as their train prices were fixed at incorporation in 1854 while Waterloo kept raising prices (they were unable to raise rates until 1939). Golfers soon learned to dress in black, pretend to be mourners and then hop the fence for a cheaper train fare.
While the cemetery became part of local language and mystery stories, as this private detective story printed by Arkham House ends with an investigation and chase in Brookwood.
However, as time passed, the Necropolis ‘boom’ died down, so after 50 years, the daily service was suspended and by the 1930’s it had gone down to twice a week. The invention of the motor bus, van and car, eliminating the train monopoly to Brookwood was partially to blame. Also, like Bath Cathedral, as soon as the BIG cemetery went up, local London cemeteries came into fashion (who wants to be buried with EVERYONE? Really, darling!).
During WWII, in 1941, the Necropolis Station took a direct hit and thus, was no more. In 1945 despite War Reparations, it was deemed unprofitable and never rebuilt, though parts of the station still remain (that 999 year lease has about 890 years to go!). In 1947 the rail lines inside Necropolis, now just the Brookwood Cemetery were removed. Only the commercial Brookwood station outside the cemetery remained. However, the laws were still on the books and canny Londoners continued to transport caskets and funerals until finally, annoyed at this loophole, it was closed in 1988 (in case you were planning to show up at the Waterloo Station with your relation in casket). The two stations in the cemetery lie in Ruins. Most of the south station was made into a monastery in the 1970’s and currently occupied by St. Edward Brotherhood.
Brookwood used to be a highly visited spot and largely unregulated, until a few years ago when a large connected family decided there was money in ‘them visitors’. Claiming ‘respect for the dead’ they sent threatening letters/emails to all who had photos online of the cemetery, got Necropolis.com closed down and now charge 20 pounds ($40) for a ‘day permit’ to take photos ‘only of approved areas’ (those not included in the gift store postcards and books). As a lover of cemeteries, the idea that instead of the ability to visit a cemetery for your own contemplation or enjoyments, it is now a regulated nepotistic enterprise (every last name on the board of directors and the chief officers was the same but one). However, as one photographer pointed out, in the UK, permission to take photos on ‘consecrated’ ground (the grounds WERE consecrated on Nov. 7, 1854), lies with the Bishop, so a permission letter from the Bishop’s offices means goodbye to the restrictions and permits. However, they will threaten you, might threaten lawsuit, destroying your camera (anecdotes are told since after all money is involved!), but you are legally in the right.
Down south, in the ever expanding Sydney Australia, a body problem was occurring as well. Much like here in Victoria, as each cemetery was put at city limits then over-run, and another larger cemetery put further away before that was at capacity. But unlike Victoria and the end of the island limitations, it just kept growing and by the 1840’s the Devonshire Street Cemetery was full.
With a rail completed to Parrametta in 1856 (14 miles west of Sydney) it was thought to place a large cemetery along this line and thus create their own ‘Necropolis’ to rival London. Parrametta, now no longer so distant is merely a suburb of the 4.5 million living in Sydney. By the ‘Necropolis Act’ officially created Necropolis (the local residents petitioned to have the name of the area changed to Rockwood) in 1868 of 300 acres. However, with the land pre-bought and had already opened in 1864 (bodies don't wait).
The rail was being laid and residents were already having services by April 1867, and railway schedules in the Sydney Morning Herald. Unfortunately in order to lay the rail to the new cemetery, they had to dig up graves as they went through the Devonshire Street Cemetery.
This Necropolis (later Rookwood Necropolis/Cemetery) had four railway stations within the cemetery, of which the grandest was Necropolis built like a church with a bell for tolling funerals AND for letting people know it was 5 minutes to train departure). With a black and white tile floor, the arch was carved with angels and the interior with sculptures of angels, cherubs, gargoyles and various foliage carvings featuring flowers, pears, sycamores, apples and pomegranates. By the end of the 19th century it was changed to Mortuary Terminus then finally the less interesting, “Cemetery Station No. 1” in 1908.
If you think it looks like a church, you aren’t the only one, as that was how it was created. Not only that, when the rail service finally finished in 1947 and the rails were pulled up in 1948, the ENTIRE Station was sold. Yes, Mortuary Terminus, originally known as Necropolis was sold to Reverend Buckle in 1951 for 100 pounds ($400 at that time – the pound was strong). It was moved six years later to Canberra, where it was opened in 1958 as the All Saints Church. They moved the church tower entirely to the other side when rebuilding it.
With over one million dead ineurned, Rookwood Necropolis (still officially called that) is the largest Victorian Cemetery in the world still operational (now part of Service Corporation International – a US based 2.2 billion mortuary business). The name was an ode to Brookwood Cemetery, and gave rise to the slang ‘crook as Rookwood’ which means chronically or terminally ill (Hey all you ‘crook as Rookwood’!) as ‘Crook’ is Oz slang for 'unwell'.
Mortuary, another station on the Rookwood Necropolis Line had a lively history. It opened in 1869 and was built in conjunction with Necropolis or Mortuary Terminus, using the same artists to create sculptures and a similar look, both designed to look like churches. This was the main loading platform, particularly for coffins. As the train use in the cemetery diminished it found a new use as a loading platform for dogs and horses in 1938, then for parcels in 1950. It was restored by the State Rail Authority in 1981 and has been classified by the National Trust, and finished in 1985.
In 1986, in an idea so ill conceived and TACKY that I just would have LOVED to been there and take video of the whole thing, the restored Mortuary station was turned into a Pancake Restaurant called, 'Magic Mortuary'. The patron would buy ‘tickets’ at the now disused ticket office and then go onto real rolling stock cars in order to exchange tickets for pancakes. Considering this was the primary place to load coffins onto the train, I am not sure what type of drugs were involved in this plan (I can’t even TRY to make this stuff up!), but it did not last long and folded in 1989 when the railway cars were removed. Oh yeah ‘Magic Mortuary’ indeed, pass me the syrup for my ‘necropolis pancake special’.
The station is now reserved for special events.
Necropolis (Station Number 1), was connected to Station number 2, the catholic section of Rockwood Necropolis. Number 3 station led further in while number 4 station was connected to the ‘New Jewish Cemetery’ and importantly the Crematorium. This is what made Station number 4 so popular that it included a waiting room and a tasteful Columbarium wall along the tracks to hide the crematorium from those riding the train.
And there you have it, not Steam Punk fiction but two real places on opposite hemispheres and sides of the earth creating cities of the dead, bringing the idea of Victorian ever expansion and perpetuity to death and how they went about it. Necropolis of London is now gone, except for the old station front near Waterloo, while the Necropolis of Sydney lives on in a church in Canberra and a cemetery and crematorium still operational for all denominations. Yes, you too can visit, or even get interned in Necropolis (Rookwood Necropolis). Sadly, there is no longer a final train journey to take you (nor a place for all your friends to get wildly drunk and start dancing around). It is how I would have liked to go, a final adventure, and please, make it a first class ticket!
15 hours ago