Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Necropolis Railway revisited

Worth watching, if you're in the UK: the second series of the BBC2 documentary series Great British Railway Journeys (see the list of upcoming episodes).

Today's episode - Waterloo to Canary Wharf - was fun: presenter Michael Portillo interviewed the author Andrew Martin on the Brookwood Necropolis Railway (nicknamed by railway workers "the Stiffs' express") that ran funeral trains from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery until the terminus was bombed in 1941. It's central to one of Martin's London-based crime novels, The Necropolis Railway - see the 2002 Guardian review. The episode further explores London's railway heritage - from the great 19th shopping centre of the West End to the now-largely-defunct docks - via Bradshaw. It's available on BBC iPlayer for 17 days from now.

Of interest, the Leisure Hour magazine (page 346, Volume 5, 1856) has a brief contemporary account of the workings of the Necropolis Company, which was established in 1854 to provide out-of-city burials to alleviate pressure on London's overcrowded cemeteries.

Cognizant of, and recognising these enlightened principles ; fully aware that unless the question of extramural burial for a vast metropolis like London were taken upon the basis of a wide generalization, ultimate failure must ensue; the Necropolis Company bound itself most liberally in its act of incorporation, to single interments in each grave; it selected and purchased a vast extent, namely, two thousand one hundred acres of valuable and most appropriate land, at such a distance from town as combined accessibility with due remoteness; it organized an inclusive plan of burial charges, optional as to adoption, but enormously reducing cost; it issued a scale of tariffs suitable to the means of all classes; it made arrangements with the South-Westerri Railway Company for the conveyance of the dead to the outskirts of its Cemetery; it erected a special station entirely for its own use in the Westminster Road; and, at the close of 1854, the Cemetery was consecrated and brought into use.

An archway of variegated brickwork lends from the Westminster Road into the station of the Necropolis Company. It was built from a design of Sir William Cubitt, and the shafts and curve of the light Norman arch brings to mind a similar one of great beauty in the choir of St. Bartholomcw-the-Great in Smithfield. From thence the narrow roadway, descending for some space between high walls, or rather sides of buildings on either side, brings hearses, carriages, and those on foot, on to the wide pavement of the station. This occupies one side only, the other being bound by the lofty buildings of the Westminster Bridge station of the South-Wcstern Railway. Across this pavement, which is as scrupulously bright and clean as a cathedral floor, the dead are lifted from their respective hearses into the seclusion of places purposely provided; and the vehicles drive on to the gate of exit at the further end. On to this pavement, or platform, many office windows look, some of them made cheerful by bright-flowered plants. On this level are the range of third class waitingrooms, well and appropriately furnished. A massive and handsome staircase of stone leads to the next floor, which is devoted to the use of second class funerals; it thence ascends to the third floor, level with the railway platform, and on which fie the first class reception and waiting-rooms. With the most trifling difference, the various class rooms aro furnished precisely alike: to the honour of the Necropolis Company, it has been the first to strip the necessary ceremonies annexed to death and the grave of an invidious distinction of rank. There is the same privacy, the same quietude, the same respect for poor as well as rich. The remains of "the weak and lowly " are honoured as well as those who, in the beautiful words of old Sir Thomas Browne, " are pompous even in the grave."

If the sun be shining, it pours down through the lofty glass roof; it lies upon the wide and spotless pavement; it lights the pleasant windows of rooms and offices; it rests on planks and flowers upon the window-ledges; it casts no shadow on the massive tender, waiting to convey the dead: nor on carriages that may convey the most touchingand profound of human grief.

The dead are received at the Necropolis Station the night.previous to interment, but for no longer period. The Company intended otherwise. It proposed to bring into force, as far as a public body might, advantages similar to those belonging to the German reception-houses; but the intention met with parochial opposition, and Bo for the present it rests. But ultimately there is little fear that this and other advances will rise superior to the objections of prejudice and unreflecting affection. The coffins are conveyed by a steam-lift to the second and upper floors, according to the class of funeral; ultimately all are conveyed to the level of the railway by the same process. Then, with the utmost privacy and dispatch, the massive tender receives its load, each coffin having a distinct and separate compartment; the steam and other carriages arc attached, the whole go slowly a little way, till out of the precincts of the Necropolis Company; they then reach the line of the South-Western Railway, are attached to an express train, and are off with the speed of the winds.

Google Books has a few dozen more accounts from the same period shortly after the railway's launch: an especially complete one is The After City: a visit to the London Necropolis in The Ladies' Companion and Monthly Magazine, Volume IX, 1856.

See also: Trains in Literature, where I briefly mentioned the topic a couple of years back.

- Ray

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