Steam Train

Did you know Waterloo used to transport dead bodies by train?

The First London Necropolis terminus

The First London Necropolis terminus

The London Necropolis Railway existed from 1854 to 1941 to transport London’s dead and their mourners from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. It opened in response to severe overcrowding in London’s existing cemeteries. The newly built Brookwood Cemetery was intended to home the entirety of London’s dead for at least the next 150 years. Most of the route of the London Necropolis Railway ran on the existing London and South Western Railway (LSWR).

The first station was completed in 1854, at a total construction cost of around £1.9 million today. It was specifically designed for the use of mourners, so had many private waiting rooms, which could be used to hold funeral services, and a hydraulic lift to raise coffins to platform level. Existing railway arches (now the Leake Street Vaults) were used for the storage of bodies.

In 1899, the London Necropolis Railway station was blocking the expansion of Waterloo station so, in return for the existing site, the LSWR supplied them with a new station on Westminster Bridge Road. This new building was designed to contrast with other funeral directors’ premises by being as attractive as possible.

London Necropolis Railway and boundaries

London Necropolis Railway and boundaries

Why did they need a Necropolis Railway?
In 1801, the population of London was a little under a million people, but within fifty years the population quickly expanded to 2.5 million. There was a crisis in London concerning its dead. With limited space for burials in the city’s graveyards, it wasn’t just the old graves that were exhumed to free space for new burials. Grave diggers reported having to cut up recently buried bodies; paupers’ coffins remained unburied in church crypts; and there are records of ‘mingled dirt and human remains’ being thrown into the Thames from Waterloo Bridge. Decaying corpses contaminated the water supply, and the city suffered regular epidemics of cholera, smallpox, measles and typhoid, which resulted in more deaths and more bodies. After a cholera epidemic in 1849 killed near 15,000 people, something had to be done to cope with London’s dead.

London Necropolis Coffin Ticket

London Necropolis Coffin Ticket

What class are you?

The London Necropolis Company offered three classes of funerals. First Class allowed complete choice of gravesite within Brookwood cemetery, and a permanent memorial. Costs began at £2 (about £205 in 2015) for a basic 9-by-4-foot plot with no special coffin specifications.

Second Class cost £1 (about £82 in 2015) and allowed some choice of burial location. A permanent memorial would cost an additional 10 shillings (about £41 today), and if a permanent memorial was not erected the LNC reserved the right to re-use the grave in future.

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Make Space Studios next to the disused Necropolis track at Waterloo

Some rather unusual research at Waterloo Station….

The old Necropolis Railway Platform

The old Necropolis Railway Platform

Our research for A First Class Death for VAULT Festival 2015 is taking us in so many unusual yet wonderful directions! Playwright Jason Hall spent a day shadowing a funeral director (more info to follow) while I explored the old Necropolis platform now turned fantastic Make Space Studios (you can see the studios as you come into Waterloo Station). See Make Space Studios for a fantastic YouTube video about the Necropolis Railway. Anna (Assistant Director) and I also had a brilliantly inspiring evening at a Death Cafe (www.deathcafe.com) enjoying tea, cake and talking about death with some lovely people. Though we’ll admit to being slightly apprehensive beforehand we had such a fun, joyful and inspirational evening. Meanwhile, our R&D workshops with a fantastic bunch of actors led to sharing stories of sadness as well as much heart warming laughter. Read more

A First Class Death coming Feb at VAULT Festival

A First Class DeathBaseless Fabric are excited to be creating ‘A First Class Death’ for VAULT Festival 2015. Based on the London Necropolis Railway and the history of the Waterloo Vaults, this immersive theatre piece will question contemporary attitudes to death and mourning, taking the audience on a journey round the local area and culminating in the atmospheric Cavern space in the Vaults.

We’re working with a fantastic new team which includes –

Jason Hall – Playwright

Jordan Eaton – Associate Producer

Christianna Mason – Designer

Edward Lewis – Sound Designer

Avril Cook – Lighting Designer (Baseless Fabric Associate Artist)

Anna Marsland – Assistant Director

 

More details to follow!