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Necropolis Railway: continued

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Secret London
Murder Ballads

Throughout 1854, work to prepare the new service proceeded at a frantic pace. Work on designing and building a London terminus just outside Waterloo for the service started in March of that year. By July, the two cemetery stations were complete. The first sections of branch line track to take trains off the main line and through Brookwood's grounds were laid in September. In October, the London terminus was completed and the first two custom-built hearse cars ordered. Timetables were drawn up allowing for a daily service between London and Brookwood (Sundays included) and detailed rules devised for passengers and corpses of every class. On November 7, 1854, Brookwood's grounds were consecrated and, finally, nothing remained to be done. Six days later, the world's first funeral train was ready to roll.

When LNC drew up its original plans for Brookwood, it hoped to create a cemetery big enough to take all of London's dead for centuries to come. “The idea was that it would take everyone who died in London,” says Martin. “It would simply be an alternative London - for the dead.”
LNC never got remotely close to fulfilling that ambition but, working together with L&SWR, it did expand the Necropolis service pretty relentlessly throughout its first 50 years. In 1855, cellars were added to the two cemetery stations, allowing their existing coffin reception areas to be turned into third-class waiting rooms. In 1864, a brand-new mainline station called Brookwood was opened, which stood directly opposite the cemetery's entrance and allowed normal passenger trains to stop there. In 1899, two larger coffin vans were built for the service, each capable of carrying 24 coffins instead of the original vans' 12.
This last development raises the question of how many corpses the Necropolis train might have carried when fully-loaded. First, let's consider the original hearse cars, each of which had a capacity of 12 coffin cells. Clarke says: “There could have been anywhere between four and eight 12-coffin hearse carriages provided at various dates after 1854, and it's quite conceivable that all of those would have been used on a single train. So far, the highest number of funerals we've discovered for a particular date is over 60.”
When it comes to the 24-coffin cars, the picture is slightly clearer. We know that no more than two hearse vans were used on any Necropolis service after 1899, which suggests a maximum load from that date onwards of 48 coffins per train.

Gandhi reported finding an atheist and a clergyman in furious debate at Brookwood's station

As people got used to the trains, they gradually came to accept them, even bestowing affectionately tasteless nicknames such as “the dead meat train” or “the stiffs' express”. For those working at Brookwood, the Necropolis trains were simply part of their normal working day. Clarke says: “One of my earliest contacts at Brookwood was one of the old masons who used to work there. He made the point that, when he worked in the masons' yard and the train was running, it wasn't anything special. It was just a way of life. It's extraordinary to us now, but it was very ordinary to him.”
Even Clarke's mason might have been impressed by one particularly spectacular Brookwood funeral in 1891. Charles Bradlaugh, who died on January 30 that year, was a well-known freethinker and founder of the National Secular Society. Throughout his life, he championed then-unfashionable causes such as birth control, republicanism, atheism and anti-imperialism. He wrote for The National Reformer under the pen name Iconoclast, went on to edit the paper, and later published a controversial pamphlet favouring birth control which led to his arrest. He was sentenced to six months' imprisonment, but successfully appealed and had his conviction overturned on a legal technicality.
In 1880, Bradlaugh was elected as Liberal MP for Northampton, but prevented from taking his seat in the Commons when other MPs claimed that his atheistic beliefs prevented him from properly taking the oath. Nothing daunted, Bradlaugh stood in three successive by-elections at Northampton, won every one, and was eventually allowed to take his seat in 1886. Two years later, he succeeded in passing new legislation allowing atheists to affirm an oath in Parliament or the courts, rather than swearing by a god they did not believe in. He was still MP for Northampton when he died, by which time his strong support for Indian self-rule had won him the nickname “the Member for India”.
Bradlaugh died on January 30, 1891, and his funeral was arranged for February 3. The day before the funeral, his body was taken to LNC's York Street station, where it lay in a private mortuary overnight. Next morning, it was taken down to Brookwood by the normal Necropolis train. That morning, the streets around Waterloo were jammed with thousands of mourners hoping to attend Bradlaugh's funeral, and LNC was forced to lay on three special afternoon trains to accommodate them.
Bradlaugh was buried in a family plot on the non-conformist north side of the cemetery. Many of London's resident Indian population were at the graveside to pay their respects, including Mohandas Gandhi - later the Mahatma - then just 21 years old and studying law at University College, London. Gandhi later reported overhearing a noisy row while waiting for his return train at North Station, where he found an atheist and a clergyman deep in furious debate.
A bronze bust of Bradlaugh was bought by public subscription and placed on his grave. In a bizarre postscript, however, this bust was stolen on September 12, 1938, the night before a group from the World Union of Freethinkers was due to visit Bradlaugh's grave. It's never been replaced.

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Dear departed: continued

first class coffins were hoisted one-by-one to platform level in the lift provided for that purpose.
   When the coffin was ready for loading, the mourners were offered the option of gathering on the first-class platform to watch it being slotted into a first-class compartment in the appropriate hearse carriage. A photograph from around this time shows a first-class coffin shouldered by four formally-dressed pall bearers as they prepare to load it onto the train.
   When the coffin was safely on board, the funeral party accompanying it would be shown to their own private compartment on the train. The first-class fare in 1903 was six shillings for mourners (return) and 1 for coffins (single).

ii) Third-class passengers.
Third-class funeral parties would have to turn up at Westminster Bridge Road half an hour before departure time, where they would wait in a communal waiting room on the third-class platform. An opaque glass screen shielded this platform from the view of the toffs opposite.
   Third-class mourners were not allowed to watch “their” coffin being loaded into its third-class compartment. The fare for third-class travel in 1903 was two shillings for mourners and two shillings and sixpence for coffins.
   Third-class travel to Brookwood may have been basic, but at least it offered the poor an affordable way to promptly bury their dead. When only more expensive conventional funerals had been available, poor families would often keep the corpse at home for over a week while they scraped together the undertaker's fees required.

2) In transit
The Necropolis train left Westminster Bridge Road at 11:55am and was scheduled to arrive at Brookwood at 12:52pm. This produces a journey time of 57 minutes, one of the few features of the Necropolis train which was exactly the same for passengers of all classes.

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