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John Clarke

Historian of Brookwood Cemetery

Demise of the Necropolis Railway

Demise of the Necropolis Railway 1941

The photo above shows the bomb damage sustained during the Blitz at the private station owned by the London Necropolis Company at 121 Westminster Bridge Road.

The London Necropolis Company had been operating funeral trains from London to Brookwood (in Surrey) since November 1854, when its vast 500 acre cemetery was opened. At Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking, there were two cemetery stations serving the Nonconformist and Anglican sections of the burial ground. The funeral trains originally ran once a day, although by the 1930s it was unusual for the trains to operate more than twice a week.

The Westminster Bridge Road station served the London Necropolis Company (LNC) until World War II. During the Blitz, there were several near misses on the Necropolis terminus, as Waterloo and its surroundings were badly bombed at this time. Bernard Darwin, in his book War on the Line, has described an early incident. On December 29, 1940, the Necropolis train, berthed in its siding, was narrowly missed by several incendiary bombs and saved from damage by a screen of coal trucks standing on an adjacent line. What proved the fatal raid took place on the night of April 16, 1941.

The air raids on that night were the heaviest yet in the London Blitz and became known to all Londoners as ‘the Wednesday’. The notes in the Southern Railway’s air raid log book tell the story of the destruction of most of the Necropolis station during that night:

“11.02 p.m. ... stock berthed in Necropolis siding damaged by fire. 12.05 a.m. ... damage to railway arch near Newnham Terrace and Carlisle Lane ... [the] arch is situated near Necropolis station. 1.35 a.m. High Explosive and incendiary bombs fell in Necropolis siding at 10.30 p.m. One coach wrecked. Saloon coach and first burnt out and end of another coach burnt out.”

When the Divisional Engineer made his report on the resultant destruction at 2 p.m. the next day (the 17th - almost certainly when the photograph was taken), he noted that the ‘Necropolis and buildings’ were demolished. This included much of the station, waiting rooms, the private chapelle ardente, workshops, caretakers' flats, and the driveway; but the platforms and 1st class waiting rooms survived, along with the office building fronting the Westminster Bridge Road.

There is an apparent discrepancy between the date of the air raid and the ‘official’ closure date of the Westminster Bridge Road station. From the evidence at the author’s disposal there is no doubt that the station was largely destroyed on April 16, 1941. The ‘official’ date of closure, usually given as May 11, 1941 (but sometimes as May 15th), seems somewhat irrelevant when it is remembered that the air raid had already effectively closed the station.

Nothing could be done until after the end of the war when the LNC had to decide whether or not to rebuild the station, and reinstate the Necropolis train. They were not keen to do so. The cost of reconstruction, despite compensation from the War Damage Commission, seemed high if used to restart the outmoded train. New stock was needed to replace that damaged or destroyed, and the cemetery railway, largely unused since 1941, required considerable attention. Hence the Directors concluded (in September 1945) that ‘Past experience and present changed conditions made the running of the Necropolis private train obsolete.’ The LNC therefore sought permission from the Southern Railway to sell the remainder of the premises in return for the surrender of the 999-year lease. The motor-hearse had triumphed.

Copyright © 1999 by John M. Clarke All Rights Reserved