• James Redman

One Way Ticket: Trains, Death & Modernity


The following article is published as an extract in

Issue #6: Departure and is featured here on our blog in full.

Second year MArchD student, James Redman, delves into the fascinating and morbid history of London's Necropolis Railway

Much is made in the UK’s architectural press about the schism between architecture as it is taught at university and as it is practiced in the workplace. Wherever you stand on the debate, one thing is for certain: no amount of Deleuzian theory, Rhino 3D workshops or ‘integrated open platform symposia’ quite prepares one for the astounding drudgery of the daily commute. For three, long years I endured not less than two hours-a-day travelling from South London to Richmond via Waterloo station; sweating to catch my train whilst dodging other commuters frantically pursuing their own journey’s end, only to be packed into stifling tube carriages as sausage meat is stuffed into the intestine of a pig. Twice-a-day, five days-a-week (discounting travel at weekends), I, and millions of other blighted Londoners repeated this dismal routine like rats in a cage, spinning on wheels. No doubt, at the end of this year, when at last the long summer of my higher education experience is over and I’m staring down the barrel of lifelong employment, I shall continue to repeat some other bloody commute, every bloody day, ad bloody infinitum. Well...not quite ad infinitum; only until the day I die or retire, whichever comes first (though judging by our nation’s dwindling fortunes and our ever-ageing population, I’d say that the former is looking all the more likely).

So imagine my grim delight when I not only learned of the erstwhile existence of the London Necropolis Railway (LNR), but that it's now derelict London terminus lies adjacent to none other than Waterloo Station, the very same station from which I conducted my commute. To think! I had passed it every day and it had escaped my notice; squatting in amongst the railway arches like the haunted venue from an episode of Scooby-Doo. Between the years of its inauguration in 1854, to its closure after the bombardment of its London terminus during the Blitz of 1941, the LNR conveyed the capital’s dead from Waterloo to a man-made Elysium, Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey. One can only wonder what the contemporary Victorian lawyers, clerks and chimney sweeps alike must have thought as they endured their own commutes; catching their trains every day, to-and-fro, knowing that, one day, they, like others they had seen before them, would be leaving London and the earthly-plane altogether by way of the other train. A profound sense of their own useless passivity in the face of the overawing march of modernity, I would imagine. Although I would imagine that; I was born after World War II.

A bereaved Londoner alive sometime around 1850 might have found the idea of commuting by train to the afterlife rather less unsettling given the ‘grave’ situation of the time. London’s population more than doubled in the first half of the 19th Century from around one million souls in 1800 to just shy of three million by 1850 with around 38 per cent of that number being born somewhere outside of the city. Naturally, the sudden increase of live Londoner’s inevitably meant a directly proportional increase in dead ones too. The number of corpses requiring disposal became quite unmanageable with the creation of cemetery space in the city spectacularly failing to keep apace. Graves were desecrated and re-used with alarming regularity. In truly Dickensian fashion, there were even instances of the remains buried in paupers’ graves being exhumed to make room for the more recently deceased, then shipped north by the ton to be ground down into bone-meal and used as fertilizer. However, distasteful that might have been, it was the disinterred bones left scattered across the churchyard grass that proved the greatest risk to the living as material from decomposing bodies leaked into nearby drinking wells and springs causing disease. Matters finally came to a head with the cholera outbreak of 1848-49, which killed nearly 15,000 Londoners. Something drastic had to be done.

The man with the plan was Sir Richard Broun whose singular genius enlightened him the fact that the same technology bringing all the living into London could be used to take all the dead out again. In 1849, he proposed the acquisition of a vast swathe of land in what is now the Surrey village of Brookwood, to build a new cemetery for London's dead on a scale and decadence befitting of the greatest city in the world. The 2,000-acre plot he had in mind - soon dubbed “London's Necropolis” - was about 25 miles from the city; far enough away to present no health hazard and cheap enough to allow for affordable burials there. The railway line from Waterloo to Southampton, Broun proposed, could offer a practical way to transport coffins and mourners alike between London and the new cemetery.

Image by By Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10853418iMAGE

It is often said that how a city chooses to deal with its dead says a lot about the city. It is deeply telling, then, of the contemporary attitudes toward the role of technology and the future of the capital that Parliament took Broun's idea seriously. In June 1852, they passed an Act of Parliament creating The London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company, a name which was later shortened to The London Necropolis Company. The new cemetery at Brookwood was imagined on a scale and magnificence that looked far into a shining future and was described in one of the LNC’s brochures in the following terms:

Travellers on the South-Western line must have noticed the vast expanse of undulating common land, carpeted with heather, studded profusely with evergreens and shrubs, and dotted here and there with picturesque ivy-clad chapels, and mausoleums embowered in greenery that stretches away out of sight to the left of the line beyond Woking Station. This is the LONDON NECROPOLIS, a site unequalled in the country, and as pleasing a picture of repose and rural scenery as can well be desired...The site of the London Necropolis is of singular beauty. Placed in the midst of an elevated extensive plateau, in the picturesque county of Surrey, it presents to the eye on every side one of the grandest and most varied panoramas in England. In the laying out of this ground, an equal regard has been had to convenience, completeness of arrangement, and beauty of effect – trees, flowers, plants, and winding walks diversifying the scene, and breaking the monotony of the ordinary grave ground.[1]

A necropolis! A city of the dead! A cemetery to match the size and importance of what Londoners of the time credibly reckoned to be the greatest city in all Christendom. Its vastness was deeply symbolic; it suggested infinity, the afterlife and the unknown. It accommodated for a future in which London and its empire would continue to grow in population and majesty. Above all, the beauty of Brookwood’s expertly sculpted hills, glades and ponds as the final resting places for London’s dead was one solution for all: rich or poor, conformist or nonconformist – albeit in varying degrees of beauty depending on one’s wealth, faith and political persuasion. Still, the many hundreds of acres of burial space consigned mass graves to the annals of history. London was to be a city of individuals where no grave, not even a pauper’s grave, would ever again be shared with another. It was a cemetery for a brave, new, hygienic, dignified and cosmopolitan London. And you got there by train.

Not everyone was convinced by Broun’s, timely, mostly pragmatic and eminently providential solution. Many thought the clamour and bustle they associated with train travel would besmirch the dignity of a good, Christian funeral. It is worth remembering that, in 1842, train travel itself was still very much a novelty. George Stephenson had introduced the first regular passenger service as recently as 1830, and it was probably inevitable that extending this noisy innovation to funeral traffic would prove controversial. John Clarke, author of The Brookwood Necropolis Railway, notes: “Train travel was still seen as revolutionary. The first through train from Waterloo to Southampton ran in 1838, which is the date of that route being fully opened. Waterloo itself was only completed in 1848, and the first Necropolis Station came along just six years after that.”[2] Now the British public were expected to count the train amongst the sacred apparatus of their funerary rites.

As if it was not bad enough to disturb the solemnity of the grave proceedings with the hullabaloo and racket of these new-fangled trains, the class system’s nose was likely to be put out of joint too. In 1842, questioned by a House of Commons Select Committee, Bishop of London, Charles Blomfield, suggested that respectable mourners would find it offensive to see their loved one's coffins sharing a railway carriage with those of their moral inferiors: “It may sometimes happen that persons of opposite characters might be carried in the same conveyance,” he warned. “For instance, the body of some profligate spendthrift might be placed in a conveyance with the body of some respectable member of the church, which would shock the feelings of his friends.”[3]

Whilst never particularly cheap in real terms, the railway did allow people to travel around the country in far greater numbers than ever before. Incorrigible snob, Lord Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, said it best as he muttered into his boot, “The lower orders are travelling far too far and far too often.” With greater powers of mobility, people, and poor people in particular, found themselves emancipated from the bounds of the places in which they were born. For the first time ever, labourers, machinists and the like were able to make choices about where in the country they would like to work and live, thus harnessing the capital potential of their skills by travelling to the places where the greatest need, and therefore the greatest reward, could be found. In doing so, communities were atomised into enabled individuals, hungry to improve their own social and economic positions through the acquisition of capital.

Further social change was wrought by the plethora of new trades and professions spawned in the wake of the railway. For the machine ensemble of a railway network to exist at all, a minimum threshold of diversity and sophistication in the bureaucratic and industrial structures of a nation first had to be surpassed. Newly christened mechanical engineers, conductors, signalmen, administrators and accountants propagated through the expanding rail network, so adding to the already rapidly swelling middle classes. Indeed, the ‘line-manager’ was born on the railway.

Whilst the makeup of European society had changed forever with the advent of industrialisation, Karl Marx noted that with ‘the eradication of space by time’[4] – accelerating the circulation of commodities through new forms of communication (railways, the telegraph, the mail service) – the railway embodied an upward gear shift within capitalist industrialisation [5]. He was not alone in the appreciation of this point: ‘Nothing’, as the art historian, Leo Marx insists, ‘provided more tangible, vivid, compelling icons for representing the forward course of history than recent mechanical improvements like the steam engine‘.[6] For the likes of L.T.C. Rolt and Patrick Whitehouse, ‘the steel rail is a symbol of disciplined movement, but that movement is itself ordered and controlled by a complex human and mechanical hierarchy which extends from the central control room to the loneliest line-side signal box’[7]. Social space and social understandings were transformed, as train travel radically widened many people’s physical horizons. Not since the invention of the printing press nor when Martin Luther nailed his proclamation to the church door, had the old order been so greatly threatened.

In this way, trains and the railway in general are as intractable from modernity as death is from life. The world was inexorably altered in the age of its dawning: a time when capitalism and bureaucracy were both organised on widening scales; division of labour and technical specialisation increased; mankind transcended its physical environment with innovations in technology and engineering; and old social structures were eroded in favour of a cosmopolitanism better suited to supporting the juggernaut of progress. The rail network embodied all of these things and, at the time of its invention in Britain, was hitherto the single most elaborate yet delicate feats of organisation ever achieved; the first large-scale, fully-fledged technological system.

Centralisation, rationalisation, standardisation, order and control; these are the watchwords of modernity and what make the trains run on time. Indeed, time itself was not spared the yoke as new rail networks stabilised time zones to facilitate rational train timetabling, cementing Edward Thompson’s ‘industrial time’[8]. Space too, became homogenised with the regularity of train stations’ appearances and protocols, a fact which discountenanced some passengers as Dickens’s character, Sam Weller Snr. reminds us, “alvays comin’ to a place, ven you come to one at all, the wery picter o’ the last, vith the same p’leeseman standin’ about, the blessed old bell a ringin’, the same unfort’nate people standin’ behind the bars, a waitn’ to be let in; and everythin’ the same except the name, vich is wrote up in the same sized letter as the last name, and the same colours”[9].

But despite the railway’s detractors, it was precisely this habit and convention that soon laid a crust over the fears related to its frightening novelty. As any London commuter today could tell you: the anesthetising effect of routine can allow us to endure far in excess of what we would normally deem to be comfortable. There are, of course, daily routines for coping with the quotidian and familiar, but there also routines reserved for those far more special occasions enacted on a much higher societal level. We call these, ‘rituals’ or ‘rites’ and, like our daily routines, they assist individuals and societies in coping with difficult or unfamiliar situations and change. Funerals are some such rites, and they are performed to convey individuals and societies through the difficult transition of death. Funeral participants conform to the same codes in dress and behaviour and enact a pageant of respect. Everyone has a role to play, depending on one’s level of intimacy with the deceased in life and everyone knows instinctively how to play it.

The ethnographer and folklorist, Arnold Van Gennep defined a detailed criterion of the universal structure of rites of passage as a three-stage schema: 1) separation; 2) transition; 3) incorporation [10]. Briefly summarised, these stages can be explained thus: 1) the individual is separated from the group and denuded of any social standing they possess; 2) the individual travels to a scared geographical location to endure some sort of test such as fasting for a period without shelter; 3) the individual is incorporated back into the group with their social status redefined. The fear inherent in a change in a social group, such as the death of a loved one, is managed ritually. Rites of passage are performed in order to provide guidance and security to not only the dead individual’s soul, but also, the remaining social group of which he or she is part of. They assist the group in adjusting to the new situation thereby transforming its definition of itself in the absence of its departed member.

Like funerary rites, travel by rail is a highly regulated communal activity, replete with its own protocols and codes of behaviour. Upon entering a rail network, one leaves the sphere of the profane into a sacred realm and you leave your identity at the door. A rail network stands apart from the world at large as a self-contained system spanning over a national scale; one of Marc Augé’s first ‘non-places’ - networked places which stand in opposition to places bound by locality and time, where disparate itineraries converge and dissolve creating a perpetually momentary experience [11]. ‘Non-places’ do not communicate a history but rather anticipate an imminent future. According to Augé, when a person enters a ‘non-place’, s/he is relieved of their usual determinants, “He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer, or driver. . . . The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude, and similitude.” Identity, it would seem, requires place to support it as a plant draws nutrients from the soil through its roots. Thus, because rail networks, made up of trains and stations spread over the entire country, and peopled with transitory individuals following their own itineraries, do not have this sense of place, personalities are reduced in singular service of acting the passenger.

Funerals and train travel, then, are not so dissimilar. Both are highly regulated to avoid distress; both demand certain conduct and behaviour; both include Van Gennep’s tripartite schema of separation, transition and incorporation. Little wonder then that no one talks to each other when travelling by Tube – it’s like someone just died.

On the LNR, funerals conducted by railway were no different to funerals arranged in London, except instead of a hearse you travelled by train. Your ticket included the cost of the carrying your coffin and two mourners to Brookwood, your burial at the site of your respective religious denomination, trade or profession and social standing, and, of course, the return journey for your two mourners minus you. Obviously, more could attend but they would have to purchase their tickets separately. On arrival at the London Necropolis Railway terminus the mourners would be led either to one of the waiting rooms. The coffin would be discreetly unloaded from the hearse and sent to the platform level by lift. Those attending the funeral would be permitted to watch the coffins being loaded onto the train if they so wished. Each door of the waiting train would be labelled with the name of the deceased, to ensure all passengers travelled with the correct funeral party; the names of the deceased being carried on the train would be called in turn, and that person's mourners would board the train.

The railway journey to Brookwood followed. Female passengers were by law devoid of any ornament. Black and plain was the dress code – nothing to capture the gaze, nothing to shiver or shine, no thin lines of beads sewn into the fabric, no lucky opal winking on their finger. On arrival at the cemetery, the train was propelled through the cemetery grounds to North station (for Roman Catholics, Jews, Parsees and other non-conformists to the C of E). The train was met by LNC staff, who escorted the mourners to the nearby chapel. The coffins followed once the passengers were off the platform, lest they witness any upsetting accidents like the dropping of a coffin. It was up to the family of the deceased to decide what sort of service they desired and could afford. Most chose a brief service at the chapel before being led to the graveside.

A good impression of the funeral arrangements at Brookwood can be obtained from an account of an actress’s funeral, as described in a newspaper of the time:

The writer was much impressed at Miss Goodwin’s funeral...Everything worked smoothly and in perfect decorum. Particularly was this noticeable at the graveside, where in place of the old and often rather distressing method of lowering the coffin by ropes, a device called the ‘National Burial Device’ was in use, and, controlled by the funeral director, acted automatically when the time for committal arrived.[12]

On arrival at the station the mourners were shown to their private or communal waiting room (depending on what was affordable). All necessary conveniences were provided at each station including a refreshment room where light luncheons could be obtained at a moderate charge – along with a wide selection of alcoholic beverages. A similar procedure was conducted at the Anglican, South station.

Thus was the railway incorporated into the death-scape of London. As the paradigmatic symbol of modernity, its acceptance by Londoners reflects a favourable attitude towards the great upheavals of the age. Though a time of troubling changes where old moral values, institutions and communities made way for the new, people welcomed the great benefits that accompanied modernity. It was a time of optimism and a faith in technology as the facilitator of progress prevailed in almost complete ubiquity. The path towards the future was as straight and true as the locomotive, safely guided on the security of its rails; an unstoppable force forging ahead beyond the frontiers into the unknown.

Image by Secret Pilgrm. Brookwood Station, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/umdrums/1534927469/in/photostream/

All that, of course, sounds dangerously naive to our postmodern ears as we now know what was to follow over the course of the events that dominated global history in the early half of the twentieth century. For although modernity begat the emergence of the individual from the bondage of localised community, it soon became apparent, as Marxist theory would have it, that this was less emancipatory as it might have first appeared, rather an occupation disguised as liberation. The farmhand turned factory-worker had traded his/her landlord for a new master, although one with neither face nor place.

As aforementioned, modernity saw modes of capitalism and bureaucracy organised on widening scales; division of labour and technical specialisation increased; and old social structures eroded in favour of a cosmopolitanism better suited to supporting the march of progress. Just as industry had become incorporated, that is its disparate parts were combined into a single entity in order to increase its powers of production, so too became society as a whole. With an unprecedented growing scale of things, more and more aspects of day-to-day living required complex, networked organisations to provide for modern society’s needs. The rail network is just one example, mass-housing, water provision, waste disposal and food production would be others. As needs provision was increasingly systemised and centralised, the individual lost direct contact with the sources of how their needs were satisfied. Individuals in modern societies reap individual benefits without individual responsibility. Passivity is a truly modern condition.

The problem with complex organisations is that they cannot be fully comprehended from the individual’s perspective. When dealing in mass scales, where procedures are divided and one’s own role is highly specialised, it is difficult to completely understand the consequences of one’s own actions which might seem banal and of no consequence. Through incorporation there is a diminishment in individual responsibility and it is precisely this diminishment that allowed the slaughters of the twentieth century to follow. For whilst organisations might be comprised of individuals and allow them to act as a single, greater individual, organisations are not people and do not possess a humanity in of themselves. An organisation does not feel pain; it cannot smile, frown, laugh or cry. An organisation has no empathy and can kill billions without so much as shedding a tear. Thus, when the same modes of organisation were applied to war and killing in general, the results were quite magnificently horrendous. Mass-murderer and paragon of modernity, Joseph Stalin, said it best when he quipped beneath his moustache, “one death is tragedy, a million a statistic.”

And so it was that the train, that emblem of progressiveness and optimism, came to be associated with modernity’s other, darker face. During the American Civil War and World War I, the railway facilitated both wars to be conducted on the unprecedented massive scales that they were, bringing fresh supplies and men in from all around the country and mounting vast artillery weapon to obliterate the foe. The railway in World War II is best remembered for conveying Nazi Germany’s victims from all over the Reich to the ovens of Auschwitz. In celebrating the railway age’s progressive optimism, one might have seen a map showing how Victorian iron rails spread and connected, wrapping Britain in ever tighter modern webs. Martin Gilbert also prints a map; but this one identifies routes along which Auschwitz transports carried their imprisoned human cargoes from Europe’s uttermost limits. Far from the straight and true path into the future, for the victims of the twentieth century it is easy to imagine how the railway might have come to manifest something more akin to the inescapable inevitability of something dreadful.

So when the LNR’s London terminus was severely damaged by an incendiary bomb dropped in the Blitz in May, 1941, there was little appetite to reinstate the service. The last recorded funeral party that had been carried on the LNR was that of Chelsea pensioner, Edward Irish (1868–1941), buried on 11 April 1941. In September 1945, following the end of hostilities, the directors of the LNC met to consider whether to rebuild the terminus and reopen the London Necropolis Railway. Although the main line from Waterloo to Brookwood had remained in use throughout the war and was in good condition, the branch line from Brookwood into the cemetery had been almost unused since the destruction of the London terminus and had deteriorated to the point of total dilapidation. It was decided that to reinstate the line, which had been suffering dwindling profits even before the war, was no longer profitable. Alas, the LNR was dead.

Image by self - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=603862

Although Brookwood has continued to be used as a cemetery, it is no longer the only final destination for the dead of London, and those who are buried there get there by road. However, the demise of the LNR in the context of World War II reveals much more than just the rise of the automobile and dwindling fortunes of the UK thereafter ever since. It also serves as a metaphor for the reversal in the attitudes toward modernity and a change in how postcolonial London began to perceive itself. After the first half of the twentieth century (and the second half, for that matter) a deep suspicion of totalitarianism has prevailed in the ‘free’ world. And if totalitarianism is a product of modernity and the railway is its agent and emblem; perhaps this suspicion continues to affect our collective psyche with regards to trains. Britain had forged its identity as the first industrialised and therefore modern nation in the world. It had deployed its modernity to great effect in acquiring its empire which was the largest the world has ever seen. The loss of that empire and the industrialised atrocities committed in the twentieth century by every nation and not just the totalitarian regimes have obliterated the foundations upon which that identity was wrought. The cemetery at Brookwood, in its vastness and integrated railway access, was no longer the vision of the afterlife on earth London wanted to project. The future no longer favoured singular, grand projects on national scales. Rather the future favoured individual choice, private enterprise, decentralisation, democracy and the automobile.

We now live in an age which has come to be defined by another connective technology, the Internet. Like the railway before it, the rise of the Internet has been received in varying degrees of enthusiasm, inspiring and provoking both hopes and fears in equal measure as to its influence upon the world in the years to come. It remains to be seen how the twenty-second century will look back on the Internet’s role in shaping the twenty-first as social media, Wikipedia, pornography, cyber-crime, cyber-war and cat gifs all continue to proliferate simultaneously and exponentially. However, with regards to the themes of this article, being death, it is the traces of ourselves we leave behind in the World Wide Web after we are gone which is of most interest. Unlike your corporeal remains, which we shall no doubt continue to dispose of as we have always done, your avatar is not so easily let go. People’s Facebook accounts are already beginning to outlive them, a situation which has created a potentially distressing ambiguity for those loved ones they leave behind. How should the account be dealt with? Delete it? Leave it in memorial everlasting? As our interaction with the Internet and our online presence increases, ambiguities like these will become more commonplace, perhaps even unavoidable. This phenomenon is new and unlike corporeal death for which we have developed the funeral, we have yet to develop the proper rituals to deal with them in order assist with the coping process. Until then, we shall be haunted. Like the cemetery at Brookwood and its eventual demise, how we choose to deal with this problem will tell future historians how our society saw itself and its relationship towards the future. It might then be apt to write another article, Fatal Error: Death, The Internet & Postmodernity.

[1] Clarke, John M. (2004). London's Necropolis. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, pg. 19

[2] Clarke, John M. (2006), The Brookwood Necropolis Railway. Locomotion Papers. 143 (4th ed.). Usk, Monmouthshire: The Oakwood Press, pg. 3

[3] Ibid., pg. 3

[4] Marx, Karl, Gundrisse (1857-58), translated by Martin Nicolaus, New York, Random House, 1973, pg. 539

[5] [5] Just for the sake of trivia: it is worthy of remark that not only Marx’s suicidal sister, Eleanor Marx, but also his co-author of The Communist Manifesto , Friedrich Engels, both left London and the worldly-plane altogether by way of the LNR.

[6] Marx, Leo, ‘The idea of “technology” and postmodern pessimism’, in Ezrahi, Mendelsohn & Segal (eds.), Technology, Pessimism and Postmodernism, Dordrecht, Kluwer, 1994, pg. 13

[7] Rolt, L.T.C. & Whitehouse, P.B., Lines of Character, London, Constable, 1962, pg. 11

[8] Thompson, P., “Time, work-discipline and industrial capitalism”,’ Time and Society, 5, 1996, pg. 275-99

[9] Dickens, Charles, (1840), ‘Master Humphrey’s Visitor’, in Master Humphrey’s Clock, and a Child’s History of England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1958, pg.79-80

[10] Kimball, S. T. (1960), ‘Introduction’ in, van Gennep, A. (1908) The Rites of Passage. Translated from French by Vizedom, M. B. & Caffee, G. L. 2nd edn. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., pg. vii

[11] Augé, Paul, (1995), Non-Places: Introduction to Antrhopology of Supermodernity, London, Verso, pg. 34

[12] Clarke, John M. (2006), The Brookwood Necropolis Railway. Locomotion Papers. 143 (4th ed.). Usk, Monmouthshire: The Oakwood Press, pg. 17

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