Why Would a Cemetery Need a Railway Line?

Brookwood Cemetery
Near Woking, Surrey

Listed: 1993
Grade: I
NHLE entry: Listing details for Brookwood Cemetery 

In the Victorian period, as London's population expanded dramatically, the problem of where to bury the capital's dead became a serious issue. One solution was proposed: to establish a large multi-faith cemetery on spacious heathland 25 miles from central London. Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey was consecrated in 1854.

The route to the Necropolis

Brookwood Cemetery, which came to be known as the 'London Necropolis', is enormous, covering some 145 hectares. To address the issue of its remote location, a branch line of the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) was built, with a special station at Westminster Bridge Road and two within the cemetery itself. This railway was the principal route used for the shipment of corpses and by funeral parties, in an age when rail travel had become affordable to urban dwellers of all classes.

Mourners travelled down the main Basingstoke railway line, which branched off at Brookwood village. The two cemetery stations were designed by the architect Sydney Smirke, perhaps better known as the designer of the circular Reading Room at the British Museum. He was also responsible for the picturesque chapels scattered around the cemetery.

A city within a city

The cemetery was designed to be a city within a city, with room to accommodate London's deceased regardless of faith, profession or class. Paths divided the cemetery into separate burial grounds for different London parishes, as well as guilds and professions such as actors and bakers. In addition to allotting space for Anglicans and Catholics, Brookwood had discrete burial areas for Parsees (opened 1862) and Muslims (1890s), both firsts for Britain. There was also an extensive pauper burial ground.

The cemetery was heavily used throughout the 19th century, partly due to the convenient transport links that had been established. During its peak year, 1866, 3,842 burials took place.

Brookwood continues to be a working cemetery and crematorium, although the private railway was discontinued after the line was bombed in 1941. An estimated 233,300 people are now buried there, including such celebrities as the novelist Rebecca West and painter John Singer Sargent. It also has the largest military cemetery in the UK, with the remains of over 7,000 personnel from both world wars. In addition, there are mass graves, such as one for the 19 victims of a plane crash in West Sussex in 1967.

'A sombre complex landscape...'

As the famous architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner remarked, Brookwood is 'a sombre complex landscape unlike anything anywhere else in the country'. Visiting today, you're transported back to the vast grandeur of Victorian cemetery landscaping, a preserved historic environment that English Heritage registered in 1993.

The grounds are covered in an intricate design, partly a grid pattern and partly a series of circles. Paths snake through glades planted with the types of trees and shrubs the Victorians deemed 'appropriate' for cemetery landscaping.

These include dark-foliaged evergreens such as the giant redwood, which was only introduced to Britain in the 1850s. The Brookwood redwoods are some of the earliest large-scale examples surviving in Britain. They once lined the railway routes into the cemetery, and if you search hard enough, you can still see glimpses of the track that once transported funeral parties into the 'London Necropolis'.