Disease boroughs of London. Railwayman John Wilkinson died an ironic death. Shortly after clambering into his locomotive, he collapsed, slumping suddenly to the footplate. His workmates dashed to help, but by the time they’d carried him to the waiting room, he’d stopped breathing.

Disease of London, first railway funeral

So the train, much like its unfortunate driver, was late that May morning in 1876. But there were few grumbles from the passengers; most of them were dead too.

This minor-key scene played out on the Necropolis Railway, which was built to convey corpses and the bereaved from a dedicated station by Waterloo Bridge to a vast new cemetery in Surrey. It was the largest burial ground in the world at the time, and the most beautiful too, according to an 1888 advert in The Times that urged all to visit before making the doleful error of depositing loved ones in ‘the seething London cemeteries’.

Therein lies the tale. Crowded beyond compare, the disease-infested boroughs of London had faced a chronic shortage of skeleton space in the first half of the nineteenth century. The canny solution was found in a swathe of land by the village of Brookwood, near Woking, and in the train tracks of the London and South Western Railway.

The first railway funeral was held in November 1854; a truly morose affair for stillborn twin boys from south London. More than 200,000 coffins later, the final passenger to make the one-way trip along the line was a Chelsea pensioner buried in April 1941, shortly before Luftwaffe bombs fell around Waterloo and closed down the operation. In between, there’s a good chance poor Mr. Wilkinson ended up in the hearse carriages at the back of his own train.

Perhaps he knew that day would come, wondering only as to the timing and the cause.

And when it came to causes, there were plenty of contenders for the average Briton: consumption, cholera, smallpox, convulsions, dysentery, dropsy … With the singles charts a full century away, the Leicestershire Mercury began printing a regular countdown of the various ways the townsfolk had died.

In the early 1840s, the mortality figures appeared four times a year. By the end of the decade, the table was in each month. By the early 1850s, it was a weekly rundown. Maybe the statistics were being compiled ever faster. Or maybe they proved so popular they just needed to be.

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Death fascinated the Victorians, with their grandiose funerals, cult of mourning and keepsake photographs of lifeless loved ones propped up in their Sunday best. And the newspapers of the day indulged them, with reports of calamities and murders that dripped with unpleasant, unnecessary detail.

By contrast, in a topsy-turvy twist to the norm, we are the ones who seem prudish.

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