Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 23rd August 2017 | Manchester, UK

A Literal Ghost Train?

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Though macabre in appearance and plaintively bizarre, the concept of a train designed solely to transport bodies for burial became a respected and useful feature in Victorian life. With London’s population exploding during the 1850s graveyards became increasingly congested and piles of rotting corpses were a major public concern. Indeed, Victorian values surrounding death and mourning were severe: they were fascinated with the concept.

With the high mortality rate of London, death became an accepted norm of city life, especially during the cholera outbreak of 1848, which killed nearly 15,000 people living in London at the time. The limited amount of space led to half buried graves, with many believing the smell of rotting corpses led to miasma and the spread of numerous contagious diseases. Contaminated water supplies and terrible sanitation caused great concern and the demand for urgent change.

Consequently, The London Necropolis Railway opened in 1849 by Sir Richard Broun and was seen by many as a way to solve the disposal of bodies. The railway carried both cadavers and their mourners to the place of burial, Brookwood Cemeter. Adding a strange efficiency to the whole process, corpses were separated into class. Intriguingly, those of middle or upper class were concerned with the body of a poor or vagrant person to be lying in the same carriage as their loved ones.

The carriages for the mourners were also split and separated, as more luxuries were afforded with each upgrade. Coffins were placed in the highest standard of accommodation during the journey, which interesting harks back to the concept of ancient burial, where comforting items were placed with loved ones to help them on their ‘journey’. Though in no way Egyptian in appearance, Victorian fascination with death, religion and the afterlife can clearly be seen here. Victorians collected ‘momento moris’, with these small tokens of loved ones including lockets of cut hair, death masks and photographs. For the first class carriages holding the dead was hugely important, with graveyards becoming important places of intense reflection.

Although death was a constant factor, it was weaved into everyday life, as the London train of 1849, transporting bodies for burial, showed in all forms. Yet, Brookwood Cemetery was just a small factor of death and the disposal of bodies. Although a train for the dead seems chilling in many respects, there were more grisly details within the cities. Cremation was a strange concept during the Victorian times, with burial accepted as the normal way to treat the dead. However, the expensive of burials meant gravediggers were severe, with reports citing workers playing games of skittles with bones of the dead, the skull used as a balling ball. Once again, the rich sought to avoid these activities, as bodies were moved to small gated churchyards, avoiding Highgate cemetery and raising their dead above the bodies of the poor. There were few options; the London necropolis? Over-crowded cemeteries?

Though death was an accepted factor, it was also an unavoidable problem and inconvenience for the Victorians. So, although Victorian attitudes towards death appear unusual, macabre and bizarre, it were arguably sparked by death being woven into squalid urban conditions, high mortality rates, stacked coffins and over-crowded cemeteries. London, it seems, was at risk and death was omnipresent. Once again, class always played a part, would it be a first class carriage, ornate door and comfortable journey for loved ones, or an over-crowded cemetery? Certainly, new forms of burial were encouraged by the Victorians. Garden cemeteries, adorned with ornate graves, are still present within London. While Brookwood Cemetery is still the largest cemetery in the United Kingdom and one of the largest in Europe, the railway closed in 1945 and first class tickets are no longer available.

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