Welcome to The Holborn’s Tall Stories column. London is a city full of history and a city full of great architecture. In this column we will be profiling some of London’s lesser known buildings, looking at the stories behind them and what makes them both historically and architecturally interesting. We will also, as in this article, look at some buildings that didn’t quite reach the construction phase.
We love ambition and big ideas. We love that nothing is impossible attitude to solving problems. And as often for enterprising thinking and a slightly mad uninhibited approach to things, we turn back the clocks to the Victorians. Now you know Waterloo station, not the big one, you mean Waterloo East? No I don’t, I’m taking about the abandoned Waterloo station, the one on Westminster Bridge Road. Don’t know it, well it has a very interesting story.
Victorian London had a problem with the dead. Quite simply they just didn’t know where to put them. They were squeezing corpses wherever they could, one churchyard in Holborn had a ground level twelve feet above that of the surrounding area purely down to number of bodies shovelled in. There were many solutions suggested including my favourite of the rejected solutions. This was an idea from Thomas Wilson to build a Pyramid of the Dead atop Primrose Hill.
This mausoleum would hold up to five million corpses, it’s base would have been the size of Russell square and it would have been taller than St.Paul’s Cathedral. Steam powered lifts would have transported bodies to the 94 storeys. Despite the fashion of the time for all things Egyptian and the morbid nature of Victorians Wilson’s project was rejected and the city plumped for The London Necropolis Railway.
This was a railway line with a special type of passenger, the recently late kind. The London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company was formed in 1852 and the service began in 1854. The service would transport corpses from the Necropolis Waterloo station to the newly opened Brookwood cemetery by Woking. A branch line was built running off the main line ,which ran from Waterloo to Portsmouth, into the cemetery, with two stations ; one for those belonging to the Church of England and the other for Non-conformists. In fact this religious divide also effect where you got on the train, there were six types of tickets. First, Second & Third class tickets for Anglicans and the same for Non-comformists. The Victorian obsession with class continued beyond the grave. The first class travellers had special mourning waiting rooms for them at Waterloo and Brookwood. These class division didn’t just apply to the travelling mourners, they affected the style in which the deceased travelled with more ornate coffins and storage compartments for the first class, and the third class were stacked up and cramed in to their hearse carriage.
The building on Westminster Road was in fact the second terminus to be used for the service (from 1902-41). The new building, designed by Cyril Bazett Tubbs, was designed for attractiveness and modernity to contrast with the traditional gloomy decor associated with the funeral industry. A narrow four-storey office building stood at 188 Westminster Bridge Road. The ground floor was taken up by a large arch leading to a waiting room, an office for general enquiries, and the long driveway leading to the station itself; above this were the London Necropolis Company’s offices and boardrooms. First class mourners entered through the driveway under the office building which turned sharply left to run beneath a glass canopy parallel to Westminster Bridge Road; this stretch was faced with glazed white brick and lined with palm trees.
The service ran a train a day and lasted for almost 100 years. The station was damaged by a German bomb on 16 April 1941 and the station was officially declared closed on the 11 May. The last recorded funeral carried on the London Necropolis Railway was that of Chelsea pensioner Edward Irish (1868–1941), buried on 11 April. And so ended the story of one of the world’s stranger railway stations. So if you’re ever walking along Westminster Bridge Road then keep an eye out for the abandoned station, a very strange monument to the long departed.