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By Rail to Southgate Cemetery
Martin Dawes
8 May 2000

Methodist ministers have an opportunity every 7 years to do something different. Martin got hold of the Oakwood publication on private and un-timetabled halts and came across the Kings Cross funeral station. As one of the long line of railway enthusiast in the clergy, he had an ideal subject for his sabbatical.

Martin began by giving some statistics to set the scene. In the 1801 census, central London had a population of 818,189; this had grown by over a million by 1851. During this time, the size of the burial ground in London had virtually remained unchanged. The 218 acres which was available had to cope with 44,000 burials per annum. Not surprisingly, these burial sites were massively overcrowded. For example, the burial ground at St Martins in the Field, which was only 200 ft 2 in size, had 70,000 bodies registered as having been buried there. In 1830 and 1840, Acts of Parliament were established for private firms to set up cemeteries on the outskirts of London as a means of alleviating the overcrowding. Unfortunately these were too expensive and/or too far away for most of the population, so the poor continued to use the old cemeteries. In a typical response, Parliament set up a committee. This took evidence from a wide range of people and Martin quoted from the records to illustrate the problem.

One burial site had graves which were created 30ft deep and filled up to within 2 feet of the surface with both adults and children, the latter virtually being used in-fill. When any of these graves were opened in the summer months to inter another corpse the results were, not surprisingly, offensive with flies and smells causing problems for the grave-diggers, those officiating and attending the funerals. As a result quality control was a little lacking. A grave digger said he had seen bones and skulls on the ground, and children were often known to use then in their games. He often had coffins all around him while he was digging the grave. In addition, some unscrupulous people traded in a well-established market in second-hand coffin furniture and even bones - the use of which is best left to the imagination.

A doctor attending people close to a cemetery pointed to the poor health surrounding it. Housing conditions didn't help. In a large proportion of households there was only one room, used for eating, sleeping and working. On a bereavement, bodies were retained in the family home, sometimes for up to two weeks, because it was seen as disrespectful to bury relatives quickly - mainly through fear of people being buried alive. Also people had to save up to pay for the funeral. This situation was perpetuated as undertakers didn't have the space to take bodies while awaiting the funeral. In periods of epidemic there were far too may burials to cope with, meaning that people had to retain the bodies in their homes even longer. One doctor reported that the corpse of a grandmother laid in bed next to an ill father - the inevitable occurred with the father and a number of the children dying.

The Metropolitan Internment Act of 1852 finally produced some action. Brookwood cemetery was created in that year, linked by rail to Waterloo. This remained in service until a bomb was dropped in WWII on the Waterloo funeral station while the only train was standing there.

In 1855, Parliament passed the Act establishing the Southgate Cemetery. This allowed some of the land to be leased to the local Metropolitan parishes and authorised the GN railway to arrange transport.

The original site proposed to the GNR directors for the Kings Cross funeral station was at the north end of the goods yard, next to the potato warehouse. The northern station was off the main line just north of Southgate station. Three years later the company had second thoughts on the Kings Cross site and decided to investigate a station next to the main departure platform. However they thought again, because they needed the area for the loco shed and subsequently the suburban station. Finally, in 1859, the directors settled on a location on the east side of the main line at the north entrance to gasworks tunnel.

Edmund Alexander Spur was the architect for the cemetery project and he went to work with a flourish of spires, stained glass and other embellishments. The station at Kings Cross was modelled on similar lines. However, the surrounding land was then, as now, somewhat run-down. "The Builder" gave a review shortly after its opening describing the dilapidated surroundings, with mud and squalor all around. The building itself was impressive with an unusual spire at its southern end which was wedge shaped. The entrance was on the upper story which gave direct access from street level. There were separate entrances for coffins and mourners. The platforms were on the lower level, with a flight of stairs for the mourners, and a hydraulic lift for the coffin. A mortuary was provided free of charge by the company in an attempt to encourage the populace to remove bodies quickly from their homes. Within the mortuary, gas jets were continuously lit under exhaust ducts to make sure there was a continuous flow of air - remember these were the days before refrigerators. The lit stained glass windows must have made an impressive sight for passengers coming out of gasworks tunnel during the evening.

The cemetery was laid out as a wheel with the Church of England church in the centre. The western part, where the station was situated, was never really developed for burials. The station buildings were a much smaller affair than those at Kings Cross. Originally there had been plans for two stations, possibly one for Church of England members and one for the other denominations, although only one was ever built. Adjacent to the station building was a house in which the architect lived. The track work was relatively simple, with one platform and a run round loop for the loco.

On 10 July 1861, two thirds of the cemetery was consecrated. The first train ran the same day to take visitors to the ceremony. This left at 11.00 and took 15 mins, returning at 15.00. The first burial from London took place the following day, but a local child was buried on the opening day. It was expected to run a train each day, with the objective of securing from 5% to 10% of the burials from London. Only one coffin carriage was built, probably based on the GN transit van with four sets of doors, accommodating eight coffins. They also had two carriages equipped with, according the the directors minutes, "suitable fittings for the conveyance of mourners"; the meaning of this is unknown. These carriages were converted 1st/2nd composites - records show that no 3rd class tickets were ever sold. There are no records describing the locos, but Martin believes that the only one capable of the required speed of 30 mph and not requiring turning was the Sharp 2-2-2. At that time these had been relegated to secondary duties and Sturrock was in the process of converting them to tank engines.

The railway charged 6s for the transport of the coffin, with a first class fare for mourners costing 1s 6d. It quickly became apparent that demand was not as great and originally expected. Just over 300 burials took place at the cemetery in the first year, 815 in the second, and 1028 in the third, and it did not reach the target 3000 burials per year for 10 years. As a result the train service was quickly reduced to three a week instead of daily. By end of the first year there was such a loss that the cemetery company had to guarantee receipts to the railway. Careful records were consequently kept of the demand and service frequency. By 1862 it had declined to one train a week. In that year a Sunday train was introduced for workmen, this being the only day this class had available for a funeral. In 1863 there was a dramatic drop in demand. January saw the running of only two trains, then February and March had only one train each. It is likely that this was the end of the service. The railway service was probably unsuccessful because the Southgate Cemetery was so close to London, making it easier to get there by horse and cart than by train. Those using the Brookwood Cemetery, which was considerably further out of London, had little choice other than to use the equivalent railway service.

In 1864 there was an unusual incident on the main line next to the cemetery station when an ass was killed by a train. The directors required the cemetery company to make good the fencing, but no one explained what an ass was doing in the cemetery in the first place!

An outbreak of cholera occurred some time after the official GNR funeral service was withdrawn. This was caused by unfiltered Thames water being let into the drinking water at Bethnel Green. It resulted in 3069 burials at the Southgate Cemetery. A local parishioner told Martin that while he was training shunters at Kings Cross, he always wondered why there were two short sidings next to the potato warehouse. He was told this was the sidings used for the cholera epidemic. This seems sensible because the funeral station had closed the year before, with the platforms out of use. In addition, none of the railway workmen could have known that this site, next to the potato warehouse, was the one originally proposed for the southern terminus. Clearly it had been hastily pressed into use to cope with the demand.

The 1874 GNR Act allowed for the widening of the approaches to Kings Cross. The plans show the extra tracks coming out directly under the funeral station. The cemetery company offered to sell the land both there and at Southall for widening the line. In 1876 the contracts were let and the station tracks demolished. The building, however, survived and was pressed into use as a store. The grassy area around the old station was often used by train spotters. By the late 1950s the spire was unsafe and was removed and in July 1962 the whole building was demolished. It is now the site of a concrete mixing depot.

At Southgate, in 1876, the cemetery company was allowed to dispose of the western area. The GNR had already removed the tracks to the station site and, by then, the station building was known as "The Retreat". A good part of the rest of the land was used by a local pig breeder. There were plans in the 1880s to develop the land for houses but nothing was built. In 1916 a concrete building was put up on the station site for industrial use and the track relaid. This was sold in 1921 to Standard Telephone and Cables, and the site is now occupied by Nortel. One person in audience works in this building and thinks the funeral procession may have gone under his present office! In 1968 the 212 burials which had taken place in the western site were exhumed and re-buried on the eastern side. There is now virtually nothing extant, other than the records, to show that the GNR funeral service ever existed.

In a recent edition of the Guardian newspapers there was an article about the present problems of burials in London, and another describing the Midland Railway Centres offer the arrange burials at Butterley. Perhaps all ideas come round again in time!

Martin is preparing a book on the subject and last year the London Railway Record published an article based on his researches.**

Ian Harrison proposed the vote of thanks.


Martin's book was published on 14 June 2003 by Barnet & District Local History Society. It is paperback A5, 128 pages with 53 illustrations. Copies can be ordered from

Barnet & District Local History Society
Barnet Museum
31 Wood Street

The price is £7.50 plus £1.25 postage & packing