The Great Necropolis.

On 12 April 1866 Cornelius Washington Schaller, brother of my great-grandmother Florence May Schaller, died at the age of 3 years, 6 months, and 4 days. Lines of evidence point to the grief that any family would feel at such a wrenching occurrence, evidence that must not be overlooked even though it is in some respects conventional.

In Floods and Schallers V, I published a photo of a remarkable locket containing Washington’s photo, retouched with color, and a piece of his dead body in the form of a lock of his blond hair. Such lockets, adapted from erotic or familiar to funerary commemoration, rose in popularity in 1860s England, and were a common way of evoking the presence of a dead family member. This conventionality, however, is paralleled by the great physical wear on the locket—it was sedulously worn by members of the family who had known the child, presumably his mother at first. It is interesting to find the Schallers among the early adopters of funerary lockets.

But in addition, Cornelius Robert purchased, for the valuable consideration of 25 pounds and 19 shillings (and franked for half a crown) title to an 18 by 15-foot plot, number 35358, in the London Necropolis, run by the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company:

Title Deed, Plot 35358, London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company. 28 August 1866. Photo: author.

To be sure, Cornelius Robert appears to have purchased the plot in need rather than foresight. Who can blame him? Even if he were making a fairly decent yearly wage in the 1860s, that would likely have been between £ 100-200 at best, out of which £ 25 was a large chunk, comparable to a good annual rental on a residence. Nevertheless, we see the Schallers once again among the early adopters of a great endeavour (as they might put it) of Victorian London, the rationalization (or industrialization) of the disposal of the dead. The attempt to establish a single extramural necropolis for all London was a monumental, awesome, progressive, and only partly successful enterprise. Every part of it was larger than life, and the necropolis and its parts have been recognized for their huge importance to art, history, and landscape architecture. Here I’m cribbing a longer version of the story found in the wikipedia site.

It seems that the growth of London in the first half of the nineteenth century was causing intolerable pressure for space on the traditional London burial sites around churches. This was made acute enough by the great cholera epidemic of 1848-1849 that they resorted to expedients such as digging up and scattering bones from older burials to make room for new ones, or even stuffing dismembered cadavers into graves so that several could be packed more efficiently into each. Nothing could stop the flow (so to speak) of the dead in a city heading towards two and a half million, so one can understand exigent means being adopted.

When you contrast that undignified method of disposal with the increasing sentimentality of the Victorian sensibility, you can see why by 1851 a mixture of sanitary and sentimental reasons led the government to act. In a wonderful example of Victorian industrial thinking, the railroad was pressed into service. The dead from all over London would be conveyed (by river, if need be) to a railroad station very near the present day Waterloo Station. From there, the London and Southwestern Railway would convey them en masse to a site at Brookwood, which is near Woking, Surrey, some 23 miles southwest of London. Apparently the great brick arches of the viaduct that brought the trains into the station (I think they’re all gone now) served as a sort of receiving vault to store bodies for shipment, which took place in the evening and the early morning.

London and Brookwood Cemetery, with nearby Woking. Google Maps.

Woking, it should be recalled, is where H.G. Wells lived and witnessed the great Martian invasion of 1895. Luckily some archival footage has been preserved:

War of the Worlds archival footage. Wikimedia Commons.

The cemetery was assuredly of use in disposing of the remains of the Martians’ poison gas victims. But to return to our main story, the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Act [of Parliament] 1852 established the cemetery and the corporation, and after purchasing land, the trains began to roll in 1854. To the eyes of the early corporation, the 2200-acre site would handle burials from all London for centuries. Wonderfully, the path leading into the cemetery was lined with Giant Sequoia trees imported from the U.S.:

Giant Sequoia Tres lining path at Brookwood Cemetery. Photo: Faeden1. Wikimedia Commons.

They needn’t have worried about space, as demand for plots and funerals were never as high as they had projected. This was partly the result of hiccups in starting the enterprise up that led to competition stealing a march. The idea of Industrially efficient disposal of the dead outside London was simply in the air in the early 1850s.

As a result, the corporation operated at the edge of insolvency despite multiple attempts to alleviate it through sales of unused corporation-owned land near the cemetery. Part eventually became a golf course! A prison! A lunatic asylum! The corporation and cemetery labored on, losing its dedicated railroad facilities thanks to German bombardment in 1941. In 1959 a hostile takeover ended the independent existence of the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company, and the assets (land apart from the actual cemetery) were liquidated.

In 1910 the cemetery grudgingly started accepting cremation burials from the U.K.’s only crematorium in Woking. The corporation adapted an unused mausoleum (of Lord Cadogan) as a columbarium:

Brookwood Cemetery columbarium. Photo: Jack1956. Wikipedia.

You have to give it to Cadogan, it was flash to make your mausoleum into a miniature St. Paul’s!

In the 1970s and 1980s, the cemetery had little upkeep, becoming overgrown:

Brookwood Cemetery, Romantic overgrowth. Photo: Ron Strutt. Wikimedia Commons.

Luckily, the cemetery was named a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is a Grade I site on the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. It has thus received some attention, money, and upkeep. I’m glad to see the Zoroastrian Burial Ground is looking pristine in the 2017 photograph by Scott Wylie below:

Zoroastrian Burial Ground, Brookwood Cemetery. Photo: Scott Wylie. Wikimedia Commons.

The Schaller title deed bears the seal of the corporation, which is unfortunately difficult to parse even in person. Luckily the seal is given as a line drawing on wikipedia:

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: