Kings Cross Cemetery Station

By R.G. Lucas, published in 'The Railway Magazine' October 1954

[Photo R. G. Lucas]
Present-day view from the north end of Kings Cross Cemetery Station at Belle Isle


ALTHOUGH many are aware that, until recent years, there existed a Necropolis Station alongside the main station at Waterloo, it seems to be far less known that this was not the only one of its kind in London, although it was the first. The continuing growth of London's population in the 1850s caused anxiety among those responsible for its health, and the overcrowded condition of the urban burial grounds meant that new cemeteries had to be provided on the outskirts.

One company, the London Necropolis Company, purchased 2,000 acres of land at Woking Common under an Act of Parliament, and 400 acres were enclosed and planted for the purposes of a cemetery. The arrangements made by this company were admirable, but had the objection that, even by the special funeral trains from the station near Westminster Bridge, the journey took 45 min.

In 1855, another company - the Great Northern London Cemetery Company - was constituted by Act of 18 & 19 Vic., cap. 159, to establish a burial ground at Colney Hatch, a district now better known as New Southgate. The 150 acres acquired by the new company were about three-quarters of a mile north of Colney Hatch (now New Southgate) Station on the G.N.R. main line, about 7 1/4 miles out of Kings Cross. The Colney Hatch Company, as it was called in contemporary references, had as one of its objects the betterment of funeral arrangements for the poorer persons who invariably experienced much difficulty in finding the £4 or so it then cost for even the lowest class of funeral. One of the prevalent evils which the new company helped to prevent was the retaining of the corpse in the house for upwards of a week because the bereaved family was unable to pay the undertakers' fees.

The Great Northern Railway Company and the cemetery company entered into an agreement in 1859, whereby the railway company provided two stations for the use of the cemetery company, one at Maiden Lane, near Belle Isle, Kings Cross, on railway land, and the other on cemetery land at New Southgate. The railway company agreed to run trains between these two stations for the conveyance of coffins and mourners. The large building erected at Maiden Lane was designed in part as a mortuary and in part as a railway station. Here the body would be received immediately after death and preserved under hygienic conditions until the appointed time for the funeral. Meanwhile, mourners had access to the mortuary to pay their respects at any time. On arrival the coffin was lowered mechanically to a vault and conveyed along rails to the particular spot assigned for its reception. On the day arranged, instead of a lugubrious procession through the streets, the party was conveyed by train from the same building direct to the other specially-erected station alongside the new cemetery at Colney Hatch. These facilities became available about 1861, and for a time special funeral trains were run, it is believed twice a week. The exact date on which these admirable arrangements ceased is not recorded, but it was between 1867 and 1873, as the stations were open in the former year, and had been closed in the latter. The service, therefore, was not long-lived. The Ordnance Survey made in 1871, shows that the Kings Cross Station had two terminal tracks, of which one was presumably a locomotive run-round road, with trailing and facing cross-overs just outside the platforms. Unfortunately, either part of the tracks had been removed at that date or the surveyors were inaccurate in their draughtsmanship, as the arrangement of the actual junction with the main line is shown as being with the up line only and at a point about 200 yd. from the Cemetery Station buffer stops, whereas, according to Airey's map, the distance should have been about 375 yd. Moreover, the existing length of retaining wall towards the Copenhagen Tunnel mouth indicates a junction near that point rather than as far south as is indicated in the Ordnance Survey.

[Photo courtesyStandard Telephones & Cables Limited]
New Southgate Cemetery Station and chapel buildings, looking south, about sixty years ago

By the date of the next Ordnance Survey the main line at Belle Isle had been widened and the two Cemetery Station tracks and the brick-built shelter over the tracks had been removed. The cemetery company secured an Act in 1876 authorising the land on which the station at Colney Hatch was built to be used for other purposes. This Act recited that the amount of traffic between the two stations did not justify the upkeep of the works. Subsequently, the railway works at both stations were demolished, and the buildings were left derelict. That at Colney Hatch survived into the present century, but was demolished about 50 years ago.

At Kings Cross, the main building still stands, very dilapidated, above the retaining wall just north and east of the Gas Works Tunnel mouth. With its wedge-shaped steeple and Gothic arch windows it might appear to be a disused chapel when seen from the line. The road approach is from Rufford Street, off York Way, but a high wall and close-boarded gate prevent examination of the building from that angle. The Ordnance Survey shows the main building to be 150 ft. long and 50 ft. wide, with the tower adding a further 20 ft. at the northern end.

For the railway journey, advertised as being of 15 min. duration, a charge of 6s. was made for conveying the coffin, plus 1s. 6d. a person as return fare for the mourners. The 6s. included the mortuary fees, but the cost of the actual interment was additional and amounted to 13s. 6d. at the lowest rate.

At the period under consideration New Southgate Station on the main line consisted of two staggered platforms, of which the down platform was (as now) an island north of the footbridge, and there was a single-sided platform for up trains south of the footbridge. At this point a single cemetery line branched off to the up side and ran northward, parallel with the main line until after passing under the road overbridge just beyond the seven-mile post. Then the branch rose slightly and veered a little awav from the main line across the land now occupied by the works of Standard Telephones & Cables Limited. The branch terminated at a spot about 400 yd. south of the Barnet Tunnel mouth. In addition to a platform on the east side of the line, a short run-round loop was provided, but there were no other tracks. The station buildings here were quite elaborate, and, in addition to the waiting rooms, there were chapels for Dissenters as well as a church for members of the Church of England, the spire of which rose to some 150 ft. The church, at least, was still in existence at the turn of the century. By 1897 the track of the special station had been removed and the main line had been widened from two tracks to five, with two signalboxes, Cemetery Up and Cemetery Down, to control the crossovers which had been installed nearby. Cemetery Down box and the long trailing crossover which connected all five tracks (two down and three up) have long since been removed, and the modern Standard Telephones' works obliterate all trace of the original station, although of course the cemetery itself has not been built on.

I have been unable to ascertain anything about the train working arrangements or whether the special trains were run at fixed times or merely as required. There was at one time a movement to introduce a service of ordinary public trains to and from the branch station, which was intended to benefit the then rural hamlet of Brunswick Park, and the matter was discussed by the East Barnet District Council, but nothing materialised. Although I had often noticed the church-like building at Belle Isle, it was not until the late Mr. H. W. Bardsley, Honorary Librarian of the Railway Club, drew my attention to an old railway map showing Cemetery Station, on a branch near Kings Cross, that I began the enquiries on which the above notes are based, and here I must thank Messrs. E. Neve, J. H. Walton, and J. A. Kippen, for valuable pointers to sources of information. British Railways, Eastern Region, and the Great Northern London Cemetery Company, have also supplied such information as is still available in their files, but it appears that no complete details of the enterprise have survived.

Many thanks to David Lunnon for sending a scan of the original article to Jean Oakleigh, and thanks to Jean for forwarding it to me.

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