Spooky London Legend: Whitechapel’s Dead Body Train

(Image: Anthony Woodman, cc-nc-3.0)

In the spirit of Halloween, let’s discuss an eerie London tale that may or may not be an urban legend – we’re not really sure!  The documentary “Ghosts of the London Underground” (which I recently watched on a British Airways flight between the US and the UK) mentions a train that once rumbled through a tunnel connecting Whitechapel Tube station to the Royal London Hospital – a train with no passengers, or no live passengers at least.  It was known as the Dead Body Train, an ominous title that leaves little to the imagination.

(Image: Paul Hart, cc-3.0; used as illustration – this abandoned tunnel is not at Whitechapel)

According to London Underground folklore, the ghastly train operated during the early 1900s, running through a tunnel that is now bricked-up.  As Charles Dickens famously depicted decades earlier, Victorian and Edwardian London was rife with poverty and disease.  With full hospitals and overflowing morgues, the notion of a train transporting dead passengers away from the Royal London at least sounds plausible.

(Image: Harper’s Weekly, public domain)

Very little – beyond hearsay and ghost stories – exists online, but several forums do discuss the rumoured Dead Body Train.  District Dave’s London Underground Forum includes member discussions of a bricked-up tunnel mouth at Whitechapel station that – some had been told – led to the Royal London Hospital.  Members suggest, however, that it may have been a walking tunnel – many of which exist deep beneath London.

(Image: Bob Walker, cc-sa-3.0; Sunil060902, cc-sa-3.0)

Perhaps the most likely source of the story is the rumour that, years ago, empty rooms under the ticket hall at Whitechapel were used as a temporary morgue when the Royal London’s overcrowded mortuary couldn’t cope with the volume of bodies.  It’s unclear whether this tale is true, but together with independent witness reports of a bricked-up tunnel, perhaps there is some validity to the ghastly Dead Body Train after all.  And of course, as the former stomping ground of Jack the Ripper, Whitechapel’s history is an especially gruesome one.

Update: Ian Mansfield of London culture blog IanVisits delved deeper into the myth, and concludes that a Dead Body Train was unlikely for a variety of factors – read more.

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  • http://twitter.com/StoryVault StoryVault

    Sounds plausible as there were overground railway lines specifically serving cemeteries used to transport the dead to suburban graveyards – in fact there was a Necropolis Station at Waterloo http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Necropolis_railway_station  and http://www.forteantimes.com/features/articles/171/londons_necropolis_train.html

  • http://www.urbanghostsmedia.com Tom

    That’s fascinating info, thanks for the heads-up!  Didn’t know about the Waterloo Necropolis station or the lines serving suburban graveyards – some interesting Halloween research ahead!

  • Pingback: The tale of the “Dead Body Train” at Whitechappel

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.r.broomhall Daniel Robert Broomhall

    There were also similar lines in Melbourne, Sydney (Rookwood, aka Haslems creek necropolis) and Newcastle, all in Australia. The Sydney Mortuary Station is still there, but the other end was dissembled and rebuilt in Canberra. The Melbourne service was even met by a hearse tram!
    Outback trains would often have to carry the odd dead person in the guards van…

  • http://www.urbanghostsmedia.com Tom

    Daniel that’s great info, many thanks for sharing. I can see a follow up article coming on!

  • random knowledge

    it makes sense. i know there was a train specifically used for transporting dead in coffins during that time. its where the phrase one way ticket comes from- the coffin would be given a ticket and placed on train for crematorium, once burned the ashes would be returned to next of kin etch.

 
 
 
 
 

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