It is the end of the 18th Century. The Napoleonic War is raging. French Privateers are harassing British vessels carrying supplies across the Straits of Dover.
A safer way was needed for trade between the south coast and London. Portsmouth, the most important harbour on the coast, was an obvious choice. How to transport the goods between Portsmouth and London was the problem.___
At this time roads were incapable of carrying heavy loads. But this was the era of canal building mania. So it was proposed to build a canal from Wandsworth to Portsmouth.___
To be effective the canal would have to draw water from the River Wandle. The R. Wandle was at this time the source of power for many mills. In the ten miles covered by the canal there were 38 mills employing 1700 people. To reduce its flow would interrupt these industries. The mill owners, not unsurprisingly, would not agree to the proposal.___
The idea of a railway was mooted. There were already small railways attached to specific industries, such as mines or mills but this railway would be a public railway designed to offer "a cheap and easy Communication of Coals, Corn and all Goods, Wares and Merchandise to and from the Metropolis and other Places"___
The first stage was to be from Wandsworth to Croydon following the route of the River Wandle. William Jessop, the canal engineer, was asked to survey the route.___
The S.I.R. would in fact be a plate-way, the track consisting of cast-iron angle-plates to guide the wheels of the horsedrawn waggons.___
The railway sponsors gathered at The Spread Eagle on June 4th 1801 to appoint officers of the Company. William Jessop was to be the engineer .___
The S.I.R would be authorised by the first Railway Act to pass through Parliament, this paved the way for all subsequent railway Bills.___
As the the Act passed through the Lords a clause was added preventing the branch line to the calico printing works belonging to Richard Howard being extended. The reason for this is unknown, but curious, as R. Howard was one of the local shareholders.___
The Act passed in May 1801 allowed a railway "from a place called Ram Field in the parish . of Wandsworth to or near a place called Pitlake Meadow in a town called Croydon"___
The Surrey Iron Railway was formally opened on the 26th of July 1803, thus becoming the world's first public railway.___
The European Magazine and London Review reported the event.
"The Iron Railway from Wandsworth to Croydon was opened to the public for the conveyance of goods. The Committee went up in waggons drawn by one horse, and, to show how motion is facilitated by the ingenious yet simple contrivance, a gentleman with his companion drove up the railway in a machine of his own invention, without horses, at a rate of fifteen miles per hour. " What this machine was, nobody knows.___
But in 1805 other events changed the need for the railway. Nelson defeated Napoleon's navy at the battle of Trafalgar, thus removing the threat to merchant shipping in the channel. So although the line to Merstham continued to be used for the next forty years the line to Portsmouth was never built.___
Application was made to extend the line to Reigate, Merstham and Godstone. Only the section to Merstham was built, opening in 1805 .___
The railway never prospered financially. The company rarely paid a dividend, none after 1825 and the company was eventually wound up in 1846.___
The speed of the trains was hardly more than walking pace, yet three fatalities are recorded. In 1807 a Mr Thomas Strattin was run over by a waggon. Two small boys were also run over by wagons, one in 1808 and one in 1810 ._
The Surrey Iron Railway was the first transport project to come under the Parliamentary Bill procedure; the last one was the Croydon Tramlink Bill passed on 21st July 1994.___
The S.I.R was designed to carry goods. The first railway to carry passengers was the Mumbles Railway opened in 1807. Like the S.I.R. the carriages were horse drawn. Later it changed to steam power and eventually electricity.___
The company provided only the track; users provided their own horses and waggons .