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The Surrey Iron Railway

The Surrey Iron Railway linked Wandsworth in south London and Croydon in Surrey via Mitcham, was constructed in the early years of the 19th century (opening on 26 July 1803), and was (arguably) Britain's, if not the world's, first public railway albeit horse-drawn. The nine-mile route followed the shallow valley of the River Wandle, then heavily industrialised with numerous factories and mills, running from the River Thames in the north soutwards to Croydon (a short branch also ran from Mitcham to Hackbridge). The line was subsequently extended through Purley and Coulsdon to serve quarries near Godstone and Merstham (opened in 1805). Engineer William Jessop was chief engineer and the flat alignment of his route proved more long-lasting than the Surrey Iron Railway itself. The advent of faster and more powerful steam locomotives spelled the end for horse-drawn railways, and the SIR closed in 1846. Jessop's route, however, was retained for use by the London and Brighton Railway and remains in use.

This is a text only version extract from one of one of our educational leaflets "The Wandle at Work". We have now launched a brand new full colour A4 trifold booklet to mark the bicentaenary of the opening, available at 1.95 from our shop (discounts for large orders).

WE have now finished the upload of Peter McGow's detailed history of the Surrey Iron Railway and Croydon, Merstham and Godstone Iron Railway. The index and all Chapters are now up - go to

Peter McGow's Surrey Iron Railway and Croydon, Merstham and Godstone Iron Railway

For more information you could look at the excellent The Merstham Gateway, www.merstham.info, The Merstham Web,www.merstham.co.uk/merstham, or look at the full Educational leaflet on the Railway in our Archive section.

The first public railway

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The Surrey Iron Railway was opened in 1803 [Full size image 4.6kb]

We have seen how many different things were made in the mills and factories along the river Wandle. But there was another important problem for the makers to solve. How could they get their products to their customers quickly and cheaply? They could use the roads, but they were in very bad condition with big holes, ruts and rocks. They were sometimes very deep in mud so that heavy carts would get stuck or broken.

One idea was to build a canal. Many of these were made in England giving cheap transport. But the only water for a canal would have to come from the river Wandle, and there might not be enough water to drive the big water wheels if they took a lot out for the canal.

So they decided to build a railway. There were only a few railways in England and they were all private. The railway by the Wandle (which was called the Surrey Iron Railway) was the very first Public one in the World.

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The Surrey Iron Railway was opened in 1803 [Full size image 44.6kb]

The Surrey Iron Railway was opened on July 26, 1803.

We think of railways with big engines drawing trains of carriages with lots of people. But in 1803 there were no engines, the wagons were drawn by horses and no passengers were carried, only goods. One horse could draw only three or four wagons.

The Surrey Iron Railway ran from Croydon to Wandsworth where goods could be loaded on to barges for the journey into London.

A few years later came the invention of the steam locomotive and the railways that we know began to be built. The Surrey Iron Railway became too slow and old-fashioned and so it closed down.

But it is interesting that the very first public railway was by the Wandle. As we have seen in our imaginary trip through the mills and factories our little river has been a very important one.

For more information and articles go to SIR News