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British Industrial History

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Surrey Iron Railway

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1924. Map showing he route of the Surrey Iron Railway
Cast iron rail from the Croydon, Merstham and Godstone Iron Railway, stone sleepers from the Surrey Iron Railway, on display at the Bluebell Railway museum, Sheffield Park

The Surrey Iron Railway (SIR) was a 9.5 mile long double-track with 4 ft 2 in narrow gauge that linked Wandsworth and Croydon via Mitcham with a 1.25 branch to Hackbridge. It was the first railway, as a railway and independently of any canal, to obtain an Act of Parliament for the incorporation of the owning company, for its construction and its tolls. The company was certainly the first railway company.[1]

The line was part of an ambitious scheme - no less than a railway from Wandsworth to Portsmouth. The period was a time when the English Channel swarmed with French cruisers and privateers. These dangers, it was considered, would be avoided by the proposed railway. Not only was the line to carry the large quantity of military stores that had to be sent to Portsmouth, but the bleaching works, flour mills and snuff factories in the Wandle Valley at Wandsworth would be able to send their goods to the Thames and thence up the river to Brentford, where connection would be made with the Midlands and the North by means of the Grand Junction Canal.[2]

1801 May 21st. Company incorporated and receiving royal assent as 'An Act for making and maintaining a Railway from the Town of Wandsworth to the Town of Croydon, with a Collateral Branch into the Parish of Carshalton, and a Navigable Communication between the River Thames and the Railway at Wandsworth, all in the County of Surrey'. The Act proceeded to say that the line was to be called the " Surrey Iron Railway." The land required was to be 20 yards in breadth, "except in those places where it shall be judged necessary for waggons or other carriages to turn, lie or pass each other or where any warehouses, cranes or weighbeams may be erected." Sec. 65 provided "That all persons whomsoever shall have free liberty to use with horse cattle and carriages the roads ways and passages to he made by virtue of this Act for the purpose of conveying any goods wares merchandize or other things to and from the said railway and docks basin and every part thereof without paying anything for the use of such roads ways and passages..."[3]

1801 June 4th. At a meeting held at the Spread Eagle Inn, Wandsworth with John Hilbert in the Chair it was resolved: Act for making and maintaining a Railway from the town of Wandsworth to the town of Croydon, with a collateral Branch into the parish of Carshalton, and a navigable communication between the River Thames and the said Railway at Wandsworth, all in the County of Surrey. They also appointed a committee of 30 persons (all named) with Walter Powell as Treasurer, William Bedcott Luttly as Clerk and Solicitor, William Jessop as Engineer, John Foakes and George Wildgoose as Surveyors, Castle, Powell, Son and Wilson as Bankers. [4]

1801 Notice that they are seeking authorisation for the Railway and giving detail of its route published. [5] [6] [7]

1801/2 Meetings with calls for further instalments from the subscribers. [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14]

1802 September. Notice published that an application will be made to Parliament for the building of the Railway. [15] [16] [17]

1802 September 29th. General meeting called to consider the survey and estimates. Mention is made that the intention is for it to run from the River Thames to the Arundel Navigation and thence to Portsmouth. At the meeting George Tritton is in the Chair. Resolutions passed and 24 (named) persons to be members of the Committee. [18] [19] [20] [21] [22]

1802 November 9th. Public meeting at the Swan Inn, Reigate. Robert Hudson is Chairman. Fifteen additional (named) persons added to the committee. [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28]

1802 November 23rd. Meeting held at the King's Arm's Inn, Croydon. Hylton Joliffe is Chairman. They are against any extension to the railway south of Croydon until the possibility of a canal from there to Portsmouth has been investigated. [29]

1802 November 25th. Meeting held at the Spread Eagle Inn, Wandsworth to discuss the Extension to the Surrey Iron Railway. George Tritton is Chairman. Reports a troubled meeting on the Tuesday last from members of the Croydon Canal where numerous spoiling resolutions were tabled. [30] [31]

1802 December 7th. Meeting held at the King's Arm's Inn, Croydon with Hylton Joliffe in the Chair. The Grand Surrey Canal Co are set against the railway extension. Decision to proceed with the extension. [32]

1802 December 13th. At a meeting of the Croydon Canal Company they agree to work with the Grand Surrey Canal company against the extension to the Surrey Iron Railway. [33] [34] [35] [36]

1803 April 6th. Third reading in Parliament of the 'Surrey Railway Bill'. The Bill was passed without a division. [37]

1803 July 26th. The railway opened. The 8.25-mile route followed the shallow valley of the River Wandle, then heavily industrialised with numerous factories and mills, from the River Thames southwards to Croydon - a short branch ran from Mitcham to Hackbridge.

A practical test to show its efficency was carried out. Twelve wagons were loaded with stones until each weighed three tons and the horse then pulled them all with apparent ease a distance of six miles in an hour and three-quarters. At each stop further wagons were added to the train and around fifty workman also mounted it but the horse continued with apparently undiminished power. The load at the end of the trial was more than 55 tons. Sir Richard Phillips said "I found delight in wtnessing at Wandsworth the economy of horse-labour on the iron railway". [38]

1805 March 5th. The Lords (Parliament) pass the 'Surrey Iron Railway Bill' [39].

1805 July 11th. Meeting of the Surrey Iron Railway called at the London Tavern to announce dividend. [40]

1805 The line was subsequently extended by 8.5 miles as the Croydon, Merstham and Godstone Iron Railway through Purley and Coulsdon to serve quarries near Godstone and Merstham. This part closed in 1838.

1806 Febuary 6th. Meeting of the Surrey Iron Railway called at the London Tavern [41]

1814 Notice re Surrey Iron Railway Tolls. [42]

1817 May 22nd. Meeting called at the Spread Eagle Inn, Wandsworth by the Surrey Iron Railway to discuss tolls. Signed by Luttly, the Clerk. [43] [44]

1818 June 4th. Meeting called at the Spread Eagle Inn, Wandsworth by the Surrey Iron Railway. [45]

1819 June 3rd. Meeting called at the Spread Eagle Inn, Wandsworth by the Surrey Iron Railway. [46]

1820 June 1st. Meeting called at the Spread Eagle Inn, Wandsworth by the Surrey Iron Railway. [47]

1844 The Surrey Iron Railway was sold, the London and South Western Railway without any parliamentary powers, purchased it. As it had no use for the line it was resold for the same figure to the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway.[48]

William Jessop was chief engineer and the flat alignment of his route proved more long-lasting than the railway. The advent of faster and more powerful steam locomotives was the end for horse-drawn railways, and the SIR closed in 1846.

The line was double-track and the rails were cast-iron tram-plates of 'L' section made in 3 feet lengths with a 3.5 inch tread. The gauge was 4 feet 2 inch and the rails were secured to stone blocks. Because the route was almost flat it was possible for a horse to pull five or six wagons weighing 3.5 tons each.

1846 August 31st. Line ceased to operate.

1848 The track was lifted

Part of the route was reopened in 1855 by the Wimbledon and Croydon Railway, which was later absorbed by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway.

Much of the route remains in use by Croydon Tramlink.


The plateways, from Wandsworth to Croydon and Croydon to Merstham, generally referred to as the Surrey Iron Railway, were the first iron railroads constructed for public use. Their history, therefore, is of considerable interest. Authorised by Acts of Parliament in 1801 and 1803, respectively, both lines were laid out by William Jessop (1745—1814), who had been trained under Smeaton, and who had done much work in connection with canals and docks. Originally it was intended to connect Wandsworth and Croydon by a canal passing along the valley of the River Wandle, but owing to the number of mills and factories using the water of the river for motive power, this project was abandoned in favour of a railway. From the Thames to Croydon, the route to he passed through was generally level, but between Croydon and Merstham were many hills and valleys which led to the construction of embankments, cuttings and bridges. The railways were laid with cast-iron rails, fixed to stone sleepers, and traction was by horses. On one occasion, it is said, one horse drew a train of wagons, weighing 55 tons, a distance of six miles in 1 hour 49 minutes. The Wandsworth to Croydon line was opened for traffic, July 26, 1803, and remained in use till August 31, 1846, hut the Croydon to Merstham section had a somewhat shorter life, owing to the building of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway.

In the time which has since elapsed most of the embankments and cuttings have disappeared, but in a paper read to the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society in 1927, Mr. F. G. Bing was able to give a plan of the southern line and describe such landmarks and relics as remain. His survey was a very thorough one, and believing his paper worthy of wider publicity than it would obtain in the proceedings of the local society, the Croydon Public Libraries Committee have had it reprinted as a sixpenny booklet. The paper is a good example of local historical research, and students of railway history will find in both text and illustrations much to interest them. A bibliography is given, and in this appears the name of Edward Banks, who wrote a report on a proposed canal from Merstham to the Grand Southern Canal. Banks was a self-made man, who rose to the highest possible position as a contractor. Beginning life as a labourer, he was at one time employed on the Merstham and Croydon line, hut in his later years he became the constructor of Waterloo Bridge, Southwark Bridge, and London Bridge. He was knighted in 1822, and after his death in 1835, in accordance with his own wish, he was buried in Chipstead Churchyard on a hill overlooking the valley along which ran the line he had helped to construct. His tomb can still be seen in the churchyard, while in the church is a marble memorial bearing his bust and representations of the three Thames bridges."

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Engineer 1924/07/25
  2. The Engineer 1924/07/25
  3. The Engineer 1924/07/25
  4. The Times, Thursday, Jun 11, 1801
  5. The Times, Wednesday, Sep 16, 1801
  6. The Times, Thursday, Sep 17, 1801
  7. The Times, Saturday, Sep 19, 1801
  8. The Times, Friday, Jan 01, 1802
  9. The Times, Monday, Feb 01, 1802
  10. The Times, Friday, Apr 02, 1802
  11. The Times, Wednesday, Jun 02, 1802
  12. The Times, Wednesday, Jun 30, 1802
  13. The Times, Monday, Aug 02, 1802
  14. The Times, Wednesday, Sep 01, 1802
  15. The Times, Saturday, Sep 04, 1802
  16. The Times, Monday, Sep 06, 1802
  17. The Times, Tuesday, Sep 07, 1802
  18. The Times, Saturday, Sep 25, 1802
  19. The Times, Monday, Sep 27, 1802
  20. The Times, Tuesday, Sep 28, 1802
  21. The Times, Friday, Oct 01, 1802
  22. The Times, Tuesday, Oct 05, 1802
  23. The Times, Thursday, Oct 21, 1802
  24. The Times, Friday, Nov 05, 1802
  25. The Times, Saturday, Nov 06, 1802
  26. The Times, Monday, Nov 08, 1802
  27. The Times, Monday, Nov 15, 1802
  28. Times, Friday, Nov 19, 1802
  29. The Times, Thursday, Dec 02, 1802;
  30. The Times, Tuesday, Nov 30
  31. The Times, Thursday, Dec 02, 1802
  32. The Times, Monday, Dec 13, 1802
  33. The Times, Wednesday, Dec 15, 1802
  34. The Times, Wednesday, Dec 15, 1802
  35. The Times, Friday, Dec 17, 1802
  36. The Times, Saturday, Dec 18, 1802
  37. The Times, Thursday, Apr 07, 1803
  38. Our Iron Roads by Frederick S. Williams. Published 1883 p6
  39. The Times, Wednesday, Mar 06, 1805
  40. The Times, Tuesday, Jul 02, 1805
  41. The Times, Friday, Jan 24, 1806
  42. The Times, Monday, Apr 18, 1814
  43. The Times, Thursday, May 08, 1817
  44. The Times, Wednesday, May 14, 1817
  45. The Times, Thursday, May 21, 1818
  46. The Times, Tuesday, May 18, 1819
  47. The Times, Tuesday, May 23, 1820
  48. The Engineer 1924/11/21
  49. Engineering 1931/06/19

[1] Wikipedia

  • Encyclopedia of British Railway Companies by Christopher Awdry. Published 1990. ISBN 0 19 211697 5