About The Surrey Iron Railway

The Railway from Wandsworth to Croydon

This feature was specially prepared for the 210th anniversary of the official opening of one of the earliest public railways in the world, covering the Surrey Iron Railway between Wandsworth basin and the Pitlake terminus at Croydon. Some new, unpublished elements covering the railway’s history have also been added. Apart from one unillustrated, unpublicised academic work, here is clearly what can be considered the first in-depth Surrey Iron Railway feature ever on the internet, with photos, maps, and a guide to the former railway route. It was uploaded in full on 1st May 2013.
The Surrey Iron Railway Coat of Arms
Many often bill the Surrey Iron as being the first public railway in the world. It was recently debated that there were other lines worthy of this title, and it is quite clear the SiR is not the world’s first public railway. However a slightly different way of looking at it is to say this was the first public railway ever to capture the world’s attention.

Background to the iron railway – a brief history and operations

The Surrey Iron Railway ran for eight and half miles between Wandsworth Basin and Croydon Pitlake, with a general ruling gradient of 1 in 120 (one inch per ten feet or 28.33 minutes of angle) up towards Croydon. It was a 4 ft 2 in (1,270 mm) railway line with flanges set on the rails instead of the wheels, so the line is more accurately known as a plateway. A footpath was provided alongside the entire length of the railway. The whole undertaking was designed by William Jessop with George Leather as resident engineer and the firm of Jessop and Outram as contractors.
The Hereford Journal of 3 June 1801 reports: “The Surrey iron railway promises to be one of the most useful public works that have of late been undertaken for the improvement of the country. The iron roads are excellent substitutes for the canals and in some instances superior to them. This iron railway commencing at Wandsworth will in all probability be extended to Portsmouth…”
Despite these hopeful assertions the iron railway never got further than Merstham and clearly depended on canals for its existence! The Wandsworth (or McMurrays) canal formed the lock and basin that provided the transfer facilities from water-borne traffic to the iron railway’s ‘waggons.’ At the Croydon end there was a link from the Surrey Iron Railway’s terminus to the Croydon Canal’s wharves about where West Croydon station now stands. The Croydon Canal suppiled both railways with traffic, but more so the Croydon, Merstham and Godstone Iron Railway (CMG.)
Joseph Priestly describes the Surrey Iron Railway (SiR) in his celebrated book ‘Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways’ of 1831 as a communication between the Wandsworth basin in Ram Field and Pitlake Meadow in Croydon, connecting with the CMG.
Priestly describes the Surrey Iron Railway in his ‘Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways’ 1831
The SiR was clearly dependent on the navigations in Southern England for trade. It built its own canal so that barges from other waterways could offload into wagons. Much of the coal for the Wandle valley came via the Grand Junction Canal. As for navigations, e.g. the Thames itself, the company was indeed indebted to pay towards the maintenance of the river. In 1812 the company (together with the Grand Surrey Canal) paid a total of £200 for legislation related to improvements to the river. Further in 1822 the SiR had to pay £10 to the Thames commissioners for loss of tolls incurred. Clearly without proper access to its Wandsworth basin, the SiR would have lost considerable traffic.
As early as 1809 there were concerns that the iron railway was not paying its way. Traffic was said to be very light and generally if there was any it was just in one direction. Several contemporaries put forward theories why the railway was not the success it had been hoped. One of the reasons was that the wagons were extremely heavy and too small also. Not only that, the cost and effort in transfer of goods from/to the railway appears to have made people prefer somewhat the use of horse drawn carts. The expesne of using horses to drawn the wagons led to further economies and donkeys, much slower and less efficient, became the line’s staple traction.
It is said the SiR’s traffic declined rapidly in the 1840’s, one observer said it “had long fallen almost into disuse.” However it appears this occurred much earlier as the London and Paris Observer in 1830 says “weeds and grass had grown over it, and there appeared to be no traffic.” So we have the information that the SiR spent perhaps the last two decades iof its life in an almost certain state of suspended animation.
The SiR closed after approximately 44 years of working. An act was passed to enable the closure to take place and the company to be wound up by 1848. The Railway Times for Satruday 29 August 1846 had a brief announcement in its pages: “SURREY IRON RAILWAY – The passage of waggons on this line will be stopped on Monday.”

General plate rail used on most of the SiR – except depots and road crossings.

Reversed plate rail specially for depots and road crossings, such as those at Wandsworth basin and the High Street.
Very little knowlegde exists on the iron railway, thus practically nothing is known about its operation, its finances, the animals used to pull the wagons, its employees etc. It is difficult to expend details of the eight and half mile route. In other words what is known can only be gleaned from fragmentary records of the line. Bacially there were no major engineering works such as overbridges or embankments. The route was level, hence the only substantial works needed were the two bridges across the Wandle plus the canal basin at Wandsworth. As one report said, the SiR “pursues as regular a track as possible so as to avoid all unneccessary expences…”
F.G.Bing whose book of 1931 (The Grand Surrey Iron Railway) focussed mostly upon the CMG, does relate some interviews he made around 1896 with elderly residents of Croydon who had recollections of the SiR at work. Some of these people were over eighty years of age, and one in particular related how as boys, he and his friends used to play games in the empty wagons on Sundays when the railway did not operate. Bing also informs us that at one time there was one of the Church Road buildings in Croydon, a very old advert which said “Carrier to and from London” and is of the opinion this referred to the SiR. **Note: The SiR has never had the word ‘Grand’ in its title so this was a mistake made by Bing and others, no doubt following protocol for naming the Grand Surrey Canal.
So far there are no known photographs of the railway. It finished at a time when photography was in its infancy. Cameras were increasingly being used in London during the second half of the 1840’s, for example Henry Talbot Fox’s work, so there might just possibly have been some taken of the line in its last year of working, or of its demolition. Failing that perhaps of the old route after 1848. But so far there seems none. Drawings showing the railway are few and far between and debate still hasnt settled exactly on how the line looked or worked. The Little Eaton Gangway in Derbyshire (1798-1908) depicted in the photographs below is perhaps the closest example we have to the SiR.
Little Eaton – rails and wagon similar to the SiR’s. This scene is typical of the SiR’s last years with poorly maintained track.
Little Eaton – showing the simple pointwork. This is an example of how the SiR would have looked at its Wandsworth terminus.
Detail showing the simple point mechanism used on plateway lines such as the SiR.
This recent painting on the BBC’s website does show somewhat how the SiR might have looked, although it is described as being ‘fanciful.’
Wandsworth Basin used to be a large expanse of water with wharfage and warehouse facilities built specially for the SiR. It opened in 1802 and outlived the railway. Part closure took place in the 1930’s and by the mid 1950’s all trace of the wharves and its entrance lock had gone. The site is now an industrial estate, with Armoury Way crossing the nothern part of it. Just about where Armoury Way and Ram Street meet, there used to be a set of gates protecting the wharf area, and out of these gates emerged the SiR as its wagons began their eight and half mile journey to Croydon.
Croydon’s Pitlake is quite an obscure destination these days as the road of that name exists north of the railway lines. This road was truncated during modernisation of the borough’s road system and left as a cul-de-sac to the north of the West Croydon – Sutton line. However this road’s southernmost extremity once reached Reeves Corner, which was known in olden times as Pitlake Marsh. The smaller, surviving Reeves Corner store has a plaque on its walls which confirms the location as being the terminus of the railway. Furthermore, the Jubilee Bridge, which carries the A236 by-pass over the railway, was known prior to 1977 as Pitlake Bridge! One further bit of proof as to the site of the 1803 terminus is the now closed public house called The Pitlake Arms.
One of the more well known images of the railway is the painting that formerly stood in Young’s Brewery, the image of which several examples can be found on the internet. As related in the section on McMurrays canal, the painting’s whereabouts is not currently known. There is a video showing the painting in the director’s room at Youngs Brewery during 2002 for a railway programme.
Trainspotting – Programme 3 features the Surrey Iron Railway – this clip shows the painting at Youngs Brewery.
Trainspotting 3: Mark Collins & Eric look at a section of track which originated from the Croydon, Merstham & Godstone Railway.
The video can be seen on Youtube. It begins at approximately 5.30 seconds with presenter Mark Collins examining the painting, who then looks at other aspects of the former iron railway with Eric Montague from the Wandle Industrial Museum.
Information on the railway’s route was gleaned from Derek Bayliss’ excellent publication ‘Retracing the First Public Railway’ (1981) and from surveys done by Peter McGow, (whose work on the Croydon Canal I found most invaluable) as well as Charles Lee. Bayliss, Lee and McGow have slight differences on the exact alignment of the former railway, hence deliberations upon its route will not always be totally accurate.

Note: SiR = Surrey Iron Railway. CMG = Croydon, Merstham and Godstone Iron Railway. CCR = Croydon Canal Railway.

Next: The railway at Wandsworth

Surrey Iron Railway pages:
Surrey Iron RailwayThrough Wandsworth / Wandsworth to Earlsfield / Summerstown to New Wimbledon / Colliers Wood to Church Lane / Hallowfield Way to Mitcham Jct / Mitcham to Wandle Park / Cornwall Road to Croydon

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