Surrey Iron Railway

Gauge – 4ft 2in (1.27m)

This was the first public railway independent of a canal to be built by Act of Parliament (1801).

Opened in 1803 for some nine miles along the side of the River Wandle from Wandsworth Wharf, on the River Thames, towards Mitcham and Croydon and with a branch from Mitcham to Hackbridge, the SIR was formed of a double track of iron plateway rails operated by horses. There was just enough water in the River Wandle for development of this early industrial zone for either powering the watermills to drive the various processes or for transport to and from the mills but not for both functions. As there was no other suitable power source at the time, a plateway was developed to provide the transport.

It was essentially a turnpike with the users providing horses and wagons (with wheels at a suitable distance apart) and paying a toll to use the line. It may have been little different from many other waggonways of its time except that it was the first line open to whoever wished to transport their own goods and not limited to use by a single owner.

The competitive low tolls (see below) meant that the SIR hardly ever paid a dividend but a similar plateway, the Croydon, Mertsham & Godstone line onwards from Croydon for about ten miles around Merstham towards Godstone proved more financially successful. This latter line was well engineered to provide a steady gradient allowing a horse to pull 10 – 20 tons at 3 – 4mph along a then new route into the North Downs and without the requirement for any major works except for the embankment and bridge across the Chipstead valley (see picture below).

From the 1820’s, iron, and later steel, rails could be rolled capable of bearing faster and more powerful steam locomotives so rendering such horse-drawn trains on plateways obsolescent. Plans for further extension towards Reigate and Portsmouth and the carriage of passengers had to be abandoned.

Closed in 1846, parts of the SIR route were used in 1855 by the Wimbledon and Croydon Railway and much of that alignment is used to-day by Croydon Tramlink. Stretches of the CM&G line were required for the Brighton main-line south of Coulsdon in 1839 and cuttings at Hooley disappeared under the M23 late in the 20th century. Some of the line north of Merstham still lies underground and in 1967 part was excavated confirming a gauge of 4ft 2in between the flanges of the plateway (so proving that the reconstructions at Purley and Merstham are to the wrong gauge).

This picture shows Wandsworth Bason with horse, track and wagons. It hung for many years in the boardroom at Young’s Brewery, Wandsworth but its present whereabouts are not known. The artist and date are unknown but it is thought to date from about 1810.

This toll-sheet of freight charges, dated 1 June 1804, must be one of the earliest printed railway notices. It was discovered pasted to an inside wall when a dilapidated shed was about to be demolished as part of redevelopment of the Croydon (Pitlake) area in the mid-20th century


Embankment and bridge across the Chipstead valley from a monochrome reproduction of a water-colour painting.

We thank Peter Badcock for his help in preparing this information