The first public railways, not just in London but around the world, were a pair of railways known collectively as the Surrey Iron Railway – and users had to bring their own horse.
The first section was completed in 1803 and extended eight miles from Wandsworth to Croydon, between which were many mills and breweries. The second section arrived in 1805, the Croydon, Merstham and Godstone Railway, and linked the lime and stone quarries.
Individuals would show up, hire a wagon and pay by the ton-mile: how much weight do you carry and how far?
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Unlike today’s railways, there was no “service” as such – there were no signals, no stations and no timetables; it was simply up to individuals to decide how they used it.
“You would simply hire a carriage and take whatever you wanted, whether it was mine or brewery or whatever, up and down Wandsworth and the Thames,” says geologist and railway historian Niall Mitchell.
“The idea was that you could then move it on barges or whatever – and anyone could use it: it was actually the first public railway. So a number of companies – tanneries , breweries, millers – would rent wagons.
But the problem, of course, with purely individual use was that there was no maintenance, and as steam trains ran elsewhere they became the fastest and cheapest option. .
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The line fell into disuse and was closed in 1846.
“The railways came in with proper service and the northern section sold out to what became the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway,” says Niall. “He was a casualty of the railways – the idea of having a horse and hire wagon for it just didn’t work out.”
The first steam trains began to enter London Bridge in 1836 and, suffice it to say, they caught on. If there was a competition between a horse with a wagon against a steam locomotive with 40 wagons – and in this case there was – the winner is obvious. The SIR has simply become “uneconomical”.
Today there are visible remnants of the world’s first public railway.
“The northern section along the River Wandle is now essentially the Croydon tram line to Wimbledon,” explains Niall, “and the southern section is roughly the A23 towards Croydon.”
“You can still see parts of it,” Niall continues. “There is a section which is a public footpath between Hooley and Merstham, near the Fox pub.”
“So you can walk down this road and pretend to be a cart with a horse?” I ask.
So why is this railway, in everyone’s opinion, the first public railway in existence – a railway which manages to predate the steam train! – been forgotten?
“I think it was overlooked because it closed so early,” says Niall. “It closed before the obvious structures like London Bridge or Waterloo were built. It died out before the big industrial railroads came along, and people just…forgot about it.
Erica is a London story writer and has a particular interest in London history – the more foreign the better. She lectures on feature writing at various UK universities, has written for the Guardian, BBC and Medium, and is the author of the book This Party’s Dead.
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