Little Bits of History

First Railway

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 26, 2013
 The Surrey Iron Railway

The Surrey Iron Railway

July 26, 1803: The Surrey Iron Railway opens for business. The nine-mile long narrow gauge railway linked Wandsworth (then in Surrey) and Croydon – now all parts of South London. There had been prior plateways used to move goods, but they were all parts of canal systems. Surrey Iron Railway was first proposed as yet another canal. Diverting water for the venture would have adversely affected many water-powered mills and factories, the customer base of the proposed transport system. This new venture, the first ever to be funded by an Act of Parliament – the railway – was started.

The track gauge was 4 feet, 2 inches. Today’s standard gauge is 4 feet, 8 ½ and any rail system with the tracks running closer is considered narrow gauge. Most still-operating narrow gauge tracks measure 3 feet, 6 inches or less. Narrow gauge tracks are cheaper to build, equip, and operate. They are especially useful over mountainous terrain. Many industrial railways use the smaller gauges.

Surrey Iron Railway used horse-drawn wagons to move goods along the River Wandle valley. It worked like modern day turnpikes with people supplying their own transportation and paying for the use of a viable route. The railway was extended in 1805 and was shut down by 1838. William Jessop was involved in the entire project and chief engineer for the second phase. The rail line reached Coulson and was opened to the Merstham quarries.

Jessop was a British civil engineer who worked on a number of projects throughout the Empire. His last major project was the Surrey Iron Railway. He was instrumental in the original construction choice, pushing for a railway rather than a canal. As illness overtook him, he brought his son with him to complete the expansion project. The total length reached 18 miles. The tracks were not built to support the weight of the new steam locomotives. Eventually, the newer technology overtook the small railway and steam locomotion required different tracks built over a different substructure. However, some of the original railway still exists.

“Only now did I recognize the reciprocal relationship which exits between manufacturing power and the national system of transportation, and that the one can never develop to its fullest without the other.” – Friedrich List

“The waste of capital, in proportion to the total capital, in this country between 1800 and 1850, in the attempts which were made to establish means of communication and transportation, was enormous.” – William Graham Sumner

“There can be no doubt that the transportation sector is the most critical sector of our economy.” – Robert Brady

“Transportation made sublimation literal. It conveyed evil to another world.” – Robert Hughes

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: The earliest extant evidence of a rail system is the Diolkos wagon way, a 3.7 mile railway across the Corinth isthmus in Greece. It dates from the sixth century BC. Slaves pushed trucks which ran in grooves in the limestone. It lasted for more than 600 years. A stained glass window in Germany dating from 1350 depicts a railway of the region. It is the earliest record of a rail transport system. It, too, was operated by human power but also could use animals for dragging the car. The line still exists in an updated version and is the oldest still operating system. By 1550, narrow gauge wooden rails were being used throughout Europe in the mines. These were useful in getting materials over land to the shipping lanes nearby. The first iron plate railway used cast iron and came into use in 1768. Development of the steam engine created a new set of problems. The weight meant that a sturdy system with an adequate bed had to be used. The new age of rapid transportation was just ahead.

Also on this day: The Polite Bandit – In 1875, a strange, but polite, man commits his first robbery.
As the Worm Turns – In 1989, Robert Morris was indicted.
Feebs – In 1908, the FBI was formed.