The Surrey iron railway received an act of Parliament in 1801 to become the first public railway in the world. The tramway as it was rather than a railway was promoted by the local businessmen of Croydon. The route was to take hose drawn wagons from the river Thames at Wandsworth to Croydon and back. Upon the payment of a toll any one with a satisfactory horse and cart could use the tramway. The original plan was for a canal but it was soon found that the works necessary and also the amount of water needed would have not only been too expensive but also would have detrimental effects on those businesses that used the river Wandle which would have been the main source of water supply. Within the act of parliament was the possibility of construction of an extension of the tramway to Merstham where there was hope of opening some quarries. However the main purpose of the double track main line, as was mentioned above was for the transport of freight to and from Croydon and the River Thames. It was 8 miles long and opened to public use on 26 July 1803. Customers could haul either just one wagon or a train of wagons as the horses found it much easier over the smooth iron plates.
The railway was regularly referred to as a road as it worked on the same principles as the turnpike roads where an intending user paid for the use of it. In this case the road just happened to be a tramway laid to a gauge of 4 feet 2 inches with L shaped rails that rested on stone blocks, each plate being about 3 feet long. There is no record of passengers using the railway but it would be very surprising if they did not as it would have been a much quicker and easier way of getting to the Thames for a day out for those who could afford it. The line started at Wandsworth where a canal basin just off the south bank of the Thames where the river Wandle flows in to the Thames. The line ran parallel to the river Wandle which at that time was mostly countryside but has now been built on. The course took it through the centre of Wandsworth over towards Earlsfield where the present London Waterloo to Wimbledon line passes over the former track bed though nothing is recognisable as having been a tramway today. The line then passed through what is now Colliers wood named after the forest where as great amount of charcoal burning took place Colliers being the name used to describe the charcoal burners. The line passed south east of Mitcham before taking an easterly route along what is now the Croydon Tramlink line to Wimbledon from West Croydon. At Wandle park on the modern tramway the SIR swung north eastwards in a more direct route to Reeves corner as the Tramlink line follows the former LBSCR and SER route before climbing over the Wandle flyover to avoid the West Croydon to Epsom railway.
In 1804 a branch line was added to Hackbridge from Mitcham Willow lane. The branch ran for 1 miles following the London road before taking a course towards Hack Bridge. The line terminated close to the river Wandle just north of the present Carshalton to Hackbridge railway line. In 1805 the branch that had been catered for in the original act of parliament for the SIR from Croydon to Merstham and Godstone was opened the act having been passed in 1803. It originated at what is now Reeves corner and was joined the SIR as it made its way to the canal basin a short distance from the junction. The line was singe throughout but some places along the route are believed to have been double track and used the same 3 foot length L shaped plates resting on stones. The owners of the tramway had originally had the idea of extending the line Portsmouth via Reigate however the line never passed the quarries at Quarry Dean in Merstham. The traffic consisted of chalk, lime, fuller’s earth, timber and firestone. This tramway was from the beginning for private use and never saw public traffic. Surprisingly there is still quite a bit of evidence remaining of the tramway to Merstham. Most tramways were of light construction with minimal works resulting in many tramway routes being lost and only distant memories or researched topics advising on where the route used to pass.
The line ran along what was called tramway road but has now become Church Road heading towards South Croydon near the A23. It passed Haling Park to run west of the Brighton road to Purley. At the Rotary field, a small park in the town a small section of track has been preserved but it is not on the original alignment and also probably not the original track or stone sleepers. The path across the middle of the field is noticeably terraced and this was the original route.
The Chipstead valley was crossed by an over bridge part of the embankment can be located near the Elim chapel though the remains of the bridge have now long gone. The line then passed what are now the grounds of a hospital before passing over the A23 at the Hollymeoak road and Woodplace lane junction. Where the M23 turns off from the A23 a brick parapet and abutments of an over bridge can still be seen. When the Croydon canal from Rotherhite closed in 1836 to make way for the London and Croydon railway the two tramways soon lost much of their traffic. In 1837 the London and Brighton railway needed two sections of the Croydon Merstham and Godstone track bed south of Coulsdon for the construction of their railway to the south coast. The London and Brighton had to buy the whole company of the CM&G and after some legal wrangling managed to close the tramway and have it lifted by 1842.
Traffic on the SIR ended on 31 August 1846 with the terminus at Croydon sold to the Croydon and Epsom railway. At the time it was found that the SIR had not in fact paid for the land in the first place. Again after legal wrangling the sale was passed through to the London, Brighton and South Coast railway who had taken over from the Croydon and Epsom Company. The original canal basin at Croydon, what is now West Croydon, was opened in 1809 with the opening of the 91/4 mile long canal from Rotherhithe. The canal had 28 locks to get it up to the level of Croydon and upon opening was known as the Croydon canal. The arrival allowed property owners and industrialists in the area to transport their goods either by tramway to Wandsworth and west up the river Thames or to Deptford where there was easier access to sea shipping. The canal became infamous for its losses of profit as several expensive improvement works had to be carried out. To keep the water levels up reservoirs had to be built at Sydenham and South Norwood with a pumping station at Croydon though leakages often affected the canal water level. In 1834 a survey was carried out for a new railway from London to Croydon which would utilise sections of the canal route. The report was accepted by the board of the fledgling London and Croydon railway which made a bid for the canal. The offer and subsequent offers were refused until when in 1836 a court judgment settled the purchase. The new railway line ran from Annerley to West Croydon which was opened as Croydon as it was the only station in the town at the time on the site of the former canal basin. Services commenced from the terminal station on 5 June 1839 and by 1847 the station was extended to a new site slightly to the east for the construction of the Croydon and Epsom railway with the station gaining through running lines. More extension was to follow with the opening of the joint London Brighton and South coast and the London South Western railway line from Wimbledon arriving at Croydon in 1855, when a bay platform was provided.