Surrey has a varied and well established railway history and many examples are included in the county Historic Environment Record (HER). Click here to learn more about the HER in general. Click the HER links mentioned below for more information on the sites and buildings. The county archives and museum collections contain a lot of items related to railway history in the county; use the Search all Records or Advanced Search options to find out more.
When people think of railways they generally think of either steam trains or the modern-day electric trains, but the first public railway opened in England was in fact horse-drawn. This was the Surrey Iron Railway (HER 1065), which ran from Wandsworth to Croydon. It was a narrow gauge railway (only 4ft 2in wide) and was opened in 1803 to carry goods from the growing number of factories that appeared during the 19th century. Click here to see an example of an archive record for the Iron Railway.
In 1804, Richard Trevithick built the first steam locomotive, but it was not until 1812 that steam power was first used effectively to power trains. Steam was faster and more economical and horse-drawn trains were unable to compete. The Surrey Iron Railway was forced to close in 1846, but the demand for a good transport system was even higher and the new steam trains began to prosper. They were essential to the Industrial Revolution as they allowed quick transport of raw materials, labour and finished goods around the country. They were also able to be built in places where canals would have been unsuitable.
One of the early steam railway lines ran from London to Southampton and was opened by the London and South Western Railway Company in 1838. Click here to see an archive record for the Company. Its route took it through Surrey and stations were opened in Esher, Walton-on-Thames, Weybridge and Woking. The company continued to expand its rail network, and in 1859 a line was opened to Godalming. This station, built in a mock Tudor style, still stands and is a Grade 2 listed building (HER 13217).
Other early train stations were built at Chertsey (HER 10465) in 1866, Ockley (HER 9889) in 1867, and at Bookham (HER 9879) in the 1880s. Interestingly, Brookwood Cemetery (HER 3723) near Woking also had its own railway station, so that the cemetery could be used to serve London. Funeral processions were brought from the capital to the cemetery by train, until the London Necropolis Company terminus at 121 Westminster Bridge Road, London, was destroyed during the Second World War. Click here to read more about Brookwood Cemetery.
In 1879 the first electric railway was demonstrated in Berlin and by 1890 the worlds first electric underground railway system was operating in London. In 1913 the London and South Western Railway company began switching its railways to electric, including the lines running through Surrey.
Railways thrived during the 19th century, but with the economic downturn brought on by two World Wars and the development of an extensive road system they became less important in the mid 20th century. In the 1960s the chairman of British Railways, Richard Beeching, produced a report named The Reshaping of British Railways, which called for the closure of one third of Britains railways. As a result of this report, 5,000 miles of railway were closed by 1966, with a further 2,000 miles closed by the end of the 1960s.
Surreys closeness to London meant that it avoided the worst of the rail closures, with only one line decommissioned. This was the Guildford to Horsham direct line, commonly known as the Cranleigh line. It was closed in 1965; just four months shy of its centenary.
Today Surrey is still served by an extensive railway system that is one of the busiest in the UK. It has links by train to both Gatwick and Heathrow Airport, as well as to London. Four different rail companies operate services in the county; South West Trains, Southern, First Capital Connect and First Great Western. A collection of photographs of Surrey railway stations, taken in the 1960s, was donated to Surrey History Centre by British Railways Records Centre in 2000 and 2001, click here to see the archive record.
The Surrey Railway Archive
A DVD produced by SVS films and Surrey History Centre, entitled ‘The Surrey Railway Archive’ is now available from our online shop and foyer, more information is available on the Surrey History Centre website. The DVD offers a fascinating look back to a bygone era in the history of Surrey’s railways. Almost every station and railway line within the modern boundaries of the county is represented through a superb array of colour and black and white photographs (the earliest taken in 1867) complemented where possible with rare archive 8mm colour cine film from the 1960s and 1970s. The DVD captures magnificently the railway network as the age of steam drew to a close. Each photograph and cine footage sequence is captioned on the film itself and in addition a printed guide is included giving details of each photograph and cine film sequence used. Where known, the date, place and photographer and observations are noted to better explain the scenes – a must for any railway enthusiast that wants to know more!