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Sir Nigel Gresley

Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007

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Sir Nigel Gresley:

`all but forgotten Derbyshire hero'

July marks the anniversary of a significant world record breaking achievement by an all-but-forgotten Derbyshire hero – one whose gifted engineering genius and mechanical enterprise earned him world-wide fame, a world speed record which has never been broken - and a knighthood!

Following in the footsteps of Chesterfield’s famous adopted son, railway pioneer George Stephenson, Derbyshire vicar’s son, Sir Nigel Gresley became another giant of the steam age.

`The Flying Scotsman & The Mallard'

Gresley was British Railways most accomplished engineer and the man who designed the two most famous steam locomotives in the world – the Flying Scotsman and Mallard.

He was the youngest of the five children of Rev. Nigel Gresley, Rector of the Derbyshire village of Netherseale, and his grandfather was Sir William Nigel Gresley, ninth baronet.

Born in 1876 and christened Herbert Nigel Gresley, he was educated at Marlborough College, and in 1893 became apprenticed as premium pupil of Francis Webb at the Crewe locomotive works of the London & North Western Railway.

His natural aptitude for engineering was evident from the outset and his rise up through the ranks was meteoric; at the age of only 26 he was appointed Works Manager of the Newton Heath Carriage & Wagon Works in Manchester. In 1907 he designed the first articulated passenger carriages and that same year was elected a Member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and a Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers; he was just 30!

This was the great steam age of the railways and competition between rival companies was fierce. Gresley was `headhunted’ by the Great Northern Railway Company and in 1911 succeeded H.A. Ivatt as Chief Locomotive Engineer, building his first 2 cylinder 2-6-0 locomotive in 1912.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Gresley was put in charge of reorganising the Doncaster works for the production of armaments, began to modify locomotives for military use, and served on the Committee for the Ministry of Food. In 1918 he was elected a Member of the Institute of Locomotive Engineers and shortly afterwards received the C.B.E. for his services during World War 1.

When the L.N.E.R. was formed in 1923 Gresley was appointed as first Chief Mechanical & Electrical Engineer and installed in the head office at King’s Cross. The following year his A1 Pacific class locomotive number 4472, later to become famously known as the `Flying Scotsman’, was displayed to great acclaim at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley and within the next decade, Gresley’s place in history was assured.

He was elected President of the Institute of Locomotive Engineers, became a consultant at the Ministry of Transport and lectured throughout Europe on locomotive design, but his crowning achievement and record-breaking glory was still to come. The Gresley designed `Flying Scotsman’ had already become the first steam locomotive to break the 100 mph speed barrier in 1934, and in an era of political and social crisis which produced fertile ground for such uplifting diversions, there was an almost fanatical obsession with breaking air and land speed records; not least in Germany where the feats of the Reichsbahn’s steam engines and deisels were trumpeted by Joseph Goebbels as symbolic of Nazi power. The Germans had smashed the Flying Scotsman’s record, producing a locomotive based on the streamlined designs of Italian racing car manufacturer Ettore Bugatti and named, `The Flying Hamburger’. They held the record, set at 124.5 mph and the Reichsbahn were intent on monopolising European railway routes, so it became both a matter of national pride and economic necessity for Britain to respond and put a dent in Adolf Hitler’s propaganda machine.

Already, as President of the Institution of Locomotive Engineers Gresley had visited Germany and investigated the high-speed `Flying Hamburger’ in 1934. During the following four years he developed and conducted high speed tests on a new series of A4 Pacific class locomotives, including `Silver Jubilee’ and `Silver Link, whose revolutionary streamlined livery was an adapted version of the Bugatti styled `Flying Hamburger’ and caused a sensation during trials in 1935. In-between being elected President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, being awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Science by Manchester University, and receiving a knighthood in 1936, he also began plans for trans-Pennine electrification and designed the V2 class `Green Arrow’ which later became known as `the locomotive that won the war’.

His achievements were acknowledged further, when on November 26th 1937, the 100th Pacific class locomotive built to his design, came into service and was named `Sir Nigel Gresley’.

He was 62 years old and the most accomplished steam locomotive engineer of the twentieth century, but he wasn’t finished yet; he wanted that world speed record – but he didn’t even have the British record!

The newspapers of the day carried banner headlines reporting the battle for speed supremecy between the two main rivals on the long-haul route from London to Scotland. The L.M.S. operated the west coast mainline, whilst the Gresley led L.N.E.R. operated the East Coast mainline – and the L.M.S. held the British speed record set at 116 mph by a `Castle’ class locomotive.

Thus it was on the Sunday morning of July 3rd 1938 that A4 Pacific No. 4468 Mallard, nicknamed `Blue Streak’ owing to her striking blue streamlined livery, left her Doncaster home under a cloak of secrecy bound for Peterborough, on the pretext of having `brake-test trials’.

The driver was 61 year old Doncaster-born Joe Duddington and the fireman was Tommy Bray, both hand-picked by Gresley and told that they were needed for a “special mission, the details to be kept absolutely secret”.

Both sooty, oil-stained heroes were to become national celebrities as the garter-blue streamlined Mallard, with her enormous driving wheels in rich Coronation red made her immortal fiery dash between Grantham and Peterborough on the East Coast mainline - and set the world steam record for a locomotive at 126.1 mph.

The fascinating story of `Mallard – How the Blue Streak broke the World Speed Record’ is told in the definitive new book of that title, written by former Matlock Mercury editor, Don Hale, and published this month by Aurum Press. It contains a gripping first-hand account of the record run, along with driver Duddington’s commentary, and much much more.

It also tells the sad story of Gresley, who was not on board for his finest hour as deteriorating health prevented him from travelling – and finally caused his death less than two years later. He died of a heart attack on April 5th 1941 – just two months before he had been due to retire, and his body was laid to rest in the family plot at Netherseale in South Derbyshire.

His most famous inventions live on; the Flying Scotsman has earned celebrity status and has travelled to exhibitions throughout Europe and has been to America. Mallard was finally withdrawn from British Railways service in April 1963 with a total mileage of almost one and a half million miles – 1,414,138 to be exact. She is the most popular exhibit at the National Railway Museum in York and unlikely to ever steam again, but is a memorial, as Don Hale points out, to intelligent, startling design, brilliant construction, and the pride of those who drove her on to become the fastest steam locomotive in the world – and to the genius of Sir Nigel Gresley, the vicar’s son from Derbyshire!

Contact Tom: reblee.tom@gmail.com

 
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