The Derbyshire roots of Sir Nigel Gresley

PUBLISHED: 09:00 24 March 2014

Sir Nigel Gresley

Sir Nigel Gresley

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Geoff Ford traces the roots of Derbyshire’s own ‘steam legend’

The rectory boyhood home of Sir Nigel GresleyThe rectory boyhood home of Sir Nigel Gresley

Ask the public to name a famous steam engine and George Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ is usually the first to crop up, but without doubt it will be closely followed by ‘Flying Scotsman’ and ‘Mallard’, both of which were designed by Derbyshire’s own Sir Nigel Gresley, one of the most celebrated of all railway engineers.

Herbert Nigel Gresley was born on 19th June 1876, fourth son of The Reverend Nigel and Joanna Gresley. The family could trace its history back to Robert de Toesni, who accompanied William the Conqueror in the Norman Conquest. They took their name from Church Gresley, later making their home at Drakelow. By the time Nigel was born, his father was the last of four Gresley rectors of St Peter’s Church in Netherseal, four miles south of Swadlincote, although the infant was actually born in Edinburgh where his mother was consulting a gynaecologist. Nigel’s early life was spent at the rectory in Netherseal before he was sent to school in St Leonard’s, Sussex, and completed his education at Marlborough College in Wiltshire.

Here Gresley developed a flair for engineering and one of his mechanical drawings, completed when he was only fourteen, hangs in the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London today. On leaving school in 1893, he chose not to follow his father into the clergy, but joined the London and North Western Railway Company as an apprentice under the watchful eye of FW Webb at Crewe. It is believed that Gresley’s interest in railways came from watching the engines working on the Netherseal colliery branch line as a child. The Crewe works was one of the largest factories in the country, but their engine designs were not always very good. Gresley would learn what worked – and what did not. He later moved to the drawing office of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company Works at Horwich, where Sir John Aspinall was creating some advanced designs. Gresley was progressing rapidly up the ladder as he displayed a gift of leadership and engineering skill.

During a spell as locomotive foreman at Blackpool in 1899, Gresley met Ethel Frances Fullagar and they married two years later. The Gresleys set up home at Newton Heath, outside Manchester, where the first two of their four children were born. In 1905 Gresley was offered the senior post of Carriage and Wagon Superintendent with the Great Northern Railway (GNR) at Doncaster – an outstanding achievement for a man of just 29.

Crew of Mallard at Peterborough after the record run, 3rd July 1938. Fireman T Bray, driver J Duddington, inspector J Jenkins and guardCrew of Mallard at Peterborough after the record run, 3rd July 1938. Fireman T Bray, driver J Duddington, inspector J Jenkins and guard

Promotion to Chief Mechanical Engineer followed in 1911, although his career had nearly come to an abrupt end a year earlier. On a visit to his mother in Turnditch, while out shooting rooks with his brother, he climbed over a blackthorn hedge and got a thorn deep in his leg. Difficult to extract, the wound turned septic and amputation of his leg seemed likely. Fortunately the doctor tried first to cleanse the wound with leeches. The treatment worked and Gresley’s wound healed.

Gresley’s first task in charge of the GNR was to rectify a shortage of freight engines, which was where the vast majority of business lay. His first design was the K1, a 2-6-0 configuration with 5’-7” driving wheels (a size between small freight and large express wheels). The design proved very successful at pulling both freight and passenger stock. This was followed by a 2-8-0 heavy freight engine and the K2, a revised 2-6-0 with a larger, more powerful, boiler. So far his designs had been fairly conventional, but he was keen to move forward. The advent of war meant putting his plans on hold when the Doncaster works were turned over to the manufacture of armaments, although Gresley received a CBE for his role in supervising the plant through this period.

There was a general move towards the use of four cylinder engines; the two additional cylinders allowing the use of larger, more powerful, boilers. However, the cylinders balanced either side of the engine could create a shuffling motion causing stress to engine and track. Gresley’s solution was to feed steam to three larger cylinders, two outboard with one between the wheels. 
He also moved the valve gear outside the engine for ease of access and reduced maintenance costs.

For his premier express locomotive Gresley decided in favour of a Pacific 4-6-2 configuration which would allow a much great boiler capacity and his first Pacific class engine No 1470 Great Northern appeared in April 1922, earning a huge amount of publicity on account of the engine’s huge size yet graceful looks. Nigel Gresley had come to the public’s attention for the first time.

On 1st January 1923 he was appointed chief mechanical engineer of the new London & North Eastern Railway, one of the Big Four railway companies. The following month the Doncaster works turned out one of the most famous engines of all time, class A1 (later changed to A3) Pacific No 1472 Flying Scotsman. As head of the new company, Nigel Gresley moved his office to Kings Cross station and, as he loved the country, bought a house at Hadley Wood. A property with two tennis courts, it was close to a golf club where he became Captain.

In 1929 his wife was diagnosed with cancer and later died. She was buried in Netherseal, her husband’s boyhood home. The following year Gresley moved to Salisbury Hall near St Albans. An Elizabethan residence surrounded by a moat, it led to one of his great passions: keeping and breeding different species of wild duck, including his favourite... the mallard.

As an engineer he was interested in railway developments abroad and keen to exchange ideas. André Chapelon, CME of the Paris-Orleans Railway was a good friend who was also involved in experimental designs, including the Kylchap exhaust system which became an important aspect of Gresley’s later designs. Gresley was also introduced to French-based racing car designer Ettore Bugatti. They often discussed ideas for streamlining, still quite a futuristic concept at that time.

The 1930s was a period when the Big Four saw providing faster services and breaking speed records both as prestigious and a source of huge amounts of publicity. In 1934 the (now re-numbered 4472) Flying Scotsman became the first steam locomotive to reach 100mph. Gresley was already working on his next masterpiece, the streamlined A4 class Pacific. The first batch of four A4s was introduced in September 1935 in a striking silver and grey livery to pull the Silver Jubilee train marking the jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary. No 2509 Silver Link set a new British speed record, twice touching 112mph, on the return trip from Grantham to Kings Cross during the inaugural run.

The following year Sir Nigel Gresley received his knighthood from King Edward VIII in recognition of his services as chairman of the committee looking into the loss at sea of two steamers, Usworth and Blairgowrie. In 1936 Sir Nigel also received an honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Manchester and was elected President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

In August 1936 another of the original A4s, 2512 Silver Fox, reached 113mph on a regular southbound express, a record that stood until the 1970s as the fastest revenue earning train, but the British speed record was taken by the LMS in July 1937 when their new Coronation streamliner recorded 114mph just outside Crewe.

The next batch of A4s to appear in early 1938 was named after birds, with No 4468 Mallard receiving special attention from its designer, having all the latest modifications, streamlined air passages, more powerful boiler, new Westinghouse brake system and a double chimney with a Kylchap blastpipe. As I recalled in last month’s Derbyshire Life, Mallard set the world steam record on 3rd July 1938 between Grantham and Peterborough, a record that still stands today. The following year the directors of the LNER named their 100th Pacific locomotive, built to Sir Nigel’s designs, A4 No. 4498 Sir Nigel Gresley.

By all acounts, Sir Nigel had a light-hearted side too, enjoying smoking a pipe and at parties even going to the extent of playing good humoured jokes on his guests. In his working life he was well aware of the capabilities and limitations of his staff and was always willing to explain points that were not clear. Since 1927 he had cherished hopes of a national locomotive testing plant, for the ‘attainment of increased efficiency’, but times were hard and government help was not forthcoming. The directors of the LMS and LNER had agreed to pool resources and given the go ahead for a plant at Rugby when the outbreak of war brought plans to a halt.

Although warned that his work rate was detrimental to his health, with the outbreak of war Sir Nigel refused to slow down. He died on 5th April 1941 after a short illness, and was laid to rest beside his wife in Netherseal. His long cherished dream came true on 19th October 1948 when the national test plant was officially opened, with two of his family in attendance. Fittingly, the first locomotive to be run on to the test rollers was A4 Pacific Sir Nigel Gresley.

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