Best of British : Sir Herbert ‘Nigel’ Gresley CBE DSc
The terminology of ‘legend’ is often thrown around ‘willy nilly’, as ‘twer, with little thought towards the true meaning of he word. Family and friends, who know me really well, would describe me as being an old man – something I too agree with and rarely complain about.
Maybe in a past life, I was an engineer during the Victorian era as I simply adore the engineering and technical achievements of that oh so halcyon era when the phrase ‘made in England’ was term that was the epitome of National pride and simply the best. If I am to be asked what we gave to the world that indeed changed it, the telephone or the railway has to be the answer, but owing to the fact a telephone doesn’t emit clouds of soot and steam or make grown adults shed a tear with emotion, let’s stick with the railway.
Back in the days when rail travel was seen as a treat rather than a chore, one person stood head and shoulders above everyone else so far as the design and engineering of steam locomotives were concerned, was born in Edinburgh in the latter half of the 1800`s and his name was Herbert Nigel Gresley – my lifelong hero.
Following a period at Marlborough technical college, Nigel Gresley took up his first role in his long and illustrious railway career with the London North Western Railway (LNWR) in 1893. After some changing of roles and qualifying as a draughtsman, Gresley took up a post with the Great Northern Railway (GNR) which subsequently became London & North Eastern (LNER) and set upon designing and re-designing coaches and rolling stock.
An outstanding young designer, Gresley became an elected member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineersat the incredibly young age of 29 and soon the GNR recognised his talent for design, moving him onto a post designing locomotives as well as carriages.
Following the retirement of Henry Ivatt as Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME) in 1911, Gresley was therefore promoted to that post of which he went on to hold for almost 30 years until his premature death in 1941 of heart failure. Nigel Gresley undertook a massive engineering task with the outbreak of World War 1 by converting and redesigning engines and rolling stock for military purposes, a feat that gained him a CBE a few years later.
Gresley’s true talent was in design of locomotives for which he will be forever known as the creator of the A1 class (Flying Scotsman) and the fastest locomotive class of them all, the A4 Pacific (Mallard). The clever streamlining of all internal steam pipes and passages led Gresley to start a series of high speed trials on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) in the mid-’30s with locomotive no: 4472 ‘Flying Scotsman’ reaching an officially-recorded speed of 100mph on a test run from Doncaster to King’s Cross – the highest ever recorded at that time. But just a few years later in 1938 locomotive no:4468 ‘Mallard’ ran a test train along the Stoke Bank area of Cambridgeshire reaching a staggering 126mph, setting a never beaten world speed record from steam traction.
Gresley’s hand picked driver/fireman team of Joseph Duddington and Tom Bray went on record after the event claiming they could have possibly reached 130mph had it not have been for a speed restriction on the line ahead. What made Nigel Gresley penned locos unique at the time was the 3 cylinder design – two outboard and one centre-mounted.
Gresely engines were known for their eccentricity and foibles as well as their genius, and the centre cylinder always worked that bit harder than the outer pair as well as suffering from a lack of sufficient airflow. As a consequence, the centre cylinder main bearing would overheat and destroy itself in the hands of inexperienced footplate crew, thus leading to a somewhat original, yet typical, Gresley solution.
The centre bearing ended up being fitted with a glass stink bomb capsule filled with aniseed oil that would break and release a strong pungent smell on the footplate when bearing/coupling rod temperatures reached a near critical point. The driver would then know when to back off and nurse the locomotive.
A few years prior to all the separate operators namely GWR SR LMS and LNER being grouped into a Nationalised British Railways in 1948, a series of locomotive comparisons took place called the Great Interchangability Trails. This was to assess which locomotives were the most powerful and efficient in order to shape future designs and the A4 began trails on the LMS between Euston and Glasgow.
The A4 was trailed on the Southern and LMS lines, leading to other CMEs to state that no other locomotive was as efficient or as high performing on the whole rail network. Also of note, class member LNER 4498 ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’ was the first locomotive placed on the rollers of the brand new Rugby testing facility in 1947 recording an amazing 3000bhp of steam power on the static test rig. But Gresley was an innovator of new ideas too, also designing the corridor tender for the use of non stop services to Scotland. His plan was to change footplate crew while the train was still in motion and his very first prototype he produced caused his daughter to almost think her father had gone insane though his work.
Arriving home from school one day, Violet Gresley with a friend walked into the living room at Salisbury Hall near St Albans only to find her father crawling backwards from a tight space made by placing two settees back to back in the middle of the drawing room floor.
This was the first working prototype for the corridor tender, and with Gresley being a portly figure, reckoned if he could squeeze through such a small narrow gap, so could his driving crew. The plan would be to have a spare team who would change over in the cab on the move; the tired crew would make their way through the tender where they would sit in standard class and rest thus saving time in stations.
To compensate for the tunnel inside the tender, Gresley units were slightly longer to accommodate both the corridor and the extra coal and water. These revolutionary tenders connected to the leading coach of the train, accessible by the footplate crew only by means of a special key and this whole idea was instigated because a new non stopping service from 1928 from London to Scotland would take over eight hours which was simply too much for the driver and fireman in one shift.
Upon arrival, both crews would rest overnight and then carry out the same duty back the next day. Although steam was in his blood so to speak, he also designed the locomotives for the England’s first electric main line – the 1500V DC Sheffield Victoria to Manchester London Road route via Woodhead.
This ground breaking route was first thought of in 1936, but the advents of the Second World War meant that the electrification and locomotives started up in 1953 meaning Gresley never saw the line in operational use having died of heart failure back in 1941. Just like other great British engineers who came before like I.K Brunel and George Stephenson, Nigel Gresley left a legacy of first class design and spirit, many industry firsts and one or two World records also came his way and even after 71 years since his death, Sir Herbert ‘Nigel’ Gresley C.B.E continues to be a household name – and long may he continue to be.
The Best Of British in every sense of the word!