Best of British : Sir Herbert ‘Nigel’ Gresley CBE DSc

Mike Humble

LNER Chief Engineer Sir Nigel Gresley - The most famous locomotive designer in the world.
LNER Chief Engineer Sir Nigel Gresley – The most famous locomotive designer in the world.

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.

LNER class member ‘4472 Flying Scotsman’ the first steam loco to officially achieve 100mph

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.

Named in his honour – A4 ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’ storms through a wintery Yorkshire awaking the wildlife with its presence.

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.

The worlds most famous and fastest engine 4468 Mallard is star attraction at the National Railway Museum in York.

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!

Mike Humble


  1. Great tribute to a great man.

    As well as technical brilliance he had a wonderful eye for design and his clean lines are still modern and fresh in many cases.

  2. A genius engineer certainly – one his masterpieces “Bittern” happened to be giving the mainline HST’s a run for their money on the relief lines on route through Slough earlier today.

  3. As it happens, the locomotives for the Woodhead line were pure Metrovick and almost certainly nothing to do with Gresley or his electrical engineer Richards. You merely need to compare the South African 1E class Gresley went to see in Natal to the EM1 to see the similarity in specification and appearance of a loco delivered nearly 30 years prior to the EM1 locos.

    Gresley was certainly a great man, but along with other railway CMEs was too wedded to steam when he should have been pushing experimentation with electric and diesel traction. Further his insistence on 3 cylinder machines was often inappropriate. The muck he made of the LNER Garratt by insisting on a 3 cylinder machine when a 2 cylinder machine as per Peacock’s normal spec would have been far superior for a utiliy machine beggared belief.

  4. I’ve often pondered on the similarities between Alec Issigonis and Oliver Bulleid, Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Southern Railway from the late 1930s to nationalisation. They both had the same habit of thinking ‘outside the box’, both displayed quite a bit of foreign influence in their designs and both would stick to their particular vision for how a car/locomotive should be despite almost all opposition. Bulleid actually copied a lot of technology from the auto industry.

    Both men created highly distinctive, innovative and very capable designs which were, to a greater or lesser extent and for all their benefits, riddled with faults. But they both displayed their very individual and personal habits, preferences and beliefs in the machines they designed. The products also tend to engender something of a love/hate feeling in their fields as well.

    • Re Gresley being over wedded to steam. the LNER began electrification in the 1930s, Woodhead route at 1500V DC, but that was probably all they could afford, the LNER being stricken by poverty throughout the 1920s and 30s, a factor for Gresley that his achievements occurred within a long-term state of financial caution.

      A little known fact is the LNER Board propose dieselisation of the East Coast main line in the 1940s, the outline scheme was approved by the LNER Board only to be lost as nationalisationswept away the

      A quotation from Michael Bonavia:

      From Bonavia ”The Birth of British Rail”

      In 1945, the company(LNER) had despatched H.W.H. Richards, its Chief Electrical Engineer to the USA to study diesel-electric traction. His report, although cautious, suggested an extended trial in this country. In 1947, the Chief General Manager (Beevor) put forward a proposal, which the Board accepted,for replacing 32 Pacific steam locomotives by 25 main line diesel-electric locomotives. This project, unlike thr part completed Shenfield and Manchester-Sheffield-Wath electrifications, did not survive nationalisation.

    • From the “Red Book”, Alex Moulton and Bulleid had meetings to produce solutions to engineering matters.
      I am aware of Bulleid, his problematic Leader locomotives, the Turfburners and the chain-driven valve gear of the Pacifics replaced by reliable Walschaerts arrangements, but I am not aware of Moulton products being riddled with faults.
      Please the works of Moulton designs which are deficient

  5. I spent today at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers at Birdcage Walk in London. The original of the portrait at the top of this article glared down at us from the walls, along with other giants of the engineering world, such as George and Robert Stevenson and Sir Joseph Whitworth.

    How Britain could do with men of their stature today.

    Gresley’s designs were always a little different, and with some success and failures, but he produced radical locomotive designs that still turn heads today. The 3 cylinder design with only two sets of valve gear was an inovation but suffered from less than perfect maintenance, particularly through the war years.

    Thanks for reminding us of a true giant, who was once President of the august institution of which I am proud to be a member.

  6. Gresley, his first Pacific was too close to the Ivatt Atlantic in design and lost game set and match in the 1920’s exchanges to The GWR Castle. Back to the works for some seriopus amendements.
    The benchmark for thermodynamic efficiency was the Castle for a very long time.

    The LMS CME proudly announced in an I mech E lecture, his latest dynamometer tests showed the new Royal Scot matching the Castle efficiency.

    Gresley later borrowed the same LMS dynamometer car “for testing” against his LNER car, to the dismay of the LMs, Gresley identified some serious design flaws, the LMS car exxagerated drawbar power, voiding the claims by the LMS CME

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