The Iconic Designs of Sir Nigel Gresley

In 2015, the National Railway Museum commissioned a global survey to identify the world’s most famous trains and locomotives. ‘Flying Scotsman’, the first steam locomotive to achieve a recorded 100mph, topped the poll. ‘Mallard’, another record breaking engine, came in at eighth place. 

Both of these world famous locomotives were designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, a man who combined stylish and modern designs with innovative approaches to engineering. As Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Great Northern Railway and later the London and North Eastern Railway, Gresley’s designs epitomise the so-called ‘golden age’ of steam in Britain. 

‘Flying Scotsman’ and ‘Mallard’ continue to prove especially popular among modellers. Hornby alone has produced 39 variations of ‘Flying Scotsman’, representing more than half the total number of A1/A3 models ever produced. Having seen many of Gresley’s designs in miniature coming through the shop, we decided to read up on the man and his designs.

Statue of Sir Nigel Gresley (Hazel Reeves, 2016) at Kings Cross railway station, London.
(Image © AcabashiCreative Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0; Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nigel Gresley: A Brief Biography

Herbert Nigel Gresley was born in Edinburgh on 19 June 1876, the fourth son of Rev. Nigel Gresley and his wife Joanna. The family lived in Netherseal, a small south Derbyshire village, home to the Gresleys for centuries. Rev. Nigel Gresley was the last of four generations of the family to be Vicar to the parish. Following prep school at St. Leonard’s in Sussex, Gresley attended Marlborough College, a school established in 1843 for the sons of Anglican clergymen.

After Marlborough, Gresley moved to Crewe where he took an apprenticeship with the London and North Western Railway. Upon the completion of his apprenticeship, he stayed at Crewe works for a further year to gain practical experience as a fitter. Gresley later moved to Horwich where he joined the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway working under Locomotive Superintendent, Sir John Aspinall.

Gresley quickly rose through the ranks, taking various posts with the L&YR. In 1905, he transferred to the Great Northern Railway, relocating to Doncaster together with his young family. Aged on 29, Gresley became Assistant Superintendent of the GNR’s Carriage and Wagon Department. Six years later, in 1911, he succeeded Henry A. Ivatt as Chief Mechanical Engineer, a position which he held for the rest of his life. 

His Christian upbringing and education remained a lifelong influence on Gresley. His friends and peers described him as a pious man with a ‘complete faith in God’. When at leisure, Gresley enjoyed playing golf, shooting and fishing, as well as motoring through the countryside. He also had an affection for dogs, especially spaniels. 

Hornby OO Gauge LNER P2, no. 2001 ‘Cock o The North’, as designed by Sir Nigel Gresley
Available from our website

1930s

The death of his wife, Ethel Frances Gresley in August 1929 had a devastating effect on Gresley. He took some time off from work, and together with his eldest daughter took an extended holiday to the Rocky Mountains. After his sojourn in Canada, and a year in a London flat, he eventually moved to Salisbury Hall in St. Albans, a grand Elizabethan house surrounded by a moat. Here he enjoyed keeping and breeding wild ducks in the moat, including mallards! The birds became so tame that he could call them by whistling to take food from his hand. 

Gresley enjoyed success and fame in the 1930s, thanks in part to the triumphs of ‘Flying Scotsman’ and ‘Mallard’. He also employed his engineering skills in other areas, beyond the railways. In 1936, he received a Knighthood for his services as Chairman of a committee set up by the President of the Board of Trade to consider types of steering gear fitted to steam ships. During that same year, he also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester and presided over the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

During the late 1930s, Gresley succeeded in bringing the LNER into collaboration with the London Midland and Scottish (LMS) on a national locomotive testing plant. Unfortunately, the war delayed progress, and the facility didn’t open until 1948.

After some thirty years in the top job as Chief Mechanical Engineer of the GNR and the LNER, Sir Nigel Gresley died in office on 5 April 1941, just two months before he was due to retire.

Hornby OO Gauge A3, no. 4472 ‘Flying Scotsman’, as designed by Sir Nigel Gresley
Available from our website

Locomotives

Gresley designed a total of 27 steam locomotives for the GNR and LNER. In addition to the famous A1s/A3s and A4s, he was also responsible for the largest British passenger steam locomotive as well as the heaviest British locomotive of all time. 

He experimented with marine-type water tube boilers, and improved cab designs, much to the delight of footplate crews. At the time of his death in 1941, Gresley was working on an electric locomotive for the Woodhead route between Manchester and Sheffield. This became the EM1, later reclassified as a Class 76.

On his appointment to Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Great Northern Railway in 1911, Gresley started with designs for freight locomotives. However, he soon turned his attention to express passenger locomotives. Gresley produced a series of pacific locomotives for the GNR, initially based on the 4-6-2 K4 type engines of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  

The GNR commissioned the A1 pacifics in 1922. The LNER built more than 50 of these locomotives, designed for express passenger trains along the East Coast Mainline between London and Edinburgh.

Hornby OO Gauge LNER A4, no. 4468 ‘Mallard’, as designed by Sir Nigel Gresley
Available from our website

Record Breakers

A1 pacific no. 1472 was the third of its class to be built, and the first to be turned out in the livery of the newly formed LNER. In February 1924, 1472 was renumbered 4472 and named ‘Flying Scotsman’. The newly renamed locomotive was spruced up and exhibited at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. 

‘Flying Scotsman’ achieved national fame in November 1934 when it reached 100mph on a return trip from Leeds. Though others had claimed to have achieved this speed, no. 4472 was the first to be confirmed. By this time, the locomotive had covered some 653,000 miles since it first entered service. 

Gresley’s streamlined A4 locomotives first appeared in 1935, inspired by the streamlined ‘Flying Hamburger’ trains in Germany. Aside from the sleak bodywork, the fundamental design of the A4s was a refined version of the A1s/A3s. Their distinctive appearance earned them the nickname, ‘Streaks’. On 3 July 1938, ‘Mallard’ set the world speed record for a steam locomotive, reaching 126mph along Stoke Bank, just south of our base in Grantham. This Doncaster based locomotive became a household name, and its driver and fireman, Joe Duddington and Tommy Bray celebrities among railway enthusiasts.

Hornby OO Gauge rake of three LNER Corridor Coaches, as designed by Sir Nigel Gresley
Available from our website

Coaches

In addition to his legendary locomotives, Gresley was also an innovator in coaching stock. He experimented (successfully) with articulation, and also introduced a bogie design which became the standard used by the LNER and later British Railways. 

In his capacity as Superintendent for Carriage and Wagons with the GNR, Gresley was a pioneer in articulation. Articulated coaches shared bogies, enabling shorter trains and a smoother ride. Production began in 1907 using converted coaches, with the first new designs rolled out in 1911. Only one example of an articulated set survives, based at the North Norfolk Railway. 

In addition to suburban commuter trains, articulation also featured in some of the LNER’s most prestigious services, including streamlined trains The Silver Jubilee and The Coronation. Gresley’s designs were decades ahead of their time – only recently have fixed formation articulated trains become commonplace.

The LNER corridor stock, manufactured with teak panelling, is perhaps the coach design for which he is best known. Originally outshopped in varnished teak, these glimmering coaches must have been very striking. Their interiors included Art Deco decoration, with a liberal use of chromium plated detailing. Some of these coaches even survived on British Rail until the 1970s, by which time they wore BR Blue and Grey livery. 

These coaches are among the best sellers in our shop. The early Hornby designs capture the stylish and elegant design in an affordable model. 

Hornby OO Gauge LNER Composite Corridor Brake Coach, no. 4236, as designed by Sir Nigel Gresley
Available from our website

Sir Gresley’s Legacy

In 1937, the 100th Gresley pacific rolled out of Doncaster Works. This A4, no. 4498, was named ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’ in tribute to its designer. Based chiefly at Kings Cross, the locomotive had a brief spell here in Grantham during wartime. 

Gresley’s designs are evocative of a period when steam locomotives represented the cutting edge of technological innovation. Combining engineering prowess with eye-catching designs, Gresley’s locomotives and coaches still inspire the imagination of many. Cradled in nostalgia for the ‘glory days’ of steam, it is sometimes easy to overlook how thoroughly modern both ‘Flying Scotsman’ and ‘Mallard’ were in their day. Here at Rocket Railways, we never tire of admiring the beauty and elegance of these magnificent designs.