12 March 2020 · Sir Nigel Gresley – his work and times

Presenter: Chris Nettleton, honorary editor of the Gresley Magazine, membership secretary of The Gresley Society

Chris briefly introduced himself before going straight into the presentation. Herbert Nigel Gresley was born 19 June 1876 as the fifth and last child of the Reverend Nigel Gresley and his wife Joanna of Neatherseale, Derbyshire. The best obstetrician of the day was based in Edinburgh so his mother was taken there to give birth which is why Nigel was born in Edinburgh. He was sent away to prep school aged 7, later attending Marlborough College, before taking up a premium apprenticeship under Francis Webb in October 1893 for which his father paid the then princely sum of £50.00 per annum. This meant fast progression and he gained a good report on completion. In March 1898 he joined the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway as a pupil of John Aspinall, the highest possible starting point there. By 1900 he had done so well that he was appointed running shed foreman at Blackpool, a great responsibility for someone so young. There he met his future wife Ethel whose father refused permission for them to marry, which resulted in Ethel turning up at Nigel’s lodgings saying that she was moving in with him. As this would have been quite scandalous then, Nigel went to Aspinall and it was agreed that Ethel should stay with the Aspinall’s for the time being. They married in October 1901 and had their first child, a son, in March 1903. A year later Gresley (Nigel) was promoted to the position of assistant carriage and wagon supervisor based at Newton Heath, Manchester with an annual salary of £450.00. After Aspinall retired and seeing no prospect of further promotion there, Gresley moved to Doncaster in January 1905 with a salary of £750.00. While there, he was elected a member of both the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1907, and produced a form of articulation for carriages which he patented in 1908.

He succeeded H A Ivatt as locomotive engineer for the Great Northern Railway in 1911 at the young age of 35 with a salary of £1800.00. This was good pay but came with a great deal of responsibility. Here he started to produce his own locomotive designs working with the drawing office staff, for example redesigning the Class J6 making it easier for the crew to operate. By the following year he had designed and produced his first 2-6-0 locomotives, and his first 2-8-0 the year after that. The Great War intervened and the works was largely turned over to the production of armaments but he continued with new locomotives designs, not all of which were realised. He produced his first three cylinder 2-8-0 locomotive using conjugated valve gear in 1918, was elected a member of the Institution of Locomotive Engineers, and appointed CBE in 1920 for his wartime work.

Gresley progressed well producing new designs to better serve the needs of the railways, for example when a more powerful locomotive was required to work out of Kings Cross, he designed a new 4-6-2 Pacific for that purpose. At railway grouping into the ‘Big Four’ in 1923, he became Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) at the still young age of 46 on a salary of £4500.00.

He was known as an affable man, regularly visiting the works and talking to the men, clearly taking his role seriously and appearing at events and open days. By 1925 coal trains were getting longer so he designed a new Class P1 2-8-2 three cylinder locomotive with extra power and a different wheel arrangement to improve adhesion when required. However, this resulted in a signalling problem with the longer trains overlapping into two sections. Another experiment involved working with Beyer Peacock building a Garrett articulated locomotive. Powerful, unusual and very useful in some circumstances, it was not the easiest locomotive to use and was eventually broken up in 1955. Gresley worked with the Great Western Railway on locomotive exchange trials showing the advantages of particular locomotives in different situations. At the end of this period, the LNER converted to long-travel valve gear and Gresley learned not just about modern engines, but also the associated mechanics giving him a better overall understanding of what was required.

May 1928 was a significant date with the progressive LNER looking to run fast trains from Kings Cross to Edinburgh via Newcastle either non-stop or nearly so, hence the experiment of including a corridor in the tender to allow the crew to get a break during the journey instead of working the whole route. It worked well. With the new express services came new sets of coaches including hairdressing and dining coaches, providing not only fast but also luxurious rail travel. Further innovations followed such as the 4-6-4 four cylinder streamlined compound high pressure locomotive, using high pressure boiler technology borrowed from the Yarrow shipyards. A unique locomotive based on the 4-6-2 Pacific with an additional axle to take the extra length, this quiet experimentation led to the locomotive being known as the ‘hush hush’. Development continued during the 1930s including the A4 4-6-2, a larger locomotive designed to avoid the need for double heading, which was then streamlined, the model being tested in the wind tunnel at Farnborough. The new train with its streamlined design and striking livery achieved the speed of 112.5 mph on the run from Kings Cross. Apparently the speedometer in the cab had stuck so the driver and crew were not fully aware of what speed they had achieved until afterwards. This was really the start of express luxury rail travel aimed at business, the surcharge for which did not seem to deter.

He became president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers from February 1936 to February 1937. He was also awarded an honorary DSc and was created a Knight Bachelor in recognition of his work in 1936; the same year that the Class V2 was introduced, a three cylinder 2-6-2 locomotive of which 184 were built with the last completed in 1944.

Although not everything from this period was totally successful, Sir Nigel continued producing new designs and innovations as well as attending events both at home and abroad, and looking after the workshops and people that he was responsible for. Work on prestige trains was on-going including the record breaking speed run with Mallard when 126 mph was recorded – this run doubling as a test run for the new Westinghouse braking system that considerably reduced the braking distance required, thus making higher speed running that much safer. He never claimed the 126 mph record himself as it had only been recorded for 200 yards. He only claimed 125 mph. Another of his streamlined locomotives, Silver Fox, also achieved 113 mph on a regular run. Sir Nigel was a ‘workaholic’ continuing until his death in April 1941 at the age of 64 not long before he was due to retire. There are memorial plaques at various places around the country notably at Kings Cross and Edinburgh as well as a bronze statue at Kings Cross unveiled in April 2016.

The presentation finished with a quick mention of the Gresley Society. The whole afternoon provided an excellent chronological history of Sir Nigel Gresley, well-illustrated with photographs and short film clips showing some of his designs in action. An interesting and well-presented subject.