Flying Scotsman

Nigel Gresley – the right man for the job

Sir Nigel Gresley is one of Britain’s most famous steam locomotive engineers, responsible for both icons Flying Scotsman and Mallard. Find out more about his legacy.

In 1893 Herbert Nigel Gresley, the son of a vicar and of aristocratic heritage, left Marlborough college to become a ‘premium apprentice’ at Crewe Railway Works.

Official publicity shot by an LMS photographer c1930s.
Official publicity shot by an LMS photographer c1930s.

Crewe was to provide a great springboard to for what was a wide-ranging apprenticeship, as he witnessed the second ‘Race to the North’ in 1895. In 1905 Gresley became chief of the wagon and carriage department of the Great Northern Railway in Doncaster – especially being responsibly for everything that moved on the GNR (apart from the Locomotives). He also became deputy to Locomotive Engineer Henry Ivatt (1851-1923) who responded to the need for heavier and faster trains by introducing the ‘Atlantic’ type locomotives to Great Britain.

Gresley soon made his mark at ‘The Plant’ (as Doncaster railway works was known) by creating a new carriage design for the East Coast’s Joint Stock used on the principle ‘through’ train to Scotland the ‘Flying Scotsman’ . He also introduced a range of new innovative designs including ‘articulated carriages’ for suburban services that had shared bogies – a new arrangement which ensured a smoother ride.

Making marks

On the ‘Scotsman Route’ new corridor carriages, restaurant cars and other increases in passenger facilities made for heavier trains – clearly more powerful engines were needed if the cost of using two engines (‘double-heading’) was to be avoided.  A few years after succeeding Ivatt as the Great Northern’s Locomotive Engineer, Gresley began to design a ‘Pacific’ class of locomotive.  This enabled a larger boiler to be used – in fact the largest possible on the Great Northern – and the weight spread over twelve wheels.

By 1922 the design was ready. With a good fireman these new ‘A1 class’ of locomotives could haul 600 tons at 50mph. Twelve were authorised for production, and the third – number 1472 – emerged from Doncaster works in February 1922 at a cost of £7944. The following year this engine acquired the LNER reporting number of 4472 and the name ‘Flying Scotsman’.

At this point, the Government grouped together 120 railway companies into just four: The Great Western Railway, The Southern Railway, the London Midland & Scottish Railway, and the London & North Eastern Railway.

The A1 class now became the LNER’s first fleet of express passenger engines, and Gresley was appointed their Chief Mechanical Engineer.

Gresley’s Legacy

Gresley was a respected leader with a practical approach and willingness to experiment with new ideas from both home and abroad. He would be responsible for the design of twenty-seven different classes of locomotive.

Unusually for an engineer he also understood business and the power of publicity. His innovations and record breaking run grabbed the headlines, gaining him a high public profile in the process.

In 1936 Gresley received a knighthood for his work on the LNER. Two years later, another of his designs – Mallard – established the world speed record for traction when it reached 126 mph on 3 July 1938.

“Here’s hoping the national engine will be one of Nigel Gresley’s” (Locomotive fireman, 1948)


Gesley photographed at the Doncaster Works in March 1938 with the A4 Pacific 4498 he designed and which was named after him.
Gesley photographed at the Doncaster Works in March 1938 with the A4 Pacific 4498 he designed and which was named after him.

Discover beautiful images and interesting stories in Andrew McLean’s stylish, illustrated The Flying Scotsman: Speed, Style, Service hardback exhibition book on ‘the world’s most famous train’. Andrew McLean is the National Railway Museum’s Head Curator.