Flying Scotsman: the Scot behind the majestic engine

The Flying Scotsman at King's Cross station in 1968. Picture: Getty

The Flying Scotsman at King's Cross station in 1968. Picture: Getty

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THE renewed public interest in the Flying Scotsman, which has returned to service after a 10-year refit, is testament to the engineering skill of the man who designed her.

Sir Nigel Gresley oversaw the construction of the Class A1 steam locomotive in 1922 at the Doncaster railway works in South Yorkshire.

Crowds gather at London King's Cross on February 25 to see the Flying Scotsman before its inaugural passenger service following a 10-year refit. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Crowds gather at London King's Cross on February 25 to see the Flying Scotsman before its inaugural passenger service following a 10-year refit. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

The A1 was capable of hauling 600 tons at 50mph.

The third to be produced, at a cost of £7944, would become the star locomotive of the British railway system, pulling the first train to officially break the 100mph barrier in 1934.

The Flying Scotsman was named in 1923 after the passenger service from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh Waverley on the east coast mainline, and became a major marketing tool for its owners at a time of fierce competition between rival rail companies.

Gresley was appointed chief mechanical engineer of the newly formed London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) in the same year the Scotsman was named.

Sir Nigel Gresley, left, is presented with a silver model of the engine named after him by LNER chairman William Whitelaw in November 1937. Picture: Getty

Sir Nigel Gresley, left, is presented with a silver model of the engine named after him by LNER chairman William Whitelaw in November 1937. Picture: Getty

It was a time of great change on the tracks.

The Railways Act of 1921 led to the merging of more than 100 private firms operating the national network into four regional companies.

LNER was handed control of the east coast mainline from Edinburgh to King’s Cross via York, which put it in direct competition with London Midland Scottish (LMS), which operated the west coast mainline from Glasgow to London Euston.

Gresley and others at LNER realised the promotional value of the Flying Scotsman in winning what the press dubbed ‘The Race to the North’, after a similar competition between companies in the late Victorian era.

The locomotive, which was upgraded to become an A3, was chosen to pull the first non-stop service from London to Edinburgh in May 1928, with a corridor installed through its tender to allow its crew to change shifts without stopping.

Its success boosted the profile of LNER and confirmed Gresley as the preeminent locomotive designer of his age.

READ MORE: In pictures: Flying Scotsman returns to the mainline for test run

Born in Edinburgh in 1876, the son of a vicar with aristocratic heritage, he was raised in Netherseal, Derbyshire, and educated at the prestigious Marlborough College.

He served his apprenticeship at the Crewe works of the London and North Western Railway, and later served under the pioneering engineer John Aspinall.

Gresley’s career progressed rapidly. By 1904 he was carriage and wagon superintendent at the Great Northern Railway (GNR), where he would remain until the formation of LNER in 1923.

Following the success of the Flying Scotsman, Gresley was keen to push the development of steam locomotives to achieve ever-greater top speeds.

His crowning achievement was the Class A4, a streamlined engine first unveiled in 1935. Its unique aerodynamic body was the result of extensive testing in wind tunnels to minimise resistance.

A total of 35 A4s were built, the most famous of which was named Mallard. The locomotive made history on July 3, 1938, when it achieved a speed of 125.88 mph on the east coast mainline south of Grantham - which remains the world record for a steam engine.

It was a triumph for Gresley and LNER. But the engineer was by then already exploring the possibilities of electric trains, and had designed locomotives for the proposed electrification of the Woodhead line between Manchester and Sheffield.

The outbreak of war in 1939 put an end to all but essential railway projects.

Gresley died in 1941, aged 64, following a short illness. He was buried in St Peter’s Church in his home town of Netherseal, Derbyshire.

His achievements are commemorated in a memorial plaque at Edinburgh Waverley, which was unveiled in 2001. It states Gresley “always sought improved performance and efficiency in locomotives and coaches. He was a firm believer in research, experiment and development to establish the best practice in engineering. He was an inspiration to generations of engineers who admire fine engineering and beauty of line.”

A statue of Gresley is due to be unveiled in King’s Cross station on the 75th anniversary of his death in April.

READ MORE: Design dispute over memorial to rail pioneer Gresley

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