How Sir Nigel Gresley’s Mallard powered her way to speed record

Mallard and train at Barkston Junction before departing on the record run on July 3, 1938
25 Jun 2013 @ 12.01 pm
| History

Mallard and train at Barkston Junction before departing on the record run on July 3, 1938
Mallard and train at Barkston Junction before departing on the record run on July 3, 1938

On July 3, 1938, A4 class locomotive Mallard raced down Stoke Bank at 126mph to set a new steam locomotive world speed record. As the great gathering of all the A4 locos at the NRM approaches to mark the 75th anniversary, Bob Gwynne recalls those heady days

In 1932 the industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes wrote “Speed is the cry of our era and greater speed one of the goals of tomorrow”.

In keeping with that thought, on July, 3 1938 Driver Joe Duddington (then aged 61) climbed into the cab of this locomotive, turned his cap around (just like George Formby had in the film No Limit) and drove Mallard into the history books.

Duddington had over 27 years on the footplate, and had once driven the Scarborough Flyer for over 144 miles at over 74 mph, considered at the time to be the highest speed ever maintained over a long distance by steam in the UK.

Mallard’s owners, the LNER, were industry leaders of the art of marketing and the speed record helped the message that LNER expresses were safe, stylish and very, very fast. Mallard and the A4’s brought to the UK the first network of “High Speed Trains” – with the phrase even used on tickets for VIPs.

In July 1938 Mallard was only four months old. Its designer Sir Nigel Gresley had been president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1936 and had been leading a team building “big engines” ie built for future capacity, not just the traffic you have now, since the first A1 Great Northern emerged from The Plant in Doncaster in 1922.

His development team including Bert Spencer, technical assistant and Oliver Bulleid, personal assistant (and later a locomotive designer in his own right).


International influences

The A4 design, although a British icon, also represents an international approach to design led by the well travelled Gresley. He’d been to France Germany, South Africa, and America and knew of developments in steam, diesel and electric traction around the world.

He had, seen and travelled in the streamlined Bugatti railcars then operational in France, seen electrification in South Africa, and developments in America. He no doubt noted the famous “dawn to dusk dash” of the Burlington Zephyr which in 1934 had run 1,015.4 miles at an average speed of 75.5 mph and 106.2 mph for 130 miles.


The A4 shape was developed in the National Physical Laboratory. What you can’t see – internal streamlining to the steam passages – showed the influence of Gresley’s great friend Andre Chapelon, the “genius of steam” who he had known since 1926.

Mallard was also the first A4 to be fitted with a double chimney and a Kylchap double exhaust, another Chapelon innovation.

It also had a Flaman speed recorder, something Gresley would have seen on his visits to France, where a Flaman was de-rigeur and where P2 Cock of The North had been on test runs (which included hauling trains from Paris). The Flaman was a good way of checking that you didn’t speed on a locomotive that rode well at speed.

The colour of the locomotive also shows an international approach. Called “Garter Blue” (the name surely a invention of Dandridge and his marketing team – with it’s racy “flapper girl” connotations) it just happens to be the same as the colour then in vogue for Bugatti racing cars, making it the colour of speed in the 1930s.


A4’s streamlined design

The A4 was designed for the Silver Jubilee, “Britain’s first streamlined train”, introduced in September 1935 between London and Newcastle, with an average speed from Darlington of 71mph. On the inauguration of the train in September 1935 Silver Link had run at 100 mph for 43 miles.

It was said at the time by one writer that the Silver Jubilee meant “London becomes suburb of Newcastle”.

Britain’s first streamlined train was a great commercial success, prompting an increase in traffic by over 12 per cent for the service. The train featured a fashionable, Art Deco interior of chrome and blue and two restaurant cars, serving hot meals and drinks. The coaches had an all steel underframe, better bogies, pressure ventilation (air conditioning). In fact it was Norman Newsome, Gresley’s head of Carriage design and development, who actually arranged the record run in 1938.

The LNER’s high speed trains contrasted with the German diesel train, the Flying Hamburger, at the time the world’s fastest scheduled service. It ran between Hamburg to Berlin from 1933 at an average speed of 85mph. This train only offered a cold buffet to its passengers. (In February 1936 on test it achieved a speed of 127 mph).

The 05002 leaving Hamburg – the fastest steam locomotive before Mallard
The 05002 leaving Hamburg – the fastest steam locomotive before Mallard

The record run was of course done under cover of being part of a trial of a new “quick acting” brake. A quick acting brake was (and is) an important part of how a high-speed line works, and in the LNER’s case important given a line littered with signals (there were 24 signal locations – signal boxes or level crossings – between Barkston and Peterborough on the route of the record run).


From steam to electric

The run by Mallard and the superb and successful LNER streamline services used steam traction because the UK’s huge coal reserves meant everyone believed (and were right) that steam would be king for a while longer. (Coal is of course still with us today – giving us a third to a half of our electricity supply). Incidentally the A4’s were the machines with the lowest coal consumption for a similar power output.

The National Railway Museum recreates an iconic picture of Sir Nigel Gresley
The National Railway Museum recreates an iconic picture of Sir Nigel Gresley

However Gresley actually once reminded the Institute of Locomotive Engineers that “we are not the Institute of Steam Locomotive engineers” and went on to say: “We must turn out attention to electric locomotives if the steam locomotive is to be superseded.”

The last design that Gresley signed his name to, before his death in 1941, was an electric locomotive. He no doubt also noted the run in 1939 in Italy where an ETR 200 ran 136 miles at an average of 106 mph, with a peak speed of 126 mph.

The Germans had achieved 130 mph with an electric railcar at Zossen test track in 1903 at 130.5 mph and the propeller driven “Rail Zeppelin” had managed 143 mph in 1931.

What Mallard and the LNER did achieve, above and beyond its rivals on the GWR or LMS was to embed in the UK consciousness the idea of the high speed train.

It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the LNER’s premium apprentices, born in 1909 and at Doncaster from 1929 where he would have met Gresley, was Terry Miller, the father of the diesel high speed train.

Without Miller and the high speed train we know Britain’s passenger network might well have been lost once the big car economy got going in the late 1960s thanks to the motorway building programme unleashed by Ernest Marples (who coincidentally appointed Dr Richard Beeching to be in charge of the railways).

NRM is fortunate therefore to have Mallard on display in the 75th anniversary of the record breaking run, and just up the road the HST Prototype being restored to working order and likely to power up this year.

  • Bob Gwynne is a curator at the National Railway Museum in York
  • To learn more about the Great Gathering marking the 75th anniversary of Mallard’s record, go to the NRM website