Train Builder with Style
Herbert Nigel Gresley was born in Edinburgh on June 19th 1876 but this association in no way made him Scottish; he was a Derbyshire man through and through and would experience a deep connection with the town of Neatherseal from his childhood home to his final resting place. It was by chance that Gresley had been born in Scotland, his mother requiring a specialist in the capital, and given the chance he would have almost certainly been born in his ancestral home.
As he was growing up, Gresley began to develop and interest in engineering and this was allowed to flourish during his education at Marlborough College. While he was studying mechanical drawing at the age of fourteen he produced a drawing that was so impressive, it is still showcased at London’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers today. This was a talent that could not be extinguished and it would lead him to a career in the railway industry that would make him famous across the country.
Sir Nigel Gresleys initial work within the railway industry.
Unsurprisingly, Gresley’s first job was an apprenticeship as a teenager within the London & North Western Railway where he would make his name. At this point he was based at Crewe locomotive works but he easily worked his work up the ranks and became a respected worker and designer. The creative talent of his youth continued into adulthood when he invented a new three-cylinder engine with a modern “Gresley conjugated valve gear”. This design impressed many and revolutionised the industry by providing a smoother and more cost effective system than had previously been imagined. By 1936, Gresley had various designs under his belt and had produced many different engine and he was starting on a set of 1500V Locomotives for an electrified line between Manchester and Sheffield. Three years on, this work was cut short by the war. It was not the first time that a world war had impacted upon his profession; in the First World War Gresley joined the Engineer and Railway Staff Corps, becoming a Lieutenant-Colonel, and his efforts earned him a CBE in 1920.
Gresley’s personal life away from the railways.
Sir Nigel’s first passion was clearly his trains and the railway but he had plenty of interests away from the track which would go on to inspire him and play a big part in his life. He would often enjoy some leisure time in Derbyshire and spend his days out shooting and enjoying the countryside. One particular rook shoot, however, nearly ended in catastrophe when he developed septicaemia from a deeply embedded thorn and was advised to have the leg amputated. Luckily, after refusing the operation, Gresley went to Bournemouth with his wife for some rest and recuperation and discovered a leech treatment that allowed him to make a dramatic recovery.
Family was another important part of his life away from the railways and this was made clear in 1929 when the grief-striken Gresley took a trip to Canada with his daughter Violet to recover from the death of his wife. Following her passing, he then found a new residence in the 1930s in Salisbury Hall, St Albans where he began to breed and tame ducks on the property’s moat. Interestingly, it seems that on both these occasions Gresley could not escape his work and was inspired to create; on his trip to Canada he enjoyed journeys on their own, national lines and it is probably not coincidence that one of his most famous trains was called Mallard.
Sir Nigel Gresley’s greatest achievements and honours.
Whether Gresley’s A4 engine Mallard can be called his greatest train is a matter of opinion because many people have a soft spot for The Flying Scotsman; however, its construction and design make it one of Britain’s most well known engines and a must-have model for all collectors. The striking train, which has a classic, streamlined 1930s design, is similar in style to other engines but still holds the world steam speed record of 126mph. Mallard and The Flying Scotsman can both be seen on display today but the latter was also given the honour of a place on £5 coin in 2012.
Gresley’s fleet of impressive engines can be considered a token of his achievement as people continue to flock to see them, especially the “Sir Nigel Gresley” engine that was named after him, but he received a number of other honours during his career. In 1936, two years before Mallard even reached the rails, he was given an honorary doctorate from Manchester University and a knighthood.
Sir Nigel Gresley’s death and legacy.
By 1940, Gresley’s age and health were beginning to catch up with him and he had been warned by doctors that he was developing heart problems. Appreciating the situation, he decided to set a date for his retirement in June the following year but, sadly, this action was too late and he died of a heart attack on April 5th 1941. A few days later a memorial was held in Chelsea and his body was buried beside his beloved wife in Netherseal, Derbyshire.
Over time, the memory of Gresley’s work in the railway industry continued as plaques and memorials were unveiled and efforts were put in place to restore and house his engines. In 1966 a dedicated preservation society managed to save the “Sir Nigel Gresley”, which is still operational on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, yet the grave sites were left to decay. Thankfully in 2009, a group of enthusiasts were alerted to the problem and raised funds to restore and maintain the site, with the new stone unveiled in front of 40 guests and contributors.
This recent act of kindness and outrage shows that the legacy of Sir Nigel Gresley has not been forgotten after all and the same can be said of the recent decision to give him a blue plaque in Netherseal at his childhood home. It was a surprising choice, given the fact that he was already awarded one at Kings Cross in 1997, but perhaps it just shows their desire to see him commemorated closer to home and reinforces the deep connection between Gresley and the people of Derbyshire.