Local Legend: Sir Nigel Gresley

Not surprisingly, locomotive engineers are generally unassuming people.

So little is known about them, apart from their railway work, that an admirer is liable to think of such persons as railwaymen with merely the ghost of a family background. It is almost true to say that more is known of George Stephenson’s personal life than any railway engineer since his time. In an effort to correct this anomaly the following notes have been collected from a variety of little known sources, with the hope that the personage of Nigel Gresley will become far more vivid to his many admirers.

Herbert Nigel Gresley was born on 19th June, 1876, fourth son of Rev. Nigel Gresley. His parents were both English, although he was actually born in Edinburgh whilst his mother was in the Scottish capital to consult a gynaecologist. The family home lay at Netherseale, four miles south of Swadlincote in Derbyshire; a district associated with several generations of noted personalities with the name Gresley. The young Nigel Gresley’s father was rector of St. Peter’s church in Netherseale village. Nigel was initially sent to a preparatory school in St. Leonard’s, Sussex, later going on to complete his education at Marlborough College in Wiltshire.

It was while at Marlborough that he developed a flair for mechanical drawing. One of these drawings, completed when he was only fourteen, is hanging in the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London today. He was proud to have been top of the school in science, his name having a place of honour on the board at Marlborough College listing the famous boys educated there.

When he had completed his schooling Mr. Gresley left the family home at Netherseale, having obtained employment at Crewe Locomotive Works of the London and North Western Railway Company as an apprentice, under the watchful eye of Mr. F.W. Webb. Further early railway experience followed with a period in the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company Works at Horwich, where Sir John Aspinall reigned as senior engineer. Mr. Gresley's rapid progress up the ladder of success was doubtless due to his gift of leadership being compatible with his engineering skills.

It was during a spell as locomotive foreman at Blackpool in 1899, that Mr. Gresley met the lady who was later to become his wife, Miss Ethel Frances Fullagar. She lived a short way along the coast at St. Anne’s, their first meeting being at one of the Bolton Assembly Balls. The casual friendship formed that night developed into a warm relationship, the couple getting married in 1901. The Gresleys set up home in Newton Heath, three miles from Manchester, where two of their children - Roger and Violet - were born.

The family moved to Doncaster in 1905 because Mr. Gresley had been offered the senior post of Carriage and Wagon Superintendent with the Great Northern Railway. Quite an achievement for a man who was just 29 years of age. Later, upon the retirement of Mr. Henry A. Ivatt from the post in 1911, further promotion followed, to that of Locomotive Superintendent.

During the Gresleys’ time at Doncaster another son and daughter were born, making a family of four happy children. Mr. and Mrs. Gresley were very devoted parents always spending holidays with their children each year, either at Braemar in Aberdeenshire, or at Sheringham in Norfolk. In Scotland Mr. Gresley enjoyed shooting, fishing and motoring; at Sheringham he played golf a good deal, some tennis and swam in the sea with the family. He had complete faith in God, and saw to it that the family regularly attended church on Sundays. On occasional Sunday afternoons he would conduct his children around Doncaster Plant, showing them the different stages of the locomotives being built. He enjoyed the Annual Sports Days at the Works too, always taking his family with him. He had been very fond of dogs from his boyhood days, keeping them as companions throughout his life, spaniels being his favourite breed.

One January, while he was living at Doncaster, Mr. Gresley went to stay with his mother in Derbyshire for a spell of Rook shooting. While climbing over a hedge of the common sloe, he got a thorn deep in his leg. Difficult to extract, the wound very soon turned to blood poisoning. This septicaemia made him seriously ill for some weeks. A specialist, Sir Anthony Bowlley, came down twice from London prepared to amputate his leg, but as a last recource he tried leeches on the wound; a technique that proved successful in sucking out the poison. After a holiday in Bournemouth convalescing with his wife, he went home cured without any signs of lameness. Mr. Gresley was thus able to continue in climbing the steepest hills of Scotland as energetically as ever for his favourite shooting holidays each year. During the First World War he gave valuable service for his country when Doncaster works was largely engaged in making munitions for the war enterprise. He was made a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Engineer and Railway Staff Corps, R.E.(T.F.). In appreciation of this war effort he was awarded the C.B.E. in January 1920. Shortly after this the various railway companies were grouped into the "Big Four" and Mr. Gresley, having been made Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London and North Eastern Railway Company, moved southwards to work at King’s Cross. His roll-top desk was inherited by Roy Hart-Davis, who, when transferred to Railway Executive Headquarters, stipulated that the desk go with him! As Mr. Gresley loved the country he bought a house at Hadley Wood with two tennis courts. The property was quite near to the Golf Club where, because of his skill in this sport, he soon became Captain.

The Railway Centenary was celebrated in Darlington on lst July, 1925 and Mr. Gresley had the honour of conducting the Duke and Duchess of York around the exhibition. The royal couple showed genuine interest when he explained the working of one important exhibit, that of George Stephenson’s lathe. Most fortunately this event has been preserved in the film archives.

In 1929 Mrs. Gresley had to undergo a serious operation at the family home. Afterwards the surgeon, Sir Maurice Cassidy, told her husband that the illness was terminal; there was no hope of his wife’s recovery. Mrs. Gresley was never told herself, so for months Mr. Gresley had this great ordeal to endure. Ethel Frances Gresley died in August, being buried in Netherseale, her husband’s boyhood home.

The strain of that summer had aged Mr. Gresley considerably, so to recover from his great loss, he went to Canada, accompanied by his eldest daughter, where he hoped the high bracing air of the Rocky Mountains would give him the tonic he needed. They stayed at Banff for some weeks, taking one day off to spend on the footplate driving one of the enormous Canadian Pacific steam locomotives to Glacier in British Columbia.

On his return from Canada Mr. Gresley lived with his family in a flat in London for a year, but his love for the country was predominant. Eventually he moved home to Salisbury Hall near St. Albans, an Elizabethan residence surrounded by a moat. Here he could enjoy one of his favourite hobbies, that of keeping and collecting many species of wild duck on the moat. He built the ducks little islands for breeding sites. As a result they grew so tame he could lure them by whistling, each duck in turn would come to take food from his hand.

In 1936 he was knighted by King Edward VIII in recognition of his services as Chairman of the Committee set up by Sir Walter Runciman, President of the Board of Trade, to consider the types of steering gear fitted in the steamers Usworth and Blairgowrie which had been lost at sea in quick succession, apparently due to steering failures. The Usworth had sailed from Sydney, Nova Scotia, on December 6th 1934 with a cargo of wheat, encountering rough weather at the outset. A gigantic wave had swept over her when 1000 miles from land, smashing her steering gear. Although being taken in tow by another ship, the rope had eventually parted, the storm then strengthened with the eventual loss of the Usworth. There were only nine survivors out of a crew of 26. On February 26th, 1935 a message was picked up at Valentia, Ireland from s.s. Beaverdale stating that the Blairgowrie's steering gear had gone. She was on a voyage from Swansea to Boston, U.S.A. but no trace of her was ever found. All 26 members of her crew perished when she foundered.

On a more pleasant note, Sir Nigel also received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Manchester, and, of equal significance, was elected President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

One further accolade was bestowed on him the following year. Accepting the suggestion from a railway enthusiast, the directors of the LNER proclaimed that the 100th Pacific locomotive to be built to Sir Nigel’s design, A4 No. 4498, was to be named after him. The ceremony, performed by Mr. William Whitelaw Chairman of the LNER, took place at Marylebone station on 26th November, 1937 with many of Sir Nigel’s team to witness the event. What came as a complete surprise to him, after the naming formalities were over, was the presentation of a small silver, precision built, model of 4498 as a special keepsake.

After his eldest daughter married Major Geoffrey Godfrey in 1937 he decided to leave Salisbury Hall and lived with the couple at Watton-at-Stone, near Hertford. The river Beane flowed through the large garden, and the most important thing to be done was to make a safe and wired-off river bank enclosure, to protect the area from foxes, before transferring his large family of ducks from the moat to their new river home. He also owned a small syndicate shoot at Watton which gave him much enjoyment on Saturdays. It was at Watton that his two grandchildren, a boy and a girl, were born and they were a great interest to him. On the rare occasions when quiet periods did present themselves, he was able to relax in one of his favourite clubs - either the Junior Carlton or Brooke’s.

Sir Nigel never hesitated to incorporate the best features of design to be found in America or Europe. When the experimental 4-6-4 locomotive with water tube boiler was undergoing trials in 1930, he was actively involved. He could often be seen leading the test team, sporting overalls and a bowler hat. Another experience, shared with many others, was the enjoyment of seeing express trains hauled by his own locomotives. When journeying by train he was always ready for a chat with the locomotive crew before departure, a small thing perhaps, yet it earned him much respect amongst the men. His love of steam trains was seen publicly in 1935, when, after riding on the ‘Silver Jubilee’ trial trip, he was seen leaving the footplate of his A4 Class Pacific Silver Link at King’s Cross, excitedly waving his large stop-watch and loudly proclaiming "112 miles an hour!" This, after earlier asking the driver to "take it easy old chap" when the train reached this high speed on two separate occasions.

Sir Nigel enjoyed smoking a pipe which he found brought contentment and peace of mind. It was only when he laughed out loud in his employees’ presence that his light hearted character was revealed to them. At parties with friends he would see to it that everyone enjoyed themselves, even going to the extent of playing good humoured jokes on the guests. Neither was he afraid to have the laugh on himself, in return. His railway work called for him to be serious, too. He was well aware of the capabilities and limitations of the staff, always being willing to explain to them points that were not clear. On occasion Sir Nigel even went to the extent of sketching an explanatory drawing on his note pad, with a particularly difficult job.

He was honoured to be asked to open the Queen’s Course at Gleneagles Golf Club in Scotland. His favourite sport, he used to take a week’s golfing holiday with five men friends each year at North Berwick. His intense keenness and love of his work never slackened, in spite of his heart specialist, Sir Maurice Cassidy, warning him to ease off a good deal in order to live long in 1935. Early in 1941 Sir Maurice again warned him that he would not live for six months unless he cut down his work to only four days a week, but Sir Nigel said it was not possible; he could not be seen to slacken his work during a war when everyone else was working to their best ability.

Since 1927 Sir Nigel had cherished hopes of a national locomotive testing plant, for the "attainment of increased efficiency". But those were hard economic times and government help was not forthcoming. He persevered however, enlisting the support of Sir William Stanier. Eventually the directors of the LMS and LNER agreed to pool their resources and gave the go ahead in 1937 for a plant to be built at Rugby. The outbreak of war in 1939 brought construction to a halt. Most unhappily Sir Nigel died on 5th April, 1941 after a short illness, but his long cherished dream did come true on 19th October, 1948 when the plant was officially opened, with two of his family in attendance. The first locomotive to be run on to the test rollers was A4 Pacific Sir Nigel Gresley. Surely a most fitting tribute to a great railwayman.

Sources: Godfrey (n.d.); Nock (n.d.); Bond (1975); Hocking (1969) & Hasted (1999).