In Focus: Mallard, the steam locomotive that’s a true British masterpiece

Sir Nigel Gresley's Mallard steam locomotive is one of the great pieces of 20th century engineering. Jack Watkins tells its tale.

In 2016, the 75th anniversary of the death of the railway engineer Sir Nigel Gresley was marked by the unveiling of a statue at King’s Cross Station, once the main London terminus of the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER), which he’d served with distinction from 1923 until his death aged 64 in 1941.

Sadly, the anniversary was marred by a spat over whether sculptor Hazel Reeves’s design should feature a mallard duck, in reference to one of his most famous engines, the Class A4 locomotive Mallard. Gresley had bred waterfowl and enjoyed watching them paddle in the moat of Salisbury Hall, his Tudor property at London Colney, Hertfordshire, which probably inspired the naming of Mallard.

An arrival to savour: in Mike Jeffries’s painting of Mallard steaming into King’s Cross, the guard’s unalloyed admiration is clear to see.

However, some members of the engineer’s family felt the duck was demeaning, so the sculptor removed it from her finished design. Thus, the fine, dignified bronze, which stands near the booking office and close to Gresley’s old office, stands alone, although several people who attended the unveiling brought a duck along anyway.

As for Mallard herself, you can see her in all her gleaming, curvaceous beauty at the National Railway Museum, York. Brought into service in the summer of 1938, this was only the latest in a line of impressive Gresley’s locomotives at a time when there was much competition between railway companies and, indeed, nations, to build more powerful and faster steam engines.

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A cutaway drawing of Sir Nigel Gresley’s Class A4 Pacific 4468 locomotive Mallard, revealing the all-important furnace and coal store. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Gresley had been responsible for the A1 Flying Scotsman, the first loco officially to reach 100mph in 1934, after which he soon introduced his A4 Pacifics to the East Coast mainline running between King’s Cross and Edinburgh. The A4s had sleek, streamlined profiles that seemed like the essence of modernity in 1930s Britain. By the time the A4 Pacific No 4468 Mallard emerged from the LNER’s Doncaster works in the summer of 1938, a British record for steam of 114mph had been passed by a German engine, which had reached 124.5mph, and Gresley was keen to get the record back.

On July 3, 1938, Mallard, painted a shade of garter blue similar to the cars of Gresley’s motor-racing pal Ettore Bugatti, was set to make a brake-testing run from King’s Cross to Grantham. Gresley handpicked the crew, including experienced 62-year-old driver Joe Duddington, never a man to refuse a challenge; burly fireman Tommy Bray to shovel on the coals; and inspector Sid Jenkins on the footplate.

He authorised them to have a go at the record, but did not tell the members of a speed-recording dynamometer car, which was attached to Mallard together with six coaches, until the train left on her northbound journey.

“I accelerated up the bank to Stoke Summit and passed Stoke box at 85. Once over the top I gave Mallard ’er ’ead and she jumped to it like a live thing… Then 108, 109, 110. “Go on old girl,” I thought, “we can do better than this”… and in the next mile and a quarter the needle crept up further… 24, 125 and then for a quarter for a quarter of a mile… 126! 126? That was the fastest a steam locomotive had ever been driven in the world! “— Joe Duddington (in the middle above, with Bray on the left) on his record-breaking drive.

With several brake tests duly conducted, it wasn’t until the train had reached Grantham and turned around at Barkston Junction that the attempt on the record was made on a fast section of track. Passing Little Bytham, on the Stoke Bank descent, the dynamometer car recorded 120mph for five miles. Further acceleration pushed the speed up to 125mph (attaining a peak speed of 126mph for less than a mile) before the Essendine junction required the driver to slow down.

Make sure to look out for the sign that marks Mallard’s record when riding the East Coast Main Line through Lincolnshire.

Mallard had to stop at Peterborough for repairs, but it was here that the crew posed for a famous photograph, their place in railway history booked with a steam-engine speed record that has never been surpassed.

Last year, the Friends of Hyde Park Cemetery, Doncaster, South Yorkshire, raised £5,000 for a headstone for Duddington, who was buried in an unmarked grave after his death in 1953. A plaque on the grave also commemorated Bray.

The Flying Scotsman: Sir Nigel Gresley’s first masterpiece

The Flying Scotsman locomotive is seen with ‘The Christmas Dalesman’ steam special at Selside near Horton-in-Ribblesdale in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Gresley was already an accomplished railway veteran and knight of the realm by the time Mallard entered the record books. Growing up in Netherseal, Derbyshire, he began as an apprentice for the London and North Western Railway at Crewe, Cheshire. He rose to become chief mechanical engineer of the Great Northern Railway, a position he maintained at the LNER, operational from 1923. Gresley was central to the latter’s battle with the London, Midland & Scottish Railway to provide the fastest rail service between London and Edinburgh.

His A1 class Flying Scotsman was introduced in 1923. Within five years, fitted with a corridor enabling a new crew to take over without interrupting the train’s progress, it made the first ever nonstop run between the two cities, reducing the journey time to eight hours. Then, in 1934, came the historic moment when it clocked 100mph on a special test run. Although the Great Western Railway had claimed to have broken the 100mph mark with the City of Truro steam loco as far back as 1904, the accuracy of this was unverified. The Flying Scotsman, modified to become a Class A3 train in 1947, ran until 1963, retiring the same year as Mallard, by which time the high-speed steam locomotive was an anachronism.