The Talented Team Who Designed the World’s Fastest Steam Train | History Hit

The Talented Team Who Designed the World’s Fastest Steam Train

Tim Hillier-Graves

03 Feb 2020
Gresley studying a member of his A4 class on the day it was re-named ‘Dominion of Canada’ in 1937.

In 1945 Paul S Baker, a leading scientist and test pilot with Vought-Sikorsky, was asked to identify who in the company was most responsible for the creation of a particular aircraft. Without a pause he replied,

the day of one-man engineering of major projects is long gone. You might as well print the organisation table of the engineering department.

This very talented man was a leader of unparalleled skill and one who understood the complexities of design in the modern age. One person might lead, but it took a unified team of specialists to truly develop and advance ideas to the point of delivery in any chosen field.

Nigel Gresley and his team

Herbert Nigel Gresley, Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London and North Eastern Railway, who led in building such classic locomotives as Flying Scotsman and Mallard, is just such a case.

He was a man of exceptional talent, but his achievements might have been significantly less without a dedicated and talented team around him – a team now largely forgotten.

When this gifted man was appointed Locomotive Engineer for the Great Northern Railway in 1911, then CME of the LNER in 1923, he demonstrated an unerring knack of picking men of exceptional talent to surround him. In many cases they supported him up to his death in 1941.


Key members of Gresley’s team without whom his achievements would probably have been significantly less. Top row (l to r) – Francis Wintour, Robert Thom and Bert Spencer. Bottom row – Edward Thompson (who succeeded Gresley as CME), Arthur Peppercorn (CME after Thompson) and Oliver Bulleid (who became CME of the Southern Railway in 1937)

These included Francis Wintour, from 1911 to 1927, then Robert Thom as Managers of the prestigious Doncaster Works where Flying Scotsman was built in 1923, followed by the superlative A4 Pacifics between 1935 and 1938.

Then there were the Chief Draughtsmen and their teams. Tom Coleman, the LMS`s talented CD, later referred to these posts as Chief Designers, and this seems a far more accurate description of the work they did.

They, more often than not, took some very broad ideas and developed them to the point at which an advanced fully working locomotive was built. There are four men who can be identified as being CDs at different times during Gresley`s reign – William Elwess, Harry Broughton, Tom Street and Edward Windle.

To each of these men, ably assisted by their teams, fell the task of developing a concept and producing the hundreds of drawings that allowed the workshop to construct each locomotive.

The Drawing Office team at Doncaster as they appeared in 1945. Edward Windle sits front and centre. This group of people were essential to Gresley’s success, often taking sketchy drawings or partly formed ideas and turning them into a working locomotive.

Turning ideas into reality

Gresley also had a small team of technical advisers with him, in his HQ at King’s Cross, who he used as sounding boards to discuss new proposals and produce outline drawings. They could also be his eyes and ears around the organisation and progress chase particular tasks on his behalf.

No leader can be omnipresent and by this method his influence could be assured. And in this role he was lucky enough to have two very gifted engineers – Oliver Bulleid from 1912 and Bert Spencer from the early 1920s – and each served him in different, but sometimes complimentary ways.

But it was the unassuming Spencer who was probably best able to translate and demonstrate Gresley’s ideas effectively, straightening out any apparent shortcomings and adding much detail in the process before the draughtsmen got to work.

There were, of course, many more men and women who contributed to the success of Gresley’s locomotives, not least of all in the workshops and on the footplate. Hundreds played a part.

All their hard work probably best came together in the design and construction of the A4s, with Mallard’s record breaking run on 3 July 1938 being the pinnacle of their achievement. It is an event still celebrated today, but without Thom, Street, Windle and Spencer it might never have happened.


There are six preserved A4s and occasionally one can still be seen running. Here ‘Bittern’ is seen near Westbury capturing the look of Mallard when breaking the world speed record for a steam locomotive.

Constructing the A4

By any standards building the first A4 was a rush job, but one building on years of growing knowledge and experience. Work didn’t begin in earnest until March 1935 following the Board’s agreement to build a new class of locomotive and carriages to meet the increasingly lucrative passenger trade on the East Coast main line.

The prototype of the class was required by September that year, a remarkably short and challenging timescale. To achieve this Gresley and Spencer together pressed ahead with the initial design work.

Spencer did many drawings himself, following long discussions with the CME, and was supported in this by staff in a small drawing office set up at King’s Cross. A tremendous weight of work then fell on Street and Windle and their draughtsmen.

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Such a demanding programme presented a daunting task by any standards, especially when set against all the other work that had to be undertaken in the workshops at Doncaster. And it fell to Robert Thom to mastermind the programme and drive it to a successful conclusion.

Each week he was faced with a myriad number of demands and, judging by the files that remain, he received many notes and phone calls from Gresley seeking updates, making changes or simply offering encouragement and support.

Even with someone of Thom’s undoubted talent and determination it was a tall order, but imperceptibly the project gradually came together and the first two streamlined A4s, Nos 2509 and 2510, gradually progressed along the production line at Doncaster.

A4s, Nos 2509

The Silver Jubilee train leaving King’s Cross on 27 September 1935 on a trial run north during which it attained a record speed of 112 miles per hour (180 km/h).

The reign of the A4 steam train

With a successful and highly publicised ‘press run’ on 27 September under his belt Gresley proceeded with the company’s plan to build 35 locomotives of this class and within three years all were in service.

Testing and assessing is always a part of any engineering project and it proved to be so for the A4s. During 1937 and ’38 there were frequent measured runs with a dynamometer car attached.

One of these proved to be Mallard’s record breaking turn, which probably marked the high spot of Gresley’s career and the culmination of all he and his team had worked so hard and so long to achieve.

The Mallard

Mallard on the day of her world record, a moment in time that has come to define Gresley’s life and work.

With war beckoning the race for speed was largely curtailed, but Gresley and his team still produced some new designs.

Nevertheless, the great days were over and slowly, but surely, this talented team of engineers gradually retired, died or simply departed for pastures new. Whilst Gresley’s place in history is assured, anonymity remains the lot of those who served him so capably.

Tim Hillier-Graves is a retired Royal Navy officer and author who has written extensively about maritime and locomotive history. His book, Gresley and his Locomotives: L & N E R Design History, was published on 6 December 2019 by Pen & Sword publishing.

Gresley and his Locomotives: L & N E R Design History

Tim Hillier-Graves