Sir Nigel Gresley was one of the leading British locomotive designers of the age of steam. A mechanical engineer of great skill, he also had the imagination and boldness to innovate, a flair to organise and to lead, an artist’s eye for line and proportion, and a touch of showmanship.
He first made his mark designing carriages for the Great Northern Railway. His designs were stylish and modern, and when in 1911 the post of Locomotive Superintendent fell vacant Gresley, though still quite young for so senior a post, was appointed. He was now in charge of the running, repair and maintenance of all of the railway’s locomotives and rolling stock, and of all new design. He produced a range of successful, modern locomotives. The most impressive was the massive, graceful ‘Pacific’ which was unveiled in 1922. Gresley, as its creator, was a rising star. On 1st January 1923 the Great Northern Railway was merged with several others to form the London and North Eastern Railway. Gresley was appointed its Chief Mechanical Engineer, the post he held until his death in 1941.
He designed railway vehicles of all kinds and functions, but it was his Pacifics above all which made his reputation. The first entered service in 1922; over the next 13 years he refined the design, which reached its zenith with the streamlined ‘A4’s ~ one of which set the still unbroken speed record for steam.
Gresley’s Pacifics were always crowd-pullers; big, fast, elegant, they caught the public’s eye and the attention of the media. There were other spectacular designs too, such as the puissant P2 ‘Mikados’, built for speed and power over the demanding main lines of Scotland, and the revolutionary No. 10,000, an attempt to adapt the marine water-tube boiler for railway use ~ not very successful, but a brave experiment, and it attracted much attention. In addition, Gresley was active in the engineering institutions, he served on government committees, he undertook consultancy work for the government. By the early 1930s he was at the top of his profession, while his renown amongst enthusiasts had become iconic.