Britain of the early 1930s was a depressing place; the economy had deteriorated since the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and many of the traditional staple industries were struggling to survive. Railways were not immune from this but there were glimmers of hope — most notably in the development of high-profile streamlined services, most notably in Germany.
Nigel Gresley had experienced the success of the new ‘Flying Hamburger’ services in Germany during a visit in 1933 and he believed that there was potential to introduce high-speed railway travel to Britain. Whilst the ‘Flying Hamburger’ was diesel powered, to Gresley steam remained more likely to succeed. There were a number of reasons for this, but the most pertinent was the fact that Britain was an island built on coal whilst the oil required to produce diesel had to be imported — and imported fuel was something that the British economy could ill afford. There were also issues over capacity and the provision of non-standard equipment.
As a result Gresley experimented with one of his earlier ‘A3’ Pacifics, No 2750 Papyrus, which achieved a speed of 108mph and was able to do the journey between London King’s Cross and Newcastle in four hours. As a result, the then general manager of the LNER, Ralph Wedgwood, authorised the construction of the first four of the new ‘A4’ class for the launch of the new ‘Silver Jubilee’ express, which was named in honour of the silver jubilee of King George V that was celebrated in 1935. The first four locomotives — Nos 2509-12 — were all delivered between September and December 1935 at the rate of one a month. Named Silver Link, Quicksilver, Silver King and Silver Fox respectively, the names were all redolent of the new ‘Silver Jubilee’ service. The success of the new service resulted in authorisation for the construction of further locomotives and the introduction of new high-speed services such as the ‘Coronation’ (from London to Edinburgh) in July 1937 and the ‘West Riding Limited’ (from London to Leeds and Bradford) in November the same year. The first of the next batch of ‘A4s’, No 4482 Golden Eagle was delivered in December 1936 with the last, No 4903 Peregrine entering service in July 1938. In all, 35 locomotives were built: Nos 2509-12, 4462-69, 4482-500 and 4900-03.
The new locomotives received names. A number received names of birds — such as No 4468 Mallard — whilst five were named after constituent parts of the British Empire for the ‘Coronation’ service. Two — Nos 4495/96 — received names relevant to the woollen industry, of which Bradford was at the time the world’s centre of the trade, being called Golden Fleece and Golden Shuttle. No 4498, being the 100th Gresley Pacific constructed, was named in honour of the class’s designer. This led to a number of other locomotives in the class being renamed after those involved with the LNER or other famous individuals; thus, for example. No 4469 Gadwall was renamed Sir Ralph Wedgwood in March 1939. This was a process that continued through to the postwar years, with No 4496 Golden Shuttle being renamed Dwight D. Eisenhower in September 1945 in honour of the American supreme commander that oversaw the successful D-Day invasion of June 1944 and the liberation of France and the Low Countries.
When built the locomotives were fully streamlined with side valancing; this was designed by Oliver Bulleid (who was Gresley’s assistant before moving to the Southern Railway. The valancing was removed during World War 2 to improve access to the valve gear during maintenance and never restored. The first locomotives were also constructed with single chimneys; in March 1938 No 4468 Mallard was delivered with a Kylchap double chimney as an experiment. This was to prove a considerable success with the final three locomotives — Nos 4901-03 — being fitted with Kylchap double chimneys from new. The remaining 30 members of the class were retrofitted with double chimneys during the 1950s under British Railways.
It was on 3 July 1938 that No 4468 Mallard achieved its world record of a speed of 126mph for a steam locomotive, thus beating the record of 124.5mph held by the Germans. Whilst the circumstances of the two records runs were different — level track as opposed to a downhill gradient; different weights of train; a PWS for No 4468 just before the record run, etc — those involved with the ‘A4s’ believed that No 4468 would have been capable of hitting a higher speed if circumstances had permitted. Unfortunately, a further attempt at the record was thwarted as a result of World War 2.
Just as the war prevented Gresley from attempting a further record run, the conflict was also to see the destruction of one of the class when, on 29 April 1942 No 4469 Sir Ralph Wedgwood was destroyed in York station during a raid by the Luftwaffe. As part of the LNER’s renumbering scheme, the 34 surviving locomotives were renumber 1-34 and thus became Nos 60001-34 at Nationalisation in 1948.
During the 1950s, the class continued to ply its trade on the traditional East Coast main line routes to the West Riding of Yorkshire, to the north-east of England and to Scotland but, as the decade wore on and as British Railways’ policy was for dieselisation, the class’s future became less secure. The main line services from King’s Cross were destined to be dieselised relatively early, with the arrival of the ‘Deltic’ class diesel-electrics and the first withdrawals occurred in December 1962 when five of the class — Nos 6003/14/28/30/33 — were taken out of service. However, there was to be an Indian Summer for a number of the class; a number were based in Scotland where they operated fast services between Glasgow and Aberdeen. The last six to remain in service, all based in Scotland, were Nos 60004/07/09/19/24/34 with the last two — Nos 60019 Bittern and 60024 Kingfisher — finally being withdrawn in September 1966.
In all six of the class survive in preservation. There are two in North America — No 60008 Dwight D. Eisenhower that is on static display at the National Railroad Museum, Green Bay, Wisconsin and No 60010 Dominion of Canada, which is on static display at the Canadian Railway Museum — and four in the UK. No 60007 Sir Nigel Gresley is currently based on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. No 60009 Union of South Africa is owned by John Cameron and is based in Scotland. No 60019 Bittern, owned by Jeremy Hosking, is currently in LNER garter blue livery on the Mid-Hants Railway, Lastly, No 60022 Mallard, perhaps the most famous of all, is now on static display at the National Railway Museum. Nos 60007 and 60009 and currently approved for main line use.