On 3 July 1938, the A4 class locomotive Mallard raced down Stoke Bank at 126mph to set a new steam locomotive world speed record. That record still stands.
During 2013 and 2014 we marked the 75th anniversary of Mallard’s achievement with the Mallard 75 series of commemorative events, including spectacular opportunities to see the world’s fastest locomotive united with its five surviving sister A4s.
The Great Gathering story in pictures
A short history of Mallard 4468
If Rocket’s claim to fame was its exceptional performance in the Rainhill Trails—leading to the success of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway—then Mallard marked steam traction’s zenith in attaining its world speed record of 126 mph on 3 July 1938.
Built in March 1938, Mallard is part of the A4 class of locomotive designed by Sir Nigel Gresley when he was Chief Engineer at the LNER. Its innovative streamlined wedge-shaped design bore no resemblance to the preceeding A3 class (of which Flying Scotsman was an example) and was very much a product of 1930s Britain. At this time speed was seen as the ultimate symbol of modernity. The A4 class, aesthetically an example of art deco styling, cut the journey time from London King’s Cross to Newcastle to just four hours.
Until the morning of 3 July 1938, the recently built Mallard appeared to be just another member of the LNER’s express locomotive. However, Gresley and his team had been working hard to implement changes with a view to not only beat the (then) British steam record of 114 mph held by the LMS, but also the world record held by Germany’s DRG’s Class 5 locomotive—which had achieved 124.5 mph in 1936. Gresley chose experienced Joe Duddington as Mallard’s driver, alongside fireman Thomas Bray. The rest of the crew and technical team were only told the true purpose of the run after the train’s northbound run from Wood Green, North London.
Racing down Stoke Bank, the dynamometer car behind Mallard recorded 120 mph, which saw off the LMS’s record. However, there was a small window before the crew needed to slow down for the Essendine curves, so they accelerated even more. For a quarter of a mile, the dynamometer car confirmed the train was travelling at 126 mph. Now the German record was also beaten.
It was claimed the train rocked so violently that dining car crockery smashed, and red-hot, bullet-like cinders from the locomotive broke windows at Little Bytham. The force exerted by the brakes being applied caused Mallard’s big end bearing to run hot, and a slow run to Peterborough was needed to prevent Mallard from being written off.
Driver Duddington and fireman Bray received a hero’s welcome in London. But of course they were soon back on the footplate for another ordinary day at work.