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 Trials—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 that was the day when Gresley had authorised his team to try and beat the (then) British steam record of 114 mph held by the LMS. Gresley chose experienced driver Joe Duddington, alongside fireman Thomas Bray. The rest of the crew and technical team were only told the true purpose of the run just before the train’s northbound run from Wood Green, North London. The attempt on the record started at Barkston near Grantham, which meant the locomotive would be descending Stoke Bank on the record attempt.
Racing down Stoke Bank, the dynamometer car behind Mallard recorded 120 mph for five miles, which saw off the LMS’s record. However, there was a small window before the crew needed to slow down for the curve at Essendine, so they accelerated even more reaching a peak speed of 125 mph.
Subsequent examination of the dynamometer car record suggested a peak speed of 126 mph, but Gresley declined to mention this as the distance was for less than a mile. At the time the claimed 125mph speed had beaten the world record for steam locomotives established in Germany in May 1935 (a top speed of 124.5 mph). The plaque on the side of Mallard showing the peak speed as 126 mph was fitted to the locomotive after the war.
When the train had braked for the curves at Essendine the force exerted had caused Mallard’s big end bearing to run hot, resulting in the locomotive being removed from the train at Peterborough for repair. However the LNER were masters at press liaison and the speed record still got maximum publicity. Driver Duddington would later record his recollection of the speed record for the BBC in 1944 showing that the 126mph maximum was a well known claim at the time despite Gresley’s reluctance. (Sir Nigel Gresley died in 1941).
Driver Duddington and fireman Bray would carry on working for the LNER, with Duddington retiring in 1944, and Bray becoming a driver after the war.