Mallard 75: The journey of a legendary locomotive in York

By Catherine Farrell | 25 April 2013

This week marks 50 years since the withdrawal of locomotive legend Mallard from mainline service.

A black and white photo of railwaymen standing next to a locomotive in the 1930s
© National Railway Museum pictorial collection
The mighty blue machine, designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, became a British icon when it raced into the record books on July 3 1938, reaching 126 mph on a downwards slope on the East Coast mainline near Grantham.

This summer the world’s fastest locomotive, will be the focus of the National Railway Museum’s Mallard 75’ season, celebrating a British marker on the global history timeline. But it was just one of a fleet of 35 A4 class locomotives, that were the glamorous streamlined “racehorses” of Britain’s railway.

From the thirties to the sixties, Mallard and its sister locos hauled express trains on the East Coast Main Line including the luxury Silver Jubilee train from the capital to the Newcastle.

Designed in celebration of King George V’s Silver Jubilee, Britain’s first streamlined train was introduced in September 1935 and it cut the journey between the cities to just four hours. One writer at the time said the new service, which was a great commercial success, meant that the capital had “became a suburb of Newcastle”.

A black and white photo of the inside of an elegant steam train carriage in the 1930s
On board the Silver Jubilee© National Railway Museum pictorial collection
It was certainly an eye-catcher. The seven streamlined carriages featured a fashionable, art-deco interior of chrome and blue and two restaurant cars provided hot meals and drinks for the passengers, which often included the celebrities of the day.

LNER’s high speed trains also compared favourably with the German diesel train, the Flying Hamburger, which was at the time the world’s fastest scheduled service. It ran between Hamburg to Berlin from 1933 but only offered a cold buffet to its passengers.

Yet despite the A4’s success and popularity, from the 1950s onwards the writing was on the wall for steam locomotives. The BR modernisation plan aimed to end steam hauled trains, and by 1968 the last regular scheduled steam trains ran on BR.

On August 11 1968 the country said an emotional farewell to steam on Britain’s railways with BR’s very last official steam hauled train, The Fifteen Guinea Special.

A black and white photo of the inside of an industrial railway warehouse in the 1930s
Class A4 No. 60022 Mallard, formerly London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) No. 4468, stripped in 4-bay undergoing repair at Doncaster Works (1963)© National Railway Museum pictorial collection
This development had been foreseen by Gresley years earlier when he reminded the Institute of Locomotive Engineers that “we are not the Institute of Steam Locomotive engineers”. He went on to warn that “we must turn our attention to electric locomotives if the steam locomotive is to be superseded”.

The final design Gresley signed his name to before his death in 1941 was an electric locomotive and one of the LNER’s premium apprentices, at Doncaster from 1929, was Terry Miller – the father of the diesel High Speed train.

The advent of diesel meant that even the A3 Flying Scotsman was destined for the scrap heap before being bought privately. Since 2004 it has been part of the national collection – a fate that also awaited Gresley’s most famous A4.

“As the world record holder for steam locomotives, Mallard was earmarked for preservation,” explains Bob Gwynne, the Associate Curator of Railway Vehicles at the NRM. “As the record breaker, Mallard would have been treated with the dignity that befitted its world-famous status.

A black and white photo of steam trains on a track during the 1930s
Derelict locomotives at Barry, Cardiff, by Selwyn Pearce-Higgins (1977)© National Railway Museum pictorial collection
“It had already been decided that it would be part of the National Collection, so before its last journey it would have been made to look its best.”

Upon withdrawal Mallard was returned to the place it was built – Doncaster Works – and the process began to restore it back to its 1938 garter blue livery and condition, ready for preservation as the locomotive that broke the world speed record for steam.

Mallard’s sister locomotives – including the first to be made, Silver Link – were not so fortunate, and only six survive today. The zeitgeist at the time was that steam was a thing of the past and the railways needed to move on.

Steam locomotives including the A4s were being withdrawn in droves, returning to whatever shed they came from to wait to be towed to privately run scrap yards. The car industry was booming, there was a motorway building programme

Minister for Transport Ernest Marples opened the M1 motorway in 1963 using his celebratory speech to suggest that it signalled a “new, exciting scientific era”.

A photo of a bygone steam train being hauled into place
Dominion of Canada arrives at Halifax© Courtesy National Railroad Museum / Exporail
There was no national railway museum at that stage and The National Railway Museum in York didn’t exist until 1975.

“When they earmarked a locomotive for preservation there was the big question of where to put them, ” says Gwynne.  John Scoles, who ran the Museum of British Transport at Clapham, wanted to save more locomotives for posterity. But the BR board refused to allow any more.

At that time it was only intervention from steam locomotive lovers that saved them for the world. Alan Pegler stepped in to buy Flying Scotsman, which is now owned by the National Railway Museum.

Some locos which had historical importance were scrapped simply because, as state assets, they had to be sold for the same price as they would for scrap, which was beyond the means of many.

A black and white photo of a steam train being assembled
Dwight D Eisenhower arrives in New York (1964)© Courtesy National Railroad Museum / Exporail
Dominion of Canada, one of Mallard’s sister A4 locomotives, was withdrawn on May 29 1965, and just five weeks later was marked in Darlington’s records as “for sale to be scrapped”.

Condemned, with its chimney removed, it ended up behind Darlington motive power depot for 15 months. Upon the depot's closure in 1966, the Canadian people intervened and BR decided to donate it to the Canadian Railroad Historical Association, who had asked for it.

The loco was cosmetically restored at Crewe and shipped to Halifax Nova Scotia, where it was welcomed in a ceremony involving the Canadian High Commissioner.

Another A4, Dwight D Eisenhower, was earmarked to go to Southampton to be shipped to the US to be displayed at their new National Railroad Museum in Green Bay Wisconsin.

A photo of two historic trains under a blue sky
The Locomotives arrive at the Port of Liverpool Seaforth Docks. Ant Clausen© National Railway Museum pictorial collection
It was cosmetically restored at Doncaster Works in 1963 before being shipped to New York Harbour in the Spring, arriving on May 11 1964, when it was transported by rail to the Museum.

Now these three great surviving locomotives are being reunited. The two North American A4’s have been loaned to the National Railway Museum for two years for Mallard 75, the NRM’s celebration of the 75th anniversary of Mallard breaking the world speed record.

The centrepiece of the celebrations will be the Great Gathering – a spectacular fortnight family reunion on July 3 which will see Mallard and her five surviving sister A4 Pacific Class locomotives gathered together around the Great Hall turntable in the National Railway Museum in York – a sight never seen before.

“It was their names that meant that they were given to the American and Canadian people as a ‘fraternal gift’ and this is what ultimately saved them from the scrap yard,” concludes Gwynne.

A photo of two historic steam trains inside a museum
Dwight D Eisenhower and Mallard in the Great Hall at the National Railway Museum© Courtesy National Railroad Museum / Exporail
“Without these nations’ willingness to give the locomotives a home they would have been scrapped without question. It is easy to look at the past with rose-tinted spectacles but Britain in the sixties was a whole different world and modernisation rather than preservation was a priority for Britain’s railway.

“After our Mallard 75 celebrations across the UK they will get back two cosmetically restored locomotives that will be even more cherished. In Green Bay, Dwight will be the centre of a new exhibition and in Montreal visitors will be able to walk underneath Dominion of Canada.”

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