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The Fast Duck

Mallard’s speed record and what happened to Driver Duddington and fireman Bray. . . . . . .

If you live in York, as I do, the time comes, sooner or later, when a trip to London is called for. There’s basically a choice – train to Kings Cross or car along the A1 and A1(M). In either case, railway folk are always drawn to the story of Mallard’s record breaking run on 3rd July 1938. I hesitate to dig deep into a story that has been told many times but I have to say that, south of Doncaster, the mind drifts into past railway glories (though not too much if I’m driving). As the miles pass I see those signs pointing you off the

A1 and up side roads to reach places familiar as timing points on the main line. There’s Sutton bank, but also small villages like Claypole and Werrington, not to mention bigger towns like Grantham and Retford.

3rd June 1938: Fireman T H Bray on the left and next to him Driver R J Duddington who made history by driving the LNER locomotive 'Mallard' at 125mph. They are in the dynamometer car at Kings Cross station, London studying the instruments which recorded the record-breaking feat. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

I can see it now. Mallard crests the summit at Sutton and starts the descent of Stoke bank, gathering speed. Driver Joe Duddington, not a man to shy away from a challenge, lets the locomotive have her way, nodded to by inspector Sid Jenkins. Fireman Tommy Bray shovels coal quickly into the firey jaws of the locomotive. There are plenty of stories of the run, of that top speed (126 mph (?) or was it, perhaps, a slip of the recorder on the graph paper? Did it really happen?). I like to imagine the sheer sound of it all, the heat blast when Tommy opens the fire doors, the roar, Joe, leaning against the sight glass of the driver’s window, flat cap turned backwards in his trademark style. This is it, suddenly, the big one!

Sir Nigel Gresley (1876-1941) was the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London and North Eastern Railway.

Passing through Werrington as Joe eased off the regulator, a passer by was waiting at the crossing gates for the train to pass. ‘I knew something funny was going on,’ she is supposed to have said. ‘The train was very noisy and very fast. It was gone past us in a flash.’ It was a secret, of course, nobody thought it was that exciting, even if you saw it at Werrington Crossing. ‘Never thought about it afterwards. We just got on the bus to Peterborough.’

Video: Courtesy BBC News Magnificent Mallard World #039

Coming down Sutton Bank at speed was no laughing matter. Harry Walker, remembering his time with the locomotive trails of 1948, was in the dynamometer car behind LMS Coronation Class ‘City of Birmingham’. The pilot didn’t alert the driver to the speed check on the up line at at Peterborough and the locomotive nearly left the track. ‘’We went back afterwards and I could see the tyre marks rising up the inside of the rail…’ Hearts in the mouth stuff, then, and that was just in the dynamometer car.

Mallard, July 3, 1938, from left, fireman Thomas Bray, driver Joe Duddington, Sam Jenkins from LNER and guard Henry Croucher. (Picture credit: National Railway Museum/SSPL).

It wasn’t a secret for long. And there is that photograph, of Tommy and Joe and Sid and a few others on the platform in front of Mallard, smiling (sort of), a mixture of pride and perhaps astonishment and pride at what they had done. It’s priceless, a moment in railway history time, never to be forgotten. The record had been snatched from the Germans, a prestige matter. One German writer noted ‘that only the British would name a record breaking steam locomotive after a duck.’

As I am sure you all know, Sir Nigel Gresley, Mallard’s designer, died young in 1942. He is buried in a plot near the church at the family seat of Netherseal, Derbyshire. It’s been restored by the Gresley Society and is well worth a look, just a few metres off the National Forest Way long distance footpath.

Image: Courtesy Doncaster Free Press

The same recognition wasn’t afforded to Joe or Tommy. Joe was buried in an unmarked grave in Hyde Park cemetery, Doncaster, but, after a determined campaign, he was located and his grave restored. Tommy now has a memorial too. Mallard’s memorial is itself, sitting proudly in the Great Hall of the NRM. It’s a legend, I suppose, and like all legends there’s always that whiff of imagination when you look at it – ‘what was it really like?’

The A1 passes on, approaching Peterborough and turning into a 6 lane highway before picking up again south, that familiar route – Huntingdon, Sandy, Hitchin - but, by then, Mallard had done her bit and history made. The road is pretty empty today. I wonder if my car might just break that record? No, better not……..

Mallard’s story and the research behind it, is here

The campaign to mark Joe Duddington’s grave is told by the Doncaster Free Press here


John Swanick

Steve Davies, the NRM Director at the time, decided that to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Mallard’s record run, all six surviving A4s should come together for the ‘Great Gathering’. This amazing achievement generated huge attendance at the NRM and Shildon and the Friends had a sales stand at both sites. We published a book about Gresley’s A4 Class, and for the 16 days of the initial exhibition at York, open 10am to 6pm, we sold a book every two minutes, that’s almost 4000 copies! As in 1988, when Mallard 88 generated a large income from ticket sales, Mallard 75 did the same, which helped the Friends’ funds having earlier donated a large sum for the restoration of two of the Gresley A4s in the event.

Have a look at Friends book shop here

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