The Blue Plaque at The Old Rectory, Netherseal
commemorating Sir Nigel Gresley
This article is taken from a speech by Sir Nigel Gresley's
grandson, Tim Godfrey, at the ceremony for the unveiling of a Derbyshire County
Council blue plaque on the wall of The Old Rectory where Sir Nigel grew up with
his parents, Rev. Nigel Gresley and Joanna Beatrice Gresley, who are buried
with another ten Gresleys in the burial ground near the Village Hall. There are
a further four Gresley graves at the back of the church.
The four earliest children of Rev. Nigel and Joanna Gresley
were all born at Netherseal and had arrived at intervals of a year or two as
was frequently the case in those Victorian days. Joanna no doubt expected to
have other children after Nigel Bowyer who was born in 1870. However,
difficulties may have ensued as her fifth child was not born until six years
later - and not in Netherseal but in Edinburgh. Tim Godfrey's mother's memoirs
state that her father was a sixth child, so Joanna may have had a miscarriage
or there may have been an infant that did not survive. In either case, it would
not have been named or shown in the baptismal records of St Peter's church. His
mother was not in good health and she went to Edinburgh to see an eminent woman
specialist and stayed with her until the birth under her care. She nearly died
giving birth and the doctors fought successfully to save her life, almost
forgetting the tiny premature baby lying at the end of the bed. Happily, he
survived and flourished, and grew up to be a strong child.
His first experience of train travel was when he was only a few
days old, back home to Netherseal in Derbyshire. Maybe that was when he started
his love of railways! At the age of four he said that his ambition was to be an
engine driver and work on the railways. Therefore, he was one of those
fortunate people whose life's work was his greatest interest. This must have
given him countless hours of pleasure.
He was named Herbert Nigel, the first name after Sir Herbert
Oakley who wrote some of our hymns. He was Nigel's Godfather. The second name
was a family name and all the Gresley sons seemed to be called Nigel as one of
their names. He was always referred to as our "Master Herbert" until one day, a
family friend looked into the nursery and asked what he was called and back
came the reply, "I am Tiny Tim!" From then on, family and friends knew him as
"Tim". It appealed to his sense of humour where, many years later,
acquaintances wanting to claim great friendship with the famous man were heard
to say "Oh, Nigel's a great chap" or "Nigel and I have been friends for years"
- which only proved how little they knew him!
Nigel's prep school was Barham House in St Leonards and in
September 1890 he went on to Marlborough College. In his last term he won the
Science prize, having earlier distinguished himself in chemistry and German. He
left in July 1893, he was 17, preparing to take up a practical training rather
than stay in the sixth form and go up to university.
His decision to pursue a career in engineering was possibly
encouraged by his science-minded father, but it was undoubtedly fostered at
Marlborough where he has a permanent memorial in the College Chapel. He became
an apprentice under Francis Webb at Crewe and was subsequently taken on at
Horwich as a pupil by John Aspinall, chief mechanical engineer of the
Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (who in 1899 was promoted to be General
Within seven years, Nigel Gresley became Carriage and Wagon
Superintendent of Great Northern Railway rising from pupil to assistant Chief
Officer. Mr Gresley's rapid progress up the ladder of success was doubtless due
to his gift of leadership being compatible with his engineering skills.
His predecessor, Frank Howlden, had enjoyed a distinguished
career on the GNR, occupying the position since January 1877, when his
successor was only a 7-month-old baby in the nursery at Netherseal!
It was during a spell as locomotive foreman at Blackpool in
1899 that Mr Gresley met the lady who was later to become his wife, Miss Ethel
Frances Fullagar. She lived a short way along the coast at St Anne's. The
couple married in 1901 and set up house in Newton Heath, three miles from
Manchester where two of their children, Nigel and Violet, were born.
The family moved to Doncaster in 1905 because Mr Gresley had
been offered the senior post of Carriage and Wagon Superintendent of the Great
Northern at the tender age of 29. Later, upon the retirement of Henry A. Ivatt
from the post in 1911, further promotion followed, to that of Locomotive
During his time at Doncaster another son and daughter were
born, Roger and Marjorie. The Gresleys were very devoted parents, always
spending holidays with their four happy children each year, either at Braemar
in Aberdeenshire or at Sheringham in Norfolk. The family lived in three
locations in Doncaster and in recent times the Doncaster Corporation invited
the townspeople to vote on a name for the large square which was now in front
of the huge civic offices that they are building. The Doncaster residents
overwhelmingly voted for the name "Sir Nigel Gresley Square".
One January, Mr Gresley went to stay with his mother, Joanna,
at Turnditch near Belper in Derbyshire and he and his brother, who was visiting
from Canada, went rook shooting. While climbing over a hedge of the common
sloe, he got a thorn deep in his leg. His brother dug it out with his pipe
knife but the wound very soon turned to poison. This septicaemia made him
seriously ill for some weeks, being eventually cleaned by leeches sucking the
poison out. The Gresleys convalesced in Bournemouth and for a long time Mr
Gresley had a pad fixed inside the well of his desk in case he knocked his
During the 1st World War he gave valuable service for the
country when Doncaster works was largely engaged in making munitions for the
war effort. He was made a Lieutenant Colonel in the Engineer and Railway Staff
Corps. In appreciation of this war effort he was awarded the CBE in January
In 1911 upon the retirement of Mr Henry A. Ivatt from the post
of Locomotive Engineer for the Great Northern, a post he had held since 1896
when he made it known to the G N Board that he intended to retire on his 60th
birthday on 16th September 1911. There can be no doubt that he made his plans
with the full knowledge that the succession was assured and that he would be
followed as Locomotive Engineer by Nigel Gresley. The post was not advertised
and Gresley assumed responsibility on 1st October 1911, Ivatt postponing his
retirement until the end of the year to ease the changeover. Gresley was only
35 years old.
In 1929, Mrs Gresley had to undergo a serious operation at the
family home. Afterwards, the surgeon told her husband that the illness was
terminal, there was no hope of his wife's recovery. Mrs Gresley was never told,
so for months Gresley had this great ordeal to endure. Ethel Frances Gresley
died in August, being buried at Netherseal, her husband's boyhood home. She was
only 54. Gresley was devastated and some say that he never really recovered.
They enjoyed a very happy married life. His daughter Vi stepped into the role
of the hostess and devoted companion and accompanied him on future business and
The strain of that summer had aged Nigel Gresley considerably,
so to recover from his great loss he went to Canada, accompanied by his
daughter, where he hoped the high, bracing air of the Rocky Mountains would
give him the tonic he needed.
On his return from Canada, Mr Gresley lived with his family in
a flat in London for a year, but his love for the country was predominant.
Eventually he moved to Salisbury Hall near St Albans, an Elizabethan residence
surrounded by a moat. Here he could enjoy one of his favourite hobbies, that of
keeping and collecting many species of British wild duck on the moat. After his
eldest daughter married in 1937, he decided to leave Salisbury Hall and lived
with the couple at Watton-at-Stone in Hertfordshire.
Mr Gresley was knighted in 1936 by King Edward VIII.
He received an Hon. Degree of Doctor of Science from the
University of Manchester.
He served as President of the Institution of Mechanical
Engineers and (twice) as President of the Institution of Locomotive
A further accolade was bestowed upon him when the Directors of
the LNER proclaimed that the 100th Pacific Locomotive which was built to his
design, A4 No 4498, was to be named after him. The ceremony was performed by
William Whitelaw, Chairman of the LNER, at Marylebone Station on 26th November
1937 with many of Sir Nigel's team to witness the occasion.
His intense keenness and love of his work never slackened, in
spite of his heart specialist warning him to ease off a good deal, in order to
live long, in 1935. Early in 1941, he was again warned that he would not live
for six months unless he cut down his work to only four days a week, but Sir
Nigel said it was not possible, he could not be seen to slacken his work during
a war, when everyone else was working to their best ability.
Since 1927 Sir Nigel had cherished hopes of a National
Locomotive Testing Plant for the "attainment of increased efficiency." But
those were hard economic times and government help was not forthcoming. He
persevered however, enlisting the support of Sir William Stanier. Eventually
the directors of the LMS and LNER agreed to pool their resources and gave the
go-ahead in 1935 for a plant to be built at Rugby. The outbreak of war in 1939
brought construction to a halt.
Most unhappily Sir Nigel died on 5th April 1941 after a short
illness, but his long-cherished dream did come true on 19th October 1948 when
the plant was officially opened, with two of his family in attendance. The
first locomotive to run onto the test rollers was A4 Pacific "Sir Nigel
Gresley." Surely a most fitting tribute to a great railwayman.
He is buried at Netherseal next to his beloved wife.