The Rev Wilbert Awdry - Thomas the Tank Engine's Creator - Dies at 85

By David Wilcock   [Steam Railway - June 1997]

Rev. Awdry Railway Modeller Dec. 1959
The Rev Wilbert Awdry "controlling" Thomas on the Ffarquhar Branch in Railway Modeller, December 1959.

The Rev Wilbert Awdry - the clergyman who created 'Thomas the Tank Engine' and in so doing invoked an affection for railways among millions of children - died from bronchial pneumonia at his Rodborough, Stroud, home on Friday March 21. He was 85. Frail and bed-ridden for some time, he had been suffering from the bone-wasting disease, osteoporosis. Funeral services were held at Gloucester Crematorium and Rodborough Parish Church on March 26, but a national memorial service in his honour may be held this summer, the date and venue to be announced.

The war against Hitler was still in full spate on the day in 1943 when Wilbert Awdry settled down at the bedside of his two-year-old son Christopher - then ill with 'the measles' - to tell him a story, and drew from his imagination the tales of Edward, Henry and Gordon, three steam engines which, readers were later to learn, hailed from his fantasy 'Island of Sodor'. The stories were written down, simply because the young Christopher demanded to hear them again and again, and was fiercely alert to any inconsistencies his father made in the re-telling. Wilbert's wife Margaret, sensing that the stories could have a wider appeal, sent the scribbled words to a literary agent, and in 1945, the very first book, The Three Railway Engines, was published. It had a print run of 22,500 copies, and sold for two shillings (10p) - a quite expensive sum then, but reflecting the problems of paper supply through the war years.'Thomas the Tank Engine' - the latterday hero engine - didn't actually make his public debut until the second book.

Awdry Memorial Stained Glass Window in Stroud Thomas the Tank Engine depicted in a stained-glass window at the Rodborough Church in Rodborough, Stroud, where the Rev. Wilbert Awdry lived from 1965 until his death in 1997. The Reverend holds the shed door open.

No-one - and certainly not Wilbert Awdry himself - could ever have dreamed then of the impact that his imaginary 'engines with faces' would one day have on the wider world, leading in the 1980s to the purchase of the 'Thomas' franchising rights from the publishers by Britt Allcroft, the subsequent creation of an animated children's television series (narrated by Ringo Starr), and a multi-million pound product industry selling'Thomas' items as diverse as wallpaper and windmills, toothpaste and transfers.

It was a commercial success without parallel. Between 1943 and 1972, Wilbert Awdry wrote 26 books in the'Railway Series' - diversifying away from the engines of Sodor to pick up on aspects of the railway preservation world in which he had a particular interest. An early supporter of the Talyllyn Railway which he joined in 1951, he portrayed the TR as the 'Skarloey Railway', making celebrities of the two ex-Corris Railway 0-4-2Ts Sir Haydn (which he depicted as Sir Handel, and Edward Thomas (which became Peter Sam).

The former Stroudley AIX 'Terrier' 0-6-0T No. 55 was immortalised as Stepney the Bluebell Engine, and he even 'reincarnated' something of the Wisbech & Upwell Tramway in his creation of Toby the Tram Engine, the idea evolving from an August 1951 encounter with 'J70' 0-6-0T No. 68219 on the quayside at Great Yarmouth.

In the late Rev.Teddy Boston, creator of the famous 'railway around the rectory' at Cadeby, Leicestershire, Wilbert Awdry found a kindred spirit. The two shared many railway holidays together, and Awdry cemented their great friendship with storyline roles for Teddy Boston - alias'the Fat Clergyman', and himself -'the Thin Clergyman' in his book Small Railway Engines, which focused on a holiday at the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway.

George and Wilbert Awdry
Wilbert and George Awdry. Wilbert's brother George was involved in writing the History of Sodor, and was also close to the Rev Teddy Boston

Translated into Japanese, German, Norwegian, Scots Gaelic and even Welsh, Wilbert Awdry's 'Railway Series', and the 14 books subsequently added by son Christopher, have now sold approaching 50 million copies. Many, scribbled upon or literally loved to pieces by small children, have been bought several times over by the same families.

Awdry study at the Narrow Gauge Museum at Tywyn, Wales
The Rev Wilbert's typewriter and spectacles in the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum at Tywyn, Wales. Photo by Martin Clutterbuck

Wilbert Awdry's own railway knowledge was cultivated by his father, who had shown him how to use a telescope to spot trains on the GWR main line from the family home at Box, near Bath. Seeds that were to bloom many years later in the Thomas books were sown as the young Wilbert lay in bed at night, listening to the sound of heavy freights "puffing" their way up the 1-in-120 gradient to Box tunnel, the exhaust beat seeming to say to him "I can't do it, I can't do it", and then, as the summit came closer, "I think I can, I think I can". In the priesthood, Awdry was a curate first at Odiham, Hampshire, then at West Lavington, Wiltshire and finally at Kings Norton, Birmingham, where the first book was written. Promotion saw him become Minister at Elsworth, near Cambridge, and then at Emneth, near Wisbech, from where in 1965 he went into semi-retirement and moved to Rodborough, near Stroud. He wrote his last 'Railway Series' title, Tramway Engines in 1972, but continued to author a number of 'serious' railway books.

Rev. W. Awdry Electric Loco No. 91 124 named in 1995.
ECML Cl 91 electric locomotive No. 91 124, named in 1995.

There was always an authentic thread running through his 'Railway Series' - engines never ran 'wrong line' or propelled their passenger coaches, for example - and Awdry was unhappy at some of the storylines adopted by Britt Allcroft for the television and video adventures of'Thomas' and friends, because they betrayed a certain lack of railway knowledge. One episode depicted 'Henry the Green Engine' in a fearsome plight, which, Awdry contended, would never have happened if Rule 55 - the rule which requires train crews to remind the signalman of their presence if held at a signal for more than two minutes - had been known and understood by the film-makers. It was suggested on several occasions that while Britt Allcroft got very rich on the proceeds of 'Thomas', Awdry received only very modest royalties. But some of the figures quoted were much exaggerated, and in fact he was quite content at what he earned from his books. 'Thomas' and company became politically controversial. Once, because of references to 'sooty black engines', Awdry was accused of racism. On another occasion, his choice of 'male' engines as his storybook heroes and his casting of carriages as either passive or argumentative females, brought the charge of sexual stereotyping. Such criticism however was only further evidence of the international influence that his stories achieved - an influence which continues today, more than 50 years after the first story was written - in a welter of 'Thomas' or 'Friends of Thomas' gala events at steam railways throughout Britain. No other medium has more effectively bridged the generation gap between the steam and 'modern railway' eras.

Wilbert Awdry's wife Margaret pre-deceased him in 1989. He is survived by son Christopher and daughters Veronica and Hilary.

The Awdrys depicted by C. Reginald Dalby
The young Rev Wilbert Awdry, wife Margaret and children are here depicted by C. Reginald Dalby in a scene from Troublesome Engines (1950).

(Originally downloaded from http://salisburypoint.tnsing.com/sp/history/1945_thomas/thomas.html. Link is now dead)

Epilogue: The Awdry Study

A lasting memorial to the life and work of the Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry, OBE, part of the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum in Tywyn, on the Wharf Station of the Reverend Wilbert's beloved Talyllyn Railway. Please read a more detailed description of it on Christopher Awdry's Web site here.

Awdry study  door at the Narrow Gauge Museum at Tywyn, Wales Awdry study bookshelf at the Narrow Gauge Museum at Tywyn, Wales

Please view our Tribute Page to the Rev W Awdry here.