The following article, taken from the February, 1994 issue of Model Railway Enthusiast has been posted here with the exclusive permission of their authors. We wish to thank renowned model railway enthusiasts and researchers Pat Hammond and Robert N. Forsythe for permitting us to share it with you.

A friendly reminder that this article is a reflection of what was known and available at the time of its writing. As Robert best describes it: “This was the situation in 1994 and much has happened since.

Though issues of MRE no longer grace magazine store racks, Pat administers an online model railway magazine titled Model Railway Express

Robert also invites you to visit his website, where you can learn more about his work as a transport and industrial age consultant. Robert also sells transportation memorabilia via EBay and SpecialistAuctions.com where he is known as robertatforsythe.

All text/images © Pat Hammond, Robert N. Forsythe unless otherwise stated.

MRE Feb 1994 cover

T  H  O   M   A  S


In 1945 a small book called The Three Railway Engines first appeared. Little was its author, the Rev. W. Awdry, to know the sensation his characters would cause.

In the second of the books Thomas himself made his first appearance, and forty years later he got his own massively popular television show, with ex-Beatle Ringo Starr providing his voice.

The TV series sparked off a huge range of Thomas the Tank Engine merchandise, from lunch boxes to wristwatches.

Not surprisingly, the model railway industry was quick to jump on the Thomas gravy-train. The amount of models available may surprise many modellers, and give the collector a real challenge.

Thomas the Tank Engine
In 1985 Thomas and his friends appeared on television. Director David Mitton's programmes took children's TV by storm, and Thomas helped to rejuvenate children' interest in railways. (Courtesy Britt Allcroft (Thomas) Limited)
                  COMMERCIAL MODELS                  
Robert Forsythe writes: In the last few years, we have become very familiar with Thomas models, whether those used for the television series, or the Hornby Railways and ERTL ranges sold in shops. Yet the idea of a Thomas the Tank Engine model railway set can be dated back to the late 1960s and the very end of the Hornby Gauge 0 system.

By 1966, Hornby with its associated Meccano range was part of the Lines Group and an odd initiative saw the Liverpool company release a last 0 gauge product, a Percy goods train set just as Rovex, another member of the Lines group, released its own ‘Big Big Train’ range in 0.

In the event, Meccano’s offering had a very short life. The plastic construction complete Percy goods train set was powered by clockwork. The trackwork was pretty unconventional but the models were flanged to 0 gauge and could work on ordinary track. Percy was well modelled and he towed two wagons. With him, 0 gauge production from the ‘old’ Hornby ceased.

Even stranger was a ‘French connection’. The set’s appearance in the Hornby ACHO French catalogue of 1969 may well indicate Percy’s British sales were not all they might be. There are some detail differences, the engine is no longer Percy, whose face was replaced by a plain red smokebox and red trim replaced the ‘brasswork’.

Meccano Percy 1966 French faceless Percy
Top Left: Percy was the first of the Rev. W. Awdry's engines to be released as a commercial model. He was the last 0 gauge model ever produced by Meccano/Hornby, in 1966. Top Right: Sadly, Percy the Small engine was not a bigseller in England, and as a result a modified model of a faceless Percy was sold in France to help clear the Percy set. (Courtesy Robert Forsythe/Hornby Railways)

                  HORNBY RAILWAYS                  
The Hornby Railways releases will probably be the models most familiar to model railway enthusiasts. They posess three great attractions, of which the first is the Thomas theme. Secondly, they are very practical, since, being based on standard Hornby products, they are fullt compatible with the rest of the 00 system. That leads to the thrid point. Since many of the models have been produced by more or less subtle alterations of existing models, there is a fascinating model collecting theme.

The models were introduced from 1985, that year’s other theme geing GWR 150 — the anniversary of the founding of the Great Western Railway. In terms of reviving the interest of children in model railways, they have been a runaway success doing much to revive a hobby that was beginning to lose its play value. At various times, Tri-ang and Hornby have marketed children’s ranges which the modellers (and even collectors) of the period tended to ignore. After thirty years or so, those models have become increasingly scarce in mint, boxed form, a phenomenon which may yet happen to the presently immensely popular Thomas range.

Hornby Railways Thomas & Friends
R351 Thomas (electric) 1985 onwards
Formerly the LB&SCR E2 model.
Hornby's basis for Thomas: a LB&SCR Class E2 0-6-0T Hornby Thomas
Top Left: Hornby's Thomas the Tank Engine is in fact based on its model of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway class E2 0-6-0-T, introduced in 1979 as R353. Top Right: The character has become a smash-hit for the company. (Courtesy Hornby Railways)

R352 Thomas (clockwork) 1985 onwards

A four wheeled loco (Thomas models are normally 0-6-0Ts) The body moulding is not that of R3

N.A. Thomas (pushalong) 1988-90 1992 onwards

A six wheeled version first shown in the R857 Thomas and Bertie set for late 1988 release. Power came from a battery powered Annie!

R350 Percy (electric) 1985 onwards

Initially a re-livery of the Caledonian Pug was suggested but, in the event although some components are shared, Percy is quite an authentic reproduction of Percy as he appears in the books.

Percy the Small Engine is a special moulding created especially for the Hornby Railways World of Thomas the Tank Engine range. (Courtesy Hornby Railways)
Hornby's model of Percy

R810 Percy (clockwork) 1987 onwards

R382 Duck 1986-88 1990-91

Produced by reviving the discontinued 1970s' 57xx Pannier tank model.

The purist will note that Duck's Churchward cab had replaced the model's original Collett cab. On the model, the boiler/tanks top formed one mouldingwhich slotted under the cab front. Altering this was relatively easy to accomodate the modification to the cab windows.

R383 Gordon the Blue Engine 1986-92

Gordon's basis is the LNER Flying Scotsman model, but with a six wheeled tender.

Early Tri-ang Princess basis for Gordon
Hornby may have based Gordon on its LNER Flying Scotsman locomotive, but the first Gordon to run on the Rev. W. Awdry's layout was a severely cut-about Tri-ang Princess from the 1950s, which the Thomas books illustrator built for him. Pictured is an early Tri-ang Princess. (Courtesy Hornby Railways)

R317 Devious Diesel 1987-89

For this model, instead of a re-livery of the current 08 shunter, the mould of the former model, dating back to 1956, was utilised. In unrelieved black, the model was not a best seller.

Basis for Diesel - old Trii-ang Class 08 Shunter
Hornby's Devious Diesel was a reworking of the old Tri-ang Class 08 shunter. (Courtesy R. Forsythe)

R852 James the Red Engine 1988

James has an astounding pedigree. Once upon a time, he was a Tri-ang Midland Railway 0-6-0 3F tender loco available in the 1960s. Look closely and you will see where the moulding was altered around the smokebox and frames to extend him into a 2-6-0. The model is now tender driven, unlike the 3F.

Hornby's James the Red Engine
James the Red Engine is based on the former Tri-ang model of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway 2-6-0, a bogie has been added to the front. (Courtesy Hornby Railways)

The catalogue for 1985 actually showed colour images of the TV series' rolling stock which differ in numerous respects from the models sold. Price lists reveal that the two clockwork engines, although not shown as separate items in catalogues, have been available in blister packets as solo items and do not have to be obtained as part of a compete train set.

                  ROLLING STOCK                  
The accompanying rolling stock has turned the standard four wheeled coach into Annie and Clarabel, while the GWR coaches have become Gordon and James' coaches. The various wagons carry special painted faces. There have been special versions of building kits done for the Thomas range and a good variety of train sets. These include elementary ‘Playtrains’ versions using clockwork locomotives and simplified rolling stock.

All these Hornby World of Thomas the Tank Engine models are jolly good fun and guaranteed to keep children very happy. I went to the Sunderland Model Railway Exhibition in September where a simple Thomas layout driven by a dedicated eight year old was mobbed!

This American company markets a wide range of Thomas models in Britain. More than one scale is used, but this review will concentrate on the core range which could be described as quasi TT. The wheelsets are flanged at 15mm, but the proportions generally seem between 00 and N. They are unashamedly toys and the models are unpowered but I would love to find an enterprising modeller who made them all work!

Quite aside from any modelling potential, their die-cast construction and the Thomas connotation suggests an ideal theme for a collection. The range is very extensive (more so than Hornby's) as ERTL, has been producing Thomas models since 1985.

It is interesting to note that in the original books the engines came to ‘mirror’ genuine prototype locomotives more and more. This means that the models produced by ERTL can often be traced back into reality. Thus, there really were Bill and Ben — actually called Alfred and Judy. These strange little Bagnall shunters worked the port of Par where there was a 7ft 6in height restriction. Both are now preserved, and ERTL models are charming reproductions of two prototypes which are not otherwise easily found models.

Diesel is a good reproduction of the standard BR 08 diesel and ERTL even produced a worthwhile attempt at the outside frames the Hornby shunter never had. Toby/Mavis and Henrietta can all trace their lineage back to the rural Wisbech and Upwell Tramway which was closed in 1966. The village of Emneth on the tramway was once the parish that the Reverend Awdry ministered in.

Boco models the unusual BR class 28 Metro-Vick Co-Bo diesel. Lasting only just ten years on the prototype, the only other mass produced model was the distinctive Hornby Dublo offering.

Daisy is a bit different. She accurately models the Daisy of both ‘Branch Line Engines’ and the TV series. This resembles a well known Metropolitan Cammell prototype which, however, never existed as a twin-ended single unit. Even so, since ‘bubble-cars’ were made by other manufacturers, a famous Metro-Cammell one is quite fun.

Toby the Tram Engine
Toby the Tram was based on a J70 tramway engine that the Rev. W. Awdry came across while on holiday in Yarmouth. This picture is from the set used in the popular TV series. (Courtesy Michael Edwards Photography)
                  BUBBLE TROUBLE                  
ERTL's models do pose one problem for collectors. They are all bubble packed, which makes it difficult to enjoy the model without damaging the packaging. Since most of the models will go to children, it just may be that in years to come, mint boxed ERTL models will be thin on the ground, although the quantities made must rival Matchbox of yore. I have to say that I have tried (and managed) to neatly prise away the bubble protection from several of my own examples.

ERTL die-cast Thomas range
James, Gordon, Thomas, Henry, Percy, Diesel, Edward, Duck. Toby, Bill, Ben, Donald, Douglas, Boco, Mavis, Daisy.
Rolling stock:
Troublesome Trucks, Tar and Milk wagons, Annie and Clarabel, Henrietta
Associated vehicles:
Terence (caterpillar tractor). Harold (helicopter), Trevor (traction engine), Bertie (bus).
Will Bulgy be next – ready chipped and bashed?

A few of the fascinating models in the ERTL range.
Top row, left to right: Toby the Tram Engine, Percy the Small Engine and Thomas himself.
Bottom row: Bill, Ben and Bertie the Bus. (Courtesy ERTL/Britt Allcroft (Thomas) Ltd.)
ERTL range

ERTL small-scale playsets
ERTL produces Thomas models in a number of scales. These are a few of the smaller miniatures and playsets. (Courtesy ERTL/Britt Allcroft)

The Rev. W. Awdry's Inspirations

Have you ever wondered from where the Reverend W. Awdry got his idea for the Thomas the Tank Engine books? Pat Hammond finds the real-life locomotives that inspired the books.

I first started thinking about where the Rev. W. Awdry got the ideas for his locomotives from some years ago when reading a story from one of his books to my younger children. Suddenly, staring out of the page at me was the Hornby Dublo Metro-Vick Co-Bo. I soon recognised Duck and Daisy from models in my own collection and if these were based on models then surely other characters in the books may also have been. With the exception of Gordon, who was clearly intended to be a Gresly Pacific, Duck who was a GWR pannier tank and Toby whose origins were made clear by the script, I found it hard to identify the prototypes of The Rev. W. Awdry's characters.

It was some time later when I was scanning through early model railway magazines researching an article that I came across a reference to the Rev. W. Awdry's own model railway. He has since drawn my attention to no fewer than six articles about his layouts and these confirm my earlier thoughts that some of the earlier characters were based on model prototypes.

                  HOW THE STORIES EVOLVED                  
The Rev. W. Awdry wrote 26 books in his Railway Series about the trains that ran on his imaginary island of Sodor. Between 1945 and 1972 he published a new book each year with the exception of 1946 and 1971. Over the years, the history of Sodor's railways was gradually unravelled as new lines were brought into the stories. In book four, The Ffarquhar Branch was taken over by Thomas, and in book ten, published in 1955, we learned about narrow gauge Skarloey Railway which ran from Crovan's Gate up to the fells above the town. In book 19, written in 1964, we were introduced to the Culdee Fell Rack Railway near Peel Godred, the largest town on the island.

In book 21, published in 1966, we met Bill and Ben, two industrial tank engines on a china clay works line in the south of the island. China clay was not the only mineral exported from Sodor. Rock came from a quarry at the end of the Ffarquhar Branch where Mavis worked (book 26) and slate came down the Skarloey Railway.

The link between Tidmouth and Arlesburgh had been little used since 1947 but in 1964 the Fat Controller formed a consortium to develop Arlesburgh. Duck and Oliver were put in to run the rail link (books 23 and 24) and a 15 inch gauge miniature railway was laid between Arlesburgh and Arlesdale (book 22).

                  THE ELSWORTH LAYOUT                  
It seems that Awdry's own railway modelling started in 1948 when he lived at Elsworth and was writing his fourth book. It served as a background to the characters he had created. His railway company was the N.W.R. (No–Where Railway) as it was totally freelance. It was in self-defence, made necessary by small boys criticisng the discrepancies in his stories, that a location had to be found. This led to the imaginary Island of Sodor and the N.W.R. — later standing for the North–West Region of British Railways.

Thomas, Percy, Duck, Edward, Henry and James all ran on this three-rail layout which formed a broken square with stations called Knapford and Tidmouth (both to be found in the books). The layout was dismantled in December 1952 when the family moved house.

                  FFARQUHAR MARK I                  
The new home had two large attic rooms and the Rev. W. Awdry tells me that he had visions of a railway empire!

The new layout was planned as a mainline section with return loops at each end and relay comtrol. At one end was Tidmouth Station and at the other, Barrow. At the junction in the middle was Knapford. Due to problems with the controls, the layout was constantly under repair ans consequently was never completed.

The opportunity to start something new came in 1955 when Mr. Awdry was asked to build a simple layout for the Wisbech Trades Fair the following year. What resulted was the Ffarquhar Branch Line given to Thomas to run in Tank Engine Thomas Again.

This was a 6ft x 4ft portable layout which became very popular at shows and fairs including the Model Railway Club Easter Show at the Central Hall in three consecutive years, 1963-1965. Built with Wrenn steel track, Mr. Awdry describes it as ‘strong, simple and utterly reliable’.

The layout operated to a set programme and a spoken commentary. this was because the Revenrend Awdry lost his voice during the week of the 1963 exhibition and resorted to a tape recording!

                  THE ULFSTEAD ROAD LAYOUTS                  
When the family moved house in November 1965, the layout did not fit conveniently into the railway room. Mr. Awdry;s son now worked many miles away and therefore was unavailable to help dismantle and carry the layout when required for shows. A new layout was needed.

Originally, a new Ffarquhar was planned with lift-out sections and an adjoining narrow gauge railway based on the Skarloey Railway described in the books. This layout never materialized.

What did follow was a 009 layout based on an idea about a lost railway on the Island of Sodor. Ulfstead Road, as it was called, was a model of the Mid–Sodor Railway. This layout went through three stages of development — the first being exhibited at Worcester in 1968, and the final version making its debut at the National Model Railway Exhibition in April 1970.

It was the second version of the layout which inspired the 25th book in the Railway Series, Duke the Lost Engine.

                  FFARQUHAR II                  
When the final version of Ulfstead Road was finished and working, attention could be given to the second version of Ffarquhar. This has to fit into the Reverend Awdry's car and be manageable by one person. The scratchbuilt trackwork and station were very similar to Ffarquhar I, but the fiddleyard was repositioned.

The layout was first shown in Bristol in 1972, and at Gloucester with a spoken commentary. By the time of the National Model Railway Exhibition of Easter 1973, a taped commentary had been prepared. After fifteen years, a star of many shows, it made its final appearance in September 1987.

                  THE ORIGINAL LOCOMOTIVES                  


Although Thomas did not come into the stories in his first book, he was the Reverend Awdry's first model. Bought in 1948, it was a Stewart Reidpath 0-6-0 tank painted blue like the Thomas in the books. The model was two-railed in 1953 and did not pass into preservation, along with its original coaches, until 1978. That year, it was replaced by a Tri-ang Jinty painted blue, which ran reliably for many years until relegated to reserve engine. It was in turn replaced by the Hornby London Brighton & South Coast Railway E2 which was so much like the one in the books.


Percy was built for Mr. Awdry in 1949 at about the time he was working on book five, Troublesome Engines, in which the character first appeared.

Like the Fat Controller in the book, Awdry needed another engine. It was intended that the model, which was a soldered brass body on a motorised chassis built for the purpose by Stewart Reidpath, would be used for the book illustrations, but the artist did not pay much attention to it. Consequently, the Percy in the books developed a character of his own.

The model was converted to two-rail in 1953 but the mechanism always proved temperamental and it became the spare engine in 1978 when Percy Mark II arrived. This was built on a Nellie chassis with scale wheels and the boiler removed and replaced with parts from the Airfix J94 and Pug kits. This proved to be reliable and smooth running.


Duck was a Gaiety model of an 0-6-0 Pannier Tank. The cabside number helps to give it away. It was bought in 1949 as a standby for demonstrations at a fête. The model as bought unfortunately did not have completely round wheels. This made the loco waddle round the track and the children promptly nicknamed it ‘Duck’. It was not until 1956 that Duck was included in a story. The book was number eleven, Percy the Small Engine.

The first Duck lasted until 1979 when it went into preservation. it was replaced that year with a Hornby 57XX pannier tank. This failed at the NMRE in 1982 and was replaced that year with a Mainline 57XX pannier tank.


This character featured strongly in book one, but did not have his own book until 1954. The model, however, dated from 1950 and was built from the KMR 2P kit — one of the very early white metal kits. After several derailments it was sent, in 1951, to Stewart Reidpath for a new motorised chassis. It was returned there in 1953 for two-railing. Edward did not form part of the stud for the Ffarquhar Branch and, after 1959, it became a static model, its motor removed for spares.


Henry had been in the stories from the start. In 1951, the Reverend Awdry acquired a secondhand Graham Farish 5GP. It had arrived in a filthy condition but once cleaned up and three-railed it worked quite well. In 1953, the model was returned to two rail operation and it continued in use until the motor finally gave out. A Tri-ang replacement was provided with a Hornby springs as the universal joint but it was not very satisfactory and was scrapped. It was the only one of the character models to go without preservation or replacement.


James the Red Engine also appeared in the first book but came to fame as the ‘new’ engine in book two (where for some reason he reverted to being a blue engine — that is, until he had a crash and was painted red again to cheer him up!). Although he had a book to himself in 1948, it was not until 1951 that the model of him arrived on the Elsworth layout.

He was a 2-6-0 Drummond Glasgow & South Western Railway (G&SWR) type, built to order by P. R. Wickham. The model was not successful in three rail but after it had been re-chassied as a two rail locomotive by Essar it became very lively. After 1959, the Essar motor was removed for cannibalisation and, today, the original James is a static model in G&SWR livery.

In 1975, a replacement was built extending the smokebox and running plate on a Tri-ang 3F and fitting a front pony truck. The locomotive is painted red and lined in yellow, while the tender and cabside are lined in blue.


The first Toby was scratch-built in plywood and card onto a Romford motor bogie and brass frame. The cowcatchers were made from household pins.

I quote from from Mr Awdry's article in the July 1961 edition of Railway Modeller:

‘My son and I first met a J70 tram engine at Yarmouth in 1951. She was exceedingly dilapidated but, nevertheless, there was a certain dignity about her as she trundled along the street ringing her bell. The guard walked solemnly ahead carrying a red flag. We tracked her to her lair at Vauxhall and made friends with her driver, who allowed us to explore her 'innards' and take photographs.’

If that sounds familiar, read again Toby the Tram Engine which was published in 1952. The pictures in the book were based on photographs taken by the Reverend Awdry, together with a Skinley’s blueprint. His own model was built in 1953, from drawings supplied by Statford Works. The model lasted until 1979 when it went into preservation.

Toby had his set train consisting of a four-wheeled Wisbech and Upwell coach called Henrietta and built by P. R. Wickham and a Wisbech and Upwell guards van called Elsie which the Reverend Awdry scratch built in 1953/54.

By 1965, a spare Toby was required and this was built from a K’s kit of the J70. It is powered by the K’s motor bogie which, after ten years, was not performing as well as it should. A third Toby was made from a K’s kit for the body, mounted on a cut down Tri-ang Nellie chassis.


Gordon was another of the original engines in the books but was not modelled for the Rev. W. Awdry's own layout. It was built in 1956 as an artist's model. This was because a new artist had been appointed for book twelve, The Eight Famous Engines. The Rev. W. Awdry lent him his a number of his models to get some idea of what the characters should look like and, as there was no model of Gordon, he undertook to make one.

In book 23, Enterprising Engines, we learn that Gordon was Doncaster built. It is therefore surprising to learn that a Tri-ang ex London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) Princess formed the starting point of Mr Awdry's artist's model! (Doncaster was where the LMS's rival, the London and North Eastern Railway, built its locomotives.)

He smoothed off the corners of the Belpaire firebox and removed the Stanier top feed, dome and chimney. The boiler was then re-shaped with parcel tape and the firebox given a wide base. By rubbing and sawing, the footplate was altered. An LNER chimney and dome were fitted and BRMSB wheels replaced the Tri-ang ones.


In 1959, Awdry was writing book 15, The Twin Engines, about two Mclntock Caley 0-6-0 838 class locomotives who were acquired by the railway. Once again, a model was required for the artist.

This was also a carve-up with the help of Skinley blueprints and a Tri-ang 3F. Caledonian boiler mountings and BRSB wheels of the correct diameter were used and the tender altered to look like a Caledonian type.

Interestingly, the model was originally black but was changed to blue when it changed in the books.


Stepney the Bluebell Engine (book 18) was written in 1962 and published the following year. While writing the book, Mr Awdry built an artist's model using the K’s Terrier kit with a K’s flywheel motor. It was painted in Stroudly livery and made a guest appearance at an exhibition.


A visit to the Dart Valley Railway inspired book twenty-four, Oliver the Western Engine. Oliver was a GWR 14XX class tank built as an artist's model from a K’s kit. He still exists but is not such a good runner.


The ‘highly sprung’ diesel railcar was made while Branch Line Engines (book 16) was being written in 1960. A look at the picture immediately reveals the Tri-ang influence. It was made from a secondhand two-car unit. The driver’s end was cut from the trailer car and cemented to the square end of the power car to make the single car unit. Apparently, this has run well for more than 23 years with only one very recent change of motor bogie.


The Drewry diesel belonging to the Ffarquhar Quarry Co was actually built to run at the 1965 Central Hall Exhibition from an Airfix kit and powered by a K’s motor bogie well weighted with lead. Sideplates concealed the number of wheels. Despite the early date of the model, Mavis did not feature in the stories until Tramway Engines in 1972.

                  ROLLING STOCK ON THE FFARQUHAR BRANCH                  

Perhaps the most interesting passenger stock on this line were Thomas's coaches — Annie and Clarabel. These first appeared in book two.

Annie was a lst/3rd composite built of wood to a drawing in the Model Railway News, around 1927. It was originally mounted on Stewart Reidpath bogies but these were changed to Hamblings wagon bogies. Clarabel was a brake/3rd of similar construction built and in service in 1948 and mounted on wagon bogies.

Like the original Stewart Reidpath Thomas, the coaches were built to 3 1/2mm/lft scale. They were therefore retired when Thomas was replaced by a 4mm/lft scale model but they have been preserved. They were replaced by a pair of Exley LNER coaches on Hamblings bogies.

Besides Toby, Henrietta and Elsie, which we have already described, the only other coaches were a twin coach set built out of Airfix Railbus parts and used as saloon coaches for enthusiast specials. They had Hamblings GWR bogies. There was also a German type coach used as a spare.

The goods stock was a mixture of Trackmaster/Tri-ang wagons and scratch or kit built ones.


This article could not have been so informative without the considerable help of the Rev. W. Awdry who has been most generous in the provision of his own notes, and the co-operation of Britt-Allcroft (Thomas) Limited. Thomas the Tank Engine and friends are copyright of Britt Allcroft (Thomas) Limited 1993