T H I S page is dedicated to the memory of the Rev. Wilbert Vere Awdry (1911-1997). For the man who has given us the Island of Sodor and all of its railway wonders, we can think of no fitting tribute - other than by sharing your recollections of meeting the 'Thin Clergyman' in person while he was alive.
We are honored to inaugurate this new webpage with this first entry by Nicholas Jones. Nicholas is the Creative Director and Head of Sales for Quanta_Films based out of Corston, Wiltshire (UK). In 1995, Nicholas produced the BBC Bookmark documentary: ‘The Thomas the Tank Engine Man’. Here is Nicholas's story:
When I was a child, railway stations always seemed to come in their own special material. This was a reddish-orange brickwork that would gleam in the rain and which I later learned was called terracotta. The first time I visited Wilbert Awdry, on April 26th 1993, I felt it fitting that his home in Stroud, Gloucestershire seemed to be made of terracotta, or something similar. When we reached the front door (I was visiting Mr. Awdry with my mother), I noticed that the house number - 30, I think - was a rounded, iron-cast artefact from the London Midland and Scottish Railway. It briefly surprised me, for I would have expected something with Great Western antecedents but above all it reassured me: we had clearly found the right house. Wilbert Awdry was approaching 82 when I first met him. I had gone along because my mother, who lived not far away in Wiltshire, had been asked to write a profile for a regular column in The Oldie magazine that was titled 'Still With Us' The Reverend was an ideal topic for this page. I wanted to meet the author of my childhood.
His modest home was better known by its name, "Sodor". Inside, the hallway behind the front door was hung with pictures of Wilbert as a handsome young man, in one of which he was part of a pre-war Oxford rowing team. The term "muscular Christianity" came to mind. These images of the kind of Englishman we no longer make contrasted sadly with the present. Mr Awdry was by now a widower, afflicted with osteoporosis. In the quiet room where he sat, it seemed time had long stood still.
Yet first impressions were misleading. We were warmly greeted by a big and often humorous personality. The two hours in which we were his guests raced by. And the modern world impinged very strongly – to be criticized with passion, at least in one respect. Wilbert played us a VHS of the TV adaptation of The Railway Series and made it very clear he did not approve of its content. Thomas had come not just to define his work in an age of children's TV but had taken it over.
It dawned on me that my recall of The Railway Series played well with its creator. As a child I had always been haunted by the picture of Henry bricked up in his tunnel. A postcard of this, which I still have, had been stuck on my bedroom wall. I had never really seen Thomas as the leading force in the books – which was just as his creator had intended. I explained that my childhood memories in fact always took me back to book number 10. Mr. Awdry read out letters he had received decades earlier, from mothers of children but also fathers – including those who were railwaymen. I realised that it was always their approval that most gratified him, for The Railway Series scrupulously followed railway operating practice. As we left, I sensed that Wilbert saw in me (or my recollections) the kind of child for whom he had written his stories. Before we left, I asked which of the engines was his favourite, believing for some reason that he would answer Percy. The answer deftly evaded the question.
The next day, when transcribing her notes of the meeting, my mother suddenly had an idea. She spotted that 1994 would be the 50th anniversary of the first book in The Railway Series: why didn’t we offer this as an idea for an arts documentary, to be made by me?
The story now jumps to January 1994. I’ve just crept into the children’s section of the large library in Kensington Town Hall. I find The Railway Series and gingerly check to see if book number ten might, by chance, be on the shelf. It’s there! I pick up Four Little Engines and start turning the pages. The experience is uncanny. After nearly 30 years I can recall the next picture in the book before I even turn the page. Once again I see Skarloey’s agony as he pulls the coaches round the corner and into the station. A memory of being read the story as a child by my mother flits through my mind but I can’t quite retain it.
During the summer of 1994 I managed to sell the idea of a biography of Wilbert Awdry to both BBC and Channel Four, to my surprise. We returned to Sodor in Stroud and told Mr. Awdry. His health had deteriorated considerably in the last year but he agreed to be filmed by us, although he was irritated that it had taken the BBC this long to find him. We would turn up on September 16th with our camera crew.
I deemed it wise to read the entire Railway Series first, in the order the books had been written. Reed Books gave me a set and I recall being stuck on the Circle Line at Gloucester Road while reading one of the titles, mindful that I must have looked a bit odd. In the course of this read, I suddenly remembered why I had carried the name Jem Cole in my head for years: he was a character in the tale of the steam tractor. Before we started filming, I told Wilbert that I had rediscovered Jem Cole and he was delighted.
We spent all day filming, cleverly disguising the fact that Mr. Awdry was in bed. He had got up specially for us the day before but to his great disappointment he had collapsed. We could now only film him in his bedroom, where now he spent almost all his time. The day went well and I rounded it off by filming Wilbert’s trainset (now semi–dismantled), his cluttered study – and that evocative picture of the serious young man in the rowing team. Before we left, I asked Mr. Awdry to autograph Four Little Engines.
My last correspondence with him was to write and congratulate him on his receiving a decoration, an OBE I think. I still have his reply. Perhaps our film had reminded the shadowy figures who dole out the medals that Mr. Awdry was "still with us".
He died almost ten years to the day I am writing this, on the night the BBC screened my film Genius of the Jet. The next day I learned the sad news and rang the BBC to ask if they might repeat our film of Mr. Awdry, to honour his memory. I’m pleased to say they agreed to do so without hesitation.
March 15th 2007
Alder shares his memories of meeting the Rev. Awdry in this entry from our guestbook:
I had the pleasure of meeting Rev. Awdry several times well before Thomas reached the tv screens. He covered several church services at our local church when I was in the choir.
I will always remember being totally fascinated by his walking stick that he showed off to me on many occassions. It folded to nothing and back in the 80's was a great novelty. By chance a few years later he signed a book for me at the local Ebley Orphanage fete where I was playing in the brass band, I still have it and cherish it to this very day. What a great man and a great memory.
20th September, 2008
Allan T. Condie
wrote in to share his memories of the Rev. Awdry, and of the sermon he delivered at the Rev.'s memorial service in 1997. In Allan's own words below, with our many thanks:
Received 25 June, 2009
Although I was brought up in Scotland (Perth mainly) my mother comes from Leicestershire and we spent all our summer holidays in school years there on my Grandparent's farm.
A family friend introduced me to Teddy Boston in 1959 and every summer thereafter I used to visit Cadeby on a regular basis to see Teddy.
One weekend in Summer 1962?, Wilbert was staying while his layout was on exhibition in Birmingham and I went to help him on the Saturday. That was an introduction which meant that on many occasions thereafter when Wilbert was at Cadeby, I visited. After Teddy's death in 1986 Wilbert used to come and stay at Cadeby with Audrey and I would pop over and spend an afternoon with him.
We moved to Carlton, the other side of Market Bosworth in 1985 and I became a Licenced Reader, taking services at Cadeby and Sutton Cheney, Teddy‘s old parishes. After Wilbert died it was suggested that we have a memorial service at Cadeby to which the family and others were invited. We had a visiting choir who sang Evensong and I preached the sermon which you now have!
Allan T Condie.
PS We returned to Perth in 2004.
“You are a very disobedient engine” Percy knew that voice - he groaned. The Foreman borrowed a small boat and rowed the fat Controller round. “Please Sir, get me out Sir, I'm truly sorry Sir”. “No Percy, we cannot do that till high tide. I hope it will teach you to obey Orders.”
When contemplating as to what to say on this occasion I happened to be discussing the event with a friend in Scotland. His words were quite simply “My son's favourite story was “Percy takes the plunge”. Now it would have been possible to take a text from any of the Railway Stories and finish up with the same result.
To me and countless others, as a small boy, the delight of those stories no doubt made lasting impressions. Here, in simple terms, the struggle between good and evil, between vice and virtue, between selfishness and self-denial, are expounded in the behaviour of the Fat Controller's engines.
Then those vivid illustrations by Messrs Dalby and Kenney bring to life a strange world where one almost feels that God is in total control, but as those stories were written by a Clergyman, is that no small wonder?
Well, not quite - a good friend of mine suggested a slightly blasphemous version of Genesis. God looked upon the earth and saw what he had done and it was good. And on the Seventh day he took time out and played trains.
Indeed the Railway Stories were very much pages of a book until I was fortunate to meet Wilbur at Cadeby in 1964. Only then, in conversation, was I able to discover the true depth which had been created behind those stories. The truth about the engines themselves, the Island of Sodor and so on. Here I discovered one important thing about Wilbur. He was first and foremost a Church of England Vicar, and an orthodox one at that! Many times since, indeed more recently , have we 'put the C of E to rights' in the lounge in Cadeby Rectory during Wilbur's annual visits.
But there are other memories. A local colliery line had evaded Teddy's moving picture apparatus, mainly due to an awquward gateman, until the visit of an eminent cinematographer from Bath was on the cards. Three Clergymen, the Fat one, the thin one, and another one from Bradford on Avon boarded Wilbert's Bedford and set off. The sight of three dog collars at the colliery gates soon reduced the officious gateman to a whimpering grovel! And when Ivo Peters Bentley turned up I leave the rest to your imaginations.
Remembering that his writings were secondary to Parish work and family, and that in the first instance they were created to meet the needs of that young family, it is provident that millions have since been able to share in them. But like the skill of the potter in our first Lesson, those stories were shaped by experience, of life, of knowledge of scripture, and knowledge of railways. No story was told unless based on true railway practice. Indeed once the media had taken over Wilbur was annoyed and saddened by the way the stories were changed by people 'with no knowledge of the subject' and the engines put in unreal situations.
Is there not here a parallel with real life? To the Christian the way, the way of the Cross, the way of Christ is all important. What Jesus taught in his parables about the way we should behave as Christians also has a parallel in the Railway Series. Here we have real situations translated into a form which helped people to see God in an ordinary way, although they might not at first realise it, and with fun in it as well. But why give inanimate objects personalities at all? Quite simply it is the fact that the steam engine is the nearest visible creation of man to man himself that allows it to be used in this way, and Wilbur's skill in using the railway ethic was quite simply part of an enlarged Ministry which he increasingly developed and no doubt had an effect on his going 'free lance' in 1965. Following that decision to leave Emneth and move to Stroud it was his occasional ministering in Cadeby and elsewhere in this area which brought the 'other side' of Wilbur to us.
A railway cannot function without its staff, the drivers, firemen, fitters, signalmen, station staff, PW gangs etc. etc. The Christian life means nothing if we cannot apply the other ingredient as described in our second lesson LOVE!
And that brings us back to the beginning. Percy's disobedience results in him spending a very cold night in the Irish Sea. When humankind estranges itself from God then the result is evil and things go wrong.
Sadly, in the 1990s, even the value of the Railway Stories have, like Christianity, been questioned. The last time I met Wilbur we both agreed that lack of discipline, both inside the Church and out, and the general lack of self denial or forgiveness were tragedies of the age. Percy was 'very sorry' and he would not break the rules and try and run past a stop board again! And the Fat Controller forgave him.
As we give thanks for the life of a remarkable man, to me a fitting memorial would be that those two virtues might again become underlined in the hearts and minds of humankind. But that can only happen if people return to God, who in the death of his Son forgave humankind once and for all for their sins. Like Percy and all the others who became “Really Useful Engines”, only if we keep the faith which Wilbur strove to teach can we become “Really Useful People”.
Another guestbook entry - courtesy of David Scott
I was very fortunate to meet the Reverend Awdry almost 25 years ago, when he visited Cornwall and Cothele House on a book signing. I waited patiently in the long queue and just managed to give him a short list of what I was building in 5" gauge live steam. I would have loved to be able to have talked some more, but it raised a smile in what was a quite boring afternoon.
I shall always treasure the two books signed - I have newer replacements which I read to my young daughter who also loves Toby.
Thank you for the wonderful books.
25th February, 2010
SiF's Thomas Foster shares this special memory of attending the Rev. Awdry's memorial service, and of Christopher Awdry's and the Rev. Awdry's Biographer -Brian Sibley's kindness:
Back in 1994, I was 8 years old and had begun to discover the Railway Series. With the help of my Grandma (I was brought up by my Grandparents), a letter was written to the Rev. W. Awdry and I drew a picture for him. I had a lovely reply back from him (alas it's somewhere in the house but where, I'm not sure). In 1997, we were all remembering hearing about the death of the Reverend. My Grandma took it upon herself to send a condolence card to Christopher and the Awdry family. Christopher sent a lovely reply back and invited my Grandparents and I to a Memorial Service at Gloucester Cathedral.
The day before the service we set off from Blackpool (where we lived then) and headed down to Gloucester.
I remember the day well, on arrival I met Christopher and his sister Veronica. Christopher very much appreciated us being there, and he signed my Thomas the Tank Engine Man biography of Wilbert, it was then that he introduced me to Brian Sibley, the book’s author who I recognized from the BBC Bookmark documentary that was televised the year before. He also signed my book with a very nice inscription. I was interviewed by the local television station and newspaper, and my photo was used in the newspaper article. (Thomas shares said book inscription and the article with visitors with our thanks)
The service was very moving. I still have the service book from the day which had an illustration of Thomas on the front. After the service and before we left, I was able to speak with Christopher again. My Grandma told him how we had been trying to get hold of a map of Island of Sodor, but it appeared it had been discontinued. Christopher very kindly said he would send me a copy of the map he had (1972 version), which is something I treasure to this day and is being very useful in a project I am currently working on. I kept a close correspondence with Christopher Awdry for a good many years. In 1998 he was in the local area and came to visit our house, which was once again one of those special moments that I won’t forget. By 2006, I had sadly lost contact with Christopher, but would love to reconnect with him.
That day in 1997 will always be remembered, and for me is one of those parts of your life that will not be forgotten, and was my way of saying a good-bye to a person who has brought joy to millions of children across the world.
5th June, 2010
Guestbook message from Andrew Foster
I encountered Rev Wilbert Awdry with his railway at the Model Railway Exhibition at the Central Hall in London. I wonder when that was? About 1956 or '57 perhaps? A very happy memory to be cherished. Railways have been part of my life ever since, sometimes professionally, and always as a hobby.
12th November, 2012
Guestbook message from Ed Grummitt
First saw Wilbert Awdry at the Central Hall around 1960. Then one weekend in 1969 visited Ted Boston in Cadeby. Wilbert was operating Ted's model railway, pipe in mouth. This was well before the celebrity age so he went unrecognised by most and was left to have fun. Somehow we found ourselves underneath the model railway marvelling at dozens of priceless Hornby and Bing Table Top trains. Equally surprisingly we moved outside and were allowed to drive a 2' gauge diesel up and down the Cadeby Light Railway! Health and Safety? Nah...but a wonderful day.
18th February, 2013
Did you ever meet the Rev. Awdry? If the answer is 'yes', we’d be very interested in hearing from you! Feel free to use the guestbook to contact us. Visitor recollections and anecdotes of Wilbert will be added to this page.