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Thomas the Tank Engine - History

The Jun 2011 is the centenary of the birth of Thomas the Tank Engine creator Rev W.V. Awdry, whose little blue engine is still as popular today as it was 65 years ago.

Awdry was born at Ampfield vicarage near Romsey, Hampshire in 1911. Awdry's father was the Rev Vere Awdry, the vicar of Ampfield, and his mother was Lucy Awdry, née Bury. His younger brother, George, was born in 1916. All three of Awdry's older half-siblings from his father's first marriage died young. In 1917 the family moved to Box, in Wiltshire, moving again in 1919, and 1920, still in Box, the third house being Journey's End (renamed from Lorne Villa), which remained the family home until August 1928.

Awdry was educated at Marlborough House School, Sussex (1919–24), Dauntseys School, West Lavington, Wiltshire (1924–9); St Peter's Hall, Oxford (BA, 1932), and gaining his diploma in theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford in 1933. He taught for three years from 1933-1936 at St. George's School, Jerusalem. He was ordained into the Anglican priesthood in 1936. In 1938 he married Margaret Wale. Painfully remembering the death of his brother in the First World War, Awdry adopted a pacifist ideology when the Second World War started. His bishop told him to find another parish. In 1940 he took a curacy in St. Nicholas' Church, Kings Norton, Birmingham where he lived until 1946. He subsequently moved to Cambridgeshire, serving as Rector of Elsworth with Knapwell, 1946–53, and Vicar of Emneth, 1953–65. He retired from full-time ministry in 1965, and moved to Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Rev W Awdry - Tivedshambo 1988-05-14
Wilbert Awdry in 1988, with one of his creations, "Peter Sam" (in real life Edward Thomas) on the Talyllyn Railway, Wales

The characters that would make Awdry famous, and the first stories featuring them, were invented in 1942 to amuse his son Christopher during a bout of measles. Awdry made a small toy engine out of wood and wire for his son Christopher as a Christmas present.

 “He painted it blue, probably because he happened to have a tin of blue paint in the shed, and it had a one on the bunker because father said that was the easiest number to paint,” Christopher Awdry recalls. “I played with it on the carpet, and I asked him if he would tell me some stories about the little engine. He said yes I will, but it needs to have a name – how about Thomas the Tank Engine?”

Thomas and his friends developed when Christopher caught the measles and his father would entertain him with stories of the coloured engines and draw him pictures of them in their sheds. 

Rev Wilbert Awdry and Christopher Awdry

Rev Wilbert Awdry and Christopher Awdry

Sixty-five years later and Thomas’ face appears on plates, bedding, bubble bath, clocks, armbands and clothes, as well as in the 200 stories that Rev. Awdry went on to publish.

The Rev Wilbert's typewriter and spectacles in the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum at Tywyn, Wales.

Christopher remembers his mother and two grandmothers having to encourage the reverend to try and get the stories published, as there weren’t sufficient children’s books around because of the war. Awdry eventually found a benefactor in Edmund Ward, who had retired from De Montfort Press in Leicester, and was looking for new children’s stories to invest in.

Rev Wilbert Awdry and his wife Margaret 

Christopher Awdry 

The first book (The Three Railway Engines) was published in 1945, and by the time Awdry stopped writing in 1972, The Railway Series numbered 26 books. Christopher subsequently added further books to the series.

The Three Railway Engines Early Cover 

The Three Railway Engines  over by William Middleton

After Awdry wrote The Three Railway Engines, he built Christopher a model of Edward, and some wagons and coaches, out of a broomstick and scraps of wood. Christopher also wanted a model of Gordon; however, as that was too difficult Awdry made a model of a little 0-6-0 tank engine. Awdry said: "The natural name was Thomas – Thomas the Tank Engine". Then Christopher requested stories about Thomas and these duly followed and were published in the famous book Thomas the Tank Engine, released in 1946.

Rev Wilbert Awdry controlling Thomas on the Ffarquhar Branch in Railway Modeller- December 1959

In 1952, Awdry volunteered as a guard on the Talyllyn Railway in Wales, then in its second year of preservation. The railway inspired Awdry to create the Skarloey Railway, based on the Talyllyn, with some of his exploits being written into the stories.Awdry's enthusiasm for railways did not stop at his publications. He was involved in railway preservation, and built model railways, which he took to exhibitions around the country.

Awdry wrote other books besides those of The Railway Series, both fiction and non-fiction. The story Belinda the Beetle was about a red car (it became a Volkswagen Beetle only in the illustrations to the paperback editions).

Wilbert Awdry was awarded an OBE in the 1996 New Year’s Honours List, but by that time his health had deteriorated and he was unable to travel to London. He died peacefully in Stroud, Gloucestershire, on 21 March 1997, at the age of 85. His ashes are interred at Gloucester Crematorium.

A biography entitled The Thomas the Tank Engine Man was written by Brian Sibley and published in 1995.

A Class 91 locomotive, 91 124 bears the name The Rev W Awdry. A Hunslet Austerity 0-6-0ST (saddle tank) engine on the Dean Forest Railway is named Wilbert after him; and was used as the title character in Christopher Awdry's Railway Series book Wilbert the Forest Engines.

The first four Thomas the Tank Engine stories were published on May 12 1945 and became firm favourites with children and parents all over Britain. Awdry wrote more stories and came to think of the little engines as fondly as his own children. His daughter Veronica says: “Father never had a favourite character - if he was ever asked he would answer by asking the interviewer if they had children, and if they had a favourite. He would say, well, they’re my children, I don’t have a favourite.”

Thomas’s creator also made frequent appearances in the books as illustrations, and the Awdry family often appeared on the railway station platforms in the books. The Awdry children – Christopher, Veronica and Hilary – say they never foresaw just how far Thomas would go. 

Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railways Thomas the Tank Engine

The Nene Valley Railways Thomas the Tank Engine

The Nene Valley Railways Thomas the Tank Engine

Thomas the tank engine on the Bodmin & Wenford Railway in Cornwall

“My father used to get letters from parents all over the world saying that they felt the stories were the sort of things that they were happy for their children to read and watch because of the way that they were written – the humanity, and the way that things always came out right,” says Veronica.

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.

“The general recognition that the name gets from all over the world is a bit stunning sometimes,” says Christopher. “How long the stories and TV will continue is anybody’s guess, but having survived 65 years hopefully there’s a bit of steam left.”

List of Books by Rev. Awdry

Original Publisher
Year of Publish
The Three Railway Engines
Edmund Ward
Thomas the Tank Engine
Edmund Ward
James the Red Engine
Edmund Ward
Tank Engine Thomas Again
Edmund Ward
Troublesome Engines
Edmund Ward
Henry the Green Engine
Edmund Ward
Toby the Train Engine
Edmund Ward
Gordon the Big Engine
Edmund Ward
Edward the Blue Engine
Edmund Ward
Four Little Engines
Edmund Ward
Percy the Small Engine
Edmund Ward
The Eight Famous Engine
Edmund Ward
Duck and Diesel Engine
Edmund Ward
The Little Old Engine
Edmund Ward
The Twin Engines
Edmund Ward
Branch Line Engines
Edmund Ward
Gallant Old Engine
Edmund Ward
Stepney the Bluebell Engine
Edmund Ward
Mountain Engines
Edmund Ward
Very Old Engines
Edmund Ward
Main Line Engines
Edmund Ward
Small Railway Engines
Kay & Ward
Enterprising Engines
Kay & Ward
Oliver the Western Engine
Kay & Ward
Duck and the Lost Engine
Kay & Ward
Tramway Engines
Kay & Ward

List of Books by Christopher Awdry

Original Publisher
Year of Publish
Really Useful Engines
Kay & Ward
James and the Diesel Engines
Kay & Ward
Great Little Engines
Kay & Ward
More About..
Kay & Ward
Gordon the High Speed Engine
Kay & Ward
Toby, Tracks and Trouble
Kay & Ward
Thomas and the Twins
Kay & Ward
Jack the New Engine
Kay & Ward
Thomas and the Great Railway Show
Kay & Ward
Thomas Comes Home
Kay & Ward
Henry and the Express
Kay & Ward
Wilbert the Forest Engine
Kay & Ward
Thomas and the Fat Controller’s Engines
Kay & Ward


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