Media Essays: The History of Thomas the Tank Engine Part 1
Updated: May 15, 2022
When you think of your childhood, what are the things that usually come to mind? They might be times at the fairground or walks along the beach with your family. It might be your first birthday or Christmas present. It might be your first day at school and your first friends you've ever made. But I guarantee for many people, the media they grew up with will be one of those first things they think of when it comes to childhood. And for many people, their earliest exposure to the media was likely to be something involving one of the most famous and iconic characters in all of children's entertainment. That something of course...is Thomas the Tank Engine.
We all know him as the cheeky little blue engine with six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler and a short stumpy dome who lives on the Island of Sodor and all of us have been exposed to Thomas in some way, be it in books, TV, movies or even theme park attractions with places like Drayton Manor having its own Thomas-themed land. But how many of us know the history of this famous engine? Where did Thomas begin and how did he become the merchandising juggernaut that he is today? That's what we're here for. I'm the Media Man and I'm here to teach you the History of Thomas the Tank Engine...
For this essay, I'll be devoting four parts to the history of the franchise. Part 1 will be about the creation of Thomas and the publishing history of the Railway Series along with a bit about the creators. Part 2 will be about the history of the TV show, the third part will be about Thomas and the Magic Railroad and Part 4 will be about the remainder of the show's history to the present day. Let's get started...
Our story begins way back in 1942 with the man behind the Island of Sodor himself, Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry. Born on the 15th of June 1911, Wilbert was the son of an Anglican Vicar and his name was actually derived from his father's two brothers, William and Herbert. When he was a toddler, he would watch his father construct a 40 yard 2.5 inch gauge model railway, and all by hand no less. This would be the start of what would become a lifelong obsession for Wilbert as he would grow up to become a railway enthusiast. In 1917, he would move to Box in the country of Wiltshire, then move two more times within Box in 1919 and 1920 respectively with his third house being a place called "Journey's End", which had been renamed from "Lorne Villa". During his childhood in that home, he recalls times of lying in his bed and listening to the trains that would run on the Great Western Railway main line that was 200 yards away from where his house was located. In his own words:
"There was no doubt in my mind that steam engines all had definite personalities. I would hear them snorting up the grade and little imagination was needed to hear in the puffings and pantings of the two engines the conversation they were having with one another." - Rev. W. Awdry
All this would later play a part in the inspiration that would later become Thomas the Tank Engine.
The Beginning of the Series
In 1938, Wilbert would marry a woman named Margaret Wale and they would remain together until her death in 1989. Together, they had three children, Christopher, Hilary and Veronica. Come 1942, a whole three years before the terrifying Second World War would end, something happened that would change the reverend's life forever. His son, Christopher (aged 2 at the time) came down with the measles and was confined to a darkened room, much to his dismay. As any loving father would do, Wilbert decided to tell Christopher stories and rhymes to cheer him up while he was bedbound. One rhyme that Christopher was especially fond of went like this:
Early in the morning,
Down at the station,
All the little engines
Standing in a row.
Along comes the driver,
Pulls the little lever
Puff, puff! Chuff, chuff!
Off we go!
When asking Wilbert about the rhyme, the reverend's answers would lead into the first story that would kickstart the entire Thomas the Tank Engine franchise: Edward's Day Out. Yeah, I know, it seems weird that I'm talking about the origins of Thomas the Tank Engine and I'm saying Edward's Day Out is the first story but I'm not messing you about. You see, Thomas wasn't even the first character to be created for the series. It all started with Edward of all engines! Weird, isn't it? XD
Anyway, Edward's Day Out was the story of an old engine name Edward who was allowed out of the shed to work one day. His name was given to him during a conversation with Christopher and Wilbert that went like this:
"Why is he sad, Daddy?"
"Because he's old and hasn't been out for a long time."
"What's his name, Daddy?"
Another story followed, titled Edward and Gordon in which the character of Gordon was next to be created. Amusingly enough, Wilbert named the character after a boy Christopher knew on the same road they lived, and Christopher considered him rather bossy. So I guess that explains Gordon's personality in the series. After that, a third story called The Sad Story of Henry was created from a limerick that Christopher was also fond of which went like this:
Once, an engine attached to a train
Was afraid of a few drops of rain
It went into a tunnel,
And squeaked through its funnel
And never came out again.
In this story, Henry the Big Green Engine made his debut, as did the man in charge of Sodor Railway, the Fat Controller (then called the Fat Director). With all this, Wilbert's wife encouraged him to publish the stories into a book and come 1943, Wilbert would do just that by sending the stories off to be published by Edmund Ward. The head of the children's books division at the company liked the stories, but he had one big important request that Wilbert had to fulfil if he wanted his stories to be published: make a fourth story that would bring all three characters together and redeem Henry after he was left bricked up at the end of The Sad Story of Henry. Wilbert complied, even though he never actually intended for all three engines to live on the same railway at the time. Thus he rounded off the trilogy with Edward, Gordon and Henry, making his Railway Series a quadrilogy and with that, his book was accepted by the company and published in 1945 as a single volume titled The Three Railway Engines with illustrations by William Middleton.
So some of you might be asking, "OK, that's interesting Mr. Media Man, but where does Thomas fit into all this?" Well, that's what I'm about to tell you.
The Birth of a Children's Icon
Not only did Wilbert make these stories to entertain Christopher while he was sick, but he would also build models of the trains he'd make the stories about. Of course, the first one was Edward in which Wilbert would make the model and some wagons and coaches for him to pull out of a wooden broomstick and scraps of wood. Christopher wanted a model of Gordon as well but as you know, there was a whopping great war going on at the time so a shortage of materials as a result of said war made that impossible. So instead, at around Christmas in 1942, Wilbert made a model of a small tank engine that he would call "Thomas". Christopher naturally wanted to a hear a story about Thomas, and thus Wilbert would go onto write the story that would introduce the franchise's most famous character, simply titled Thomas the Tank Engine.
Published in 1946, the book was illustrated by Reginald Payne instead of William Middleton, a change that the reverend preferred as he felt Reginald's illustrations were better than William's. He also included a "letter" to Christopher in the book which said:
Dear Christopher, Here is your friend Thomas, the Tank Engine. He wanted to come out of his station-yard and see the world. These stories tell you how he did it.
I hope you will like them because you helped me to make them. Your Loving Daddy
Admit it, you're choking up just reading that, aren't you? If this doesn't scream "best dad ever", I don't know what does!
Much like The Three Railway Engines, the book was a huge success and inspired further stories from the series to be made. The book itself also introduced the character of James, who was apparently named after a friend at Edmund Ward publisher's son, James Furze. He appears in the final story of the volume, Thomas and the Breakdown Train and when he first appeared, he was coloured black. James would then go onto appear and star in his own book James the Red Engine in where some changes were made that would make the character what he is today such as changing him from black to red and also developing his vain and snobbish personality. Due to the book being released in 1948, a time when British Railways were nationalised, the Fat Director was changed to the Fat Controller and he would go on to be referred to as such from then on out. Funny enough, this book also happens to be Wilbert's least favourite book in the series he wrote as it was written to meet a deadline rather than from experience.
James the Red Engine was also the debut of artist C. Reginald Dalby (the C. stood for Clarence, a name that he hated and never used) as the main illustrator for the books. He had been struggling to find work as a freelance artist in a post-war England and Edmund Ward ended up approaching him and in 1948 to illustrate the Railway Series books. Dalby would go on to illustrate for the series up until Percy the Small Engine in which he resigned following a fall out with Wilbert himself. You see, as iconic and beloved as Dalby's artwork for the books is, Wilbert...didn't exactly feel the same way. To give an idea on what it was like, I'll leave here the following quote:
Although Dalby's illustrations didn't entirely satisfy the author, and errors in detail caused all kinds of problems, his pictures—with their bold lines, lively energy and bright, gem-like colours—quickly caught the imagination of young readers and he undoubtedly set the style for the series.
(Brian Sibley, Thomas the Tank Engine: The Complete Collection)
The last straw for Dalby came when Wilbert wrote to him "I beg, pray and exhort you not to make Percy look like a green caterpillar with red stripes!" in terms of the portrayal of Percy the Small Engine in the book. Dalby resigned as illustrator in 1956, leaving John T. Kenney to take over up until 1962. Why is it in the world of work, things always have to go so sour between colleagues?
As for John, Wilbert much preferred his illustrations and his artwork was considered to bring in a lightness of touch and a naturalism that he felt the other illustrations had been lacking in and his attention to detail has especially been applauded by many. Sadly, John would have to leave the series after working on Gallant Old Engine in 1962 due to his failing eyesight making it harder for him to handle the fine details required for the illustrations. Peter and Gunvor Edwards would take over as illustrators for the series after he left.
One thing that is particularly notable about Wilbert's writing style and the world he created for the trains is that despite the fact it was a world with talking trains that have faces, the series was somewhat still grounded in reality in some way. Being the railway enthusiast that he was, Wilbert would incorporate a lot of real life elements into his stories be it railway terminology, the Island of Sodor being conducted like an actual railway and many of the stories drawing from real life railway incidents such as the Lindal Railway Incident inspiring an accident Thomas gets caught up in in the story Down the Mine or A Bad Day For Sir Handel having Sir Handel derail in a way similar to a real life incident when his basis, Sir Hadyn, derailed or even a railway incident on the 20th of July 1959 that inspired an accident that Donald has in the story Brake Van. Wilbert cited the Railway Gazette's "Scrapheap" column as a useful source for the unusual incidents that would occur in the stories. Another note about his writing style is that Wilbert would approach the Railway Series in where his audience isn't necessarily children, but the parents that would have to read the stories over and over to their children. Out of all the stories, Thomas Goes Fishing and Thomas Comes To Breakfast were his favourites and he had no favourite character as he believed they were like family and in a family, there are no favourites. If only some families out there understood that...
Wilbert would carry on making more books as the series continued to grow in popularity, introducing many beloved and iconic characters that would become franchise mainstays such as Percy the Small Engine, Toby the Tram Engine and much more. He would publish a total of 26 books in the Railway Series as a whole until he finally put it to an end in 1972 with Tramway Engines being the final book in the series. He believed that "the well had run dry" with the books and it was becoming harder and harder to come up with new ideas for stories, so he retired the series but would still go on to write for his famous characters in a few ways, be it short stories for Thomas Annuals or expanding on his earlier works. Most notably, he would later write Thomas's Christmas Party, but not for the books...but instead for the TV show, making this the ONLY episode of the TV show that was written by the main man himself.
Christopher Takes Over
So what became of the Railway Series after Wilbert was done? Well, it was time for the son to fill in daddy's shoes in this case for Christopher Awdry, the very person whom Wilbert even created the series for in the first place, would continue the series. Seems appropriate that the author's son continues his father's work, doesn't it? It's also funny when you consider that's pretty much what happened to the Mr. Men series after Roger Hargreaves's passing.
Anyway, Christopher would become the next author for the Railway Series, but his time started off pretty much by accident. He had inherited his father's enthusiasm for railways (much like Wilbert himself funnily enough) and that enthusiasm led to a visit that would set him on the same path his father before him had walked all those years ago. That visit was to the Nene Valley Railway in which during that visit, a railwayman recounted a story of a locomotive running out of steam just short of its destination. This story inspired Christopher's first contribution to the Railway Series with Triple Header, a story that sees Thomas, Percy and Duck take on Gordon's Express train, only to see it's not as easy to handle as they believed. Christopher would devise three other stories too, titled Stop Thief!, Mind That Bike and Fish respectively and upon showing them to his father, Wilbert gave Christopher his full blessing to publish the stories. Around that time, the TV show was in development so Kaye and Ward, the current publishers of the books at the time, revived The Railway Series in response. Thus Christopher's work on the series was finally released in 1983 with the title Really Useful Engines, a title that Wilbert had coincidentally been considering for his 27th volume before retiring the series.
After the release of Really Useful Engines, Christopher would write thirteen more books with one of them, Thomas and the Fat Controller's Engines, being the series' 50th anniversary volume. However, during that time, Christopher would end up getting into conflict with his publishers when writing these books. What kind of conflict, I hear you ask? Believe it or not...in regards to the TV show. Before you start puzzling over this fact, it's actually down to the simple fact that the show was really popular and had made Thomas the central character in the series, contrary to how he was written in the original Railway Series where it didn't have a central character. So because of this spotlight being placed on Thomas, he had become the most well-known of the engines and now Christopher's publishers began increasing demands for stories that would focus on Thomas at the expense of the other characters. Gee, that sounds like the very misguided mindset that would lead to the creation of a certain aspect of the franchise that few would like to talk about...
However, Christopher found a way to compromise around this problem. What happened is that he would name the volumes after Thomas, but not actually focus on him. Some examples include Thomas and the Fat Controller's Engines in which he only appeared in one story in the whole volume while another book Thomas Comes Home didn't feature him until the LAST page. I hope not too many kids got upset about the fact they bought a brand spanking new book only to see that Thomas was barely in it. XD Still, Christopher's run on the series would cause the Railway Series to be renamed Thomas and Friends after that.
After the 40th volume, New Little Engine, was published in 1996, Egmont decided that they weren't interested in publishing new Railway Series books and would allow the existing back catalogue to go out of print. Christopher didn't let that stop him as he would found his own publishing company, appropriately named Sodor Enterprises, and in 2005 would publish a book titled Sodor: Reading Between the Lines. This particular volume was about the fictional world of Sodor up to the present day and dealt with many of the factual aspects of the series. With Sodor Enterprises, Christopher would write not just the Railway Series, but several railway-based children's books with a lot of them set on actual real life railways in Britain.
Come 2006, Egmont would renew their policies and return as the publishers of the Railway Series with the fourteen books written by Christopher being re-released in early August 2007. Christopher would publish a new book in that same year which was titled Thomas and Victoria, bringing the series to 41 Volumes with illustrations by Clive Spong. The story itself would also address issues relating to the railway preservation movement. Seems appropriate a book about trains would touch upon such a subject if you ask me.
The Railway Series would come to an end in July 2011 with the 42nd book, Thomas and his Friends being the conclusion to the series, emphasized by the final story even having "The End" in it. Despite this, Christopher has said he has other material that he hoped would be published, though to this day nothing has come out of that material aside from him narrating new stories about the narrow gauge engines at the Talyllyn Railway in Wales, which he also happens to current be Vice President of no less. He continues to participate in Railway Series related events and also promoting the original stories.
Death of the Author
So you guys maybe wondering what became of Wilbert in the end? Well, as you might've guessed...he's no longer with us. Hasn't been for decades in fact.
He died in his sleep at the age of 85 at his home in Gloucestershire on the 21st of March 1997. He was later cremated and his ashes are interred at the Gloucester Crematorium. His memorial plaque that he shares with his wife can be found at Church Place, Gloucester in which it says:
He helped people to see god in the ordinary things in life and he made children laugh.
At the time of this post, Wilbert is currently survived by his son Christopher and his daughter Veronica Chambers while his youngest daughter, Hilary Fortnam, sadly passed away in 2013. As of today, Veronica still lives in Wilbert's old house. Following Wilbert's passing, many memorials have been erected in his honour on several railways, his study has been preserved in the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum on the Talyllyn Railway, a couple of trains have been named "Wilbert" after him and one of those trains would even appear in Christopher's Railway Series books as a character named as such. Interestingly enough, the TV show would go onto create a character named "The Thin Clergyman" who would appear in a couple of movies such as Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure and a few episodes of the series during the show's CGI era, and the character himself even resembles Wilbert to some extent.
The resemblance is striking, isn't it? Also kinda bizarre to have the series creator appear as a character in the show isn't it? It'd be like if a Mickey Mouse cartoon featured a character based on Walt Disney! Just mind-blowing! XD
For the franchise's 75th anniversary in 2021, a blue plaque was unveiled at the old Rectory of Holy Trinity Church in Ellsworth, Cambridgeshire. Cambridge Past, Present & Future put up the plaque to mark the books he wrote there. Veronica Chambers said she was "delighted and moved" by the memorial.
While the reverend maybe gone, his work continues to live on in the hearts of fans and children all over the globe and the franchise shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. For this post, his story is done...but Thomas's is far from over. Join me for Part 2 next week when we delve into the franchise's history in TV...
For Rev. W. Awdry
For the man who has created a million childhoods and who will create a million more.
For the man who was a talented author, a huge railway enthusiast and most importantly, a loving father of three who knew how to brighten up their darkest days.
May he Rest in Peace
Sources: Wikipedia and the Thomas and Friends Wiki.
Useful Edward Fan's Thomas and Friends Accidents and their REAL LIFE origins video.