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Thomas the Tank Engine - The Works of WV Awdry

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Thomas the Tank Engine
The Works of WV Awdry | On TV and in Film | The Books and the Characters

Thomas the Tank Engine

The Railways Series, beloved of children across the globe, is a collection of books, telling the story of a group of talking steam engines with human characteristics, going about their business on the imaginary island of Sodor. The most famous of all the engines is a little blue tank engine, called Thomas.

Thomas the Tank Engine1 was created in the 1940s by an Anglican clergyman, the Rev WV Awdry. As with many children's authors, the tales were not, at first, meant for publication. They were originally bedtime stories for the author's son, Christopher. As the boy asked to hear the stories time after time, his father eventually had to start writing them down, to avoid being told off by his son when he wasn't being consistent with what he'd said the night before.

The Creator - Rev WV Awdry

Wilbert Vere Awdry was born in Hampshire in 1911, himself the son of an Anglican clergyman. From his earliest days, Wilbert was fascinated by steam railways, having been introduced to the world of the railway by his father's parishioners, many of whom worked on the lines.

Wilbert was to follow in his father's footsteps, and in 1936 he was ordained into the Anglican Priesthood. He was married in 1938, to Margaret Wale.

In 1942, his three-year-old son, Christopher, came down with the measles, and Wilbert started making up tales of an imaginary railway and its talking engines, just to keep the little boy amused during his convalescence.

Many stories later, and after much encouragement by his wife, Wilbert finally submitted the tales for publication, and in May 1945, the first of the classic books - The Three Railway Engines, appeared on bookshelves around the country.

Awdry retired from the clergy in 1965, but continued to write for another seven years. His final set of tales, Tramway Engines, was published in 1972.

In 1996 he was awarded an OBE2 in the Queen's New Years Honours List. This was not only for his work as a children's author, but also for the years of work he had put into the preservation of England's Steam Railway Heritage. Unfortunately, by this time, his health was beginning to deteriorate. He died in his Gloucestershire home, on 21 March, 1997, at the age of 85.

A Life's Work Continued - Christopher Awdry

Born in 1940 in Wiltshire, Christopher was the catalyst for the original tales. In 1983, he started writing more stories about his father's engines. This time the stories were for his own son, Richard.

After reading his son's work, Wilbert suggested that Christopher submit the new stories for publication, and later that year the first of Christopher's books, the 27th in the series, was published by Messrs Kaye and Ward. The new book, Really Useful Engines, was to be the first of 14 penned by Christopher.

Christopher, his wife and his son have also followed his father's footsteps in another direction. They are all volunteer workers on the Talyllyn Railway, a narrow gauge steam railway, located in Mid-Wales.

The Island of Sodor

Shortly after publication of the first books, Wilbert began receiving letters from children asking where the engines actually lived; it was a difficult question to answer. Just where could a bunch of imaginary-talking engines live? Certainly not in a real place. The answer came to him during a holiday on the Isle of Man. He discovered that the Anglican Bishop of the region was known as the Bishop of Sodor and Man, the region of Sodor being a defunct name for an area of Southern Scotland. Thus was born the Island of Sodor, slap bang in the middle of the Irish Sea, stretching from the Isle of Man in the West to the Cumbrian coast in the East, linked to the mainland by a bridge at Barrow in Furness in Southern Cumbria.

This huge Island (claimed to be more than five times the size of the Isle of Man) was more than large enough for the engines and their adventures. It also had the added advantage of insulating them from reality, enabling the stories to continue long after the last of the Steam Engines had been retired from service on the British mainland.

Illustrations - Bringing the Books to Life

When noting down the original tales for his son, the Rev W Awdry often accompanied them with simple line drawings. When the books were published, these drawings were used as a basis for the illustrations by Reginald Dalby, the artist who was to be responsible for the illustration of the first 11 books. Reginald took his inspiration, not only from the author's sketches, but also from real life. Thus, Thomas was based upon a Victorian shunting engine, built for the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway and Gordon, the largest of the engines on the Island of Sodor, was based upon the Sir Nigel Gresley A3 Pacific-class locomotives built for the LNER3, the most famous example of which is still running today - The Flying Scotsman.

The original books were all of the same format, the left hand pages telling the story while the right hand pages showed full-page illustrations of the tale in progress.

One of the things that gave the engines their distinctive personalities was the fact that each one was painted with a face - thus the illustrations further personified the steam engines, giving them not only their individuality, but also the ability to show emotions.

Later illustrators of the series included John Kenney (1957 -1962), Peter Edwards (1963 - 1972) and Clive Spong (1983 - 1992).

Thomas Today

As of January 2002, the question of ownership and management of the Thomas the Tank Engine Brand is a little complicated. In the early 1980s, the television and film rights for Thomas were bought by Britt Allcroft, who, in 1997, also bought the copyright for The Railways Series from the original publishers - Reed Publishing.

Britt Alcroft (having since been renamed Gullane Entertainment) then licensed the book publication to Egmont Children's Books, who, against the wishes of the Awdry family, wanted to re-publish the books in a new format over a six year period. This would not have been a problem if they had not immediately stopped the printing of the entire series until the new versions were ready for publication.

This has had two main effects: firstly, collectors of the series now find it impossible to buy the original books, and secondly, as of January 2002, only 14 of the 40 books (12 of Wilbert's and two of Christopher's) have actually been published in the new format. Having said that, the new owners have published many other children's books, magazines and merchandise 'based on the Railways Series'.

1A Tank Engine is a steam locomotive with the water being carried in two tanks, one either side of the boiler. As opposed to a Tender Engine, which carries its water supply in a tender, towed behind the engine.2OBE - Order of the British Empire.3LNER - London and North Eastern Railways.

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