On this day in history : 15th June 1911 – Anglican cleric, railway enthusiast and children’s author – best known for his creation ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ – the Reverend W. Awdry is born….

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The Reverend Wilbert Awdry OBE in 1982 : Image credit – Jamie Spilsbury CC BY-SA 4.0

Wilbert Vere Awdry was born at Ampfield Vicarage near to Romsey in Hampshire – his father was the Anglican Vicar of Ampfield…. The family moved to Box in Wiltshire and lived in a house, ‘Journey’s End’, which was just 200yds from Box Tunnel on the Great Western Railway…. Wilbert would lie in his bed at night and listen to the freight trains; he got to know their whistles and felt each engine had its own personality…. He heard them ‘snorting’ up the steep incline and listened for the conversations they held between themselves….

Wilbert was educated at Marlborough House in Kent, Dauntsey’s School in Wiltshire and then attended Oxford…. Afterwards he was to teach for three years before becoming ordained into the Anglican Church…. He became curate for St. Nicholas’ Church, Kings Norton, Birmingham and then Rector at Elmsworth and Knapwell, Cambridgeshire…. After a term as Rural Dean at Bourn he became Vicar of Emneth in Norfolk…. He retired in 1965 and settled in Rodborough, near to Stroud, Gloucestershire….

It was when his son, Christopher, caught measles in 1943 that Wilbert began to make up stories about trains to keep the boy amused…. After he had written ‘The Three Railway Engines’, which was published in 1945, he built Christopher a model of ‘Edward’ out of a broomstick and some scraps of wood…. He also added some trucks and carriages….

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Edward – Reverend Wilbert Awdry – Fair use
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Gordon – Reverend Wilbert Awdry – Fair use

Christopher was eager to have a model of ‘Gordon’ as well – but this proved difficult because of the size…. So, Wilbert built a smaller model….and ‘Thomas’ came to be…. Christopher wanted more stories about Thomas, which led to ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ being published in 1946…. By the time Wilbert had stopped writing in 1972 there were 26 books in the Railway series….Christopher went on to add to these books….

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Thomas the Tank Engine – fair use

Wilbert remained a railway enthusiast; he volunteered as a guard on the Talyllyn Railway in Wales and was involved in railway preservation work…. He was awarded an OBE in 1996 but by now his health was failing and he was unable to make the journey to London to receive it personally…. He died peacefully in Stroud on the 21st of March 1997….

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Reverend Awdry in May 1988 on the Talyllyn Railway with ‘Peter Sam’, one of his creations – Photo credit: Voice of Clam CC BY-SA 3.0

Thomas the Tank Engine will bring back memories for so many of us….either from our own childhoods or those of our children…. I, for one, have a son who was absolutely obsessed – we still have many of the books and somewhere in the loft is a huge collection of die-cast models…. In October 1984 a TV series was developed by Britt Allcroft – with the voice of Ringo Starr telling the stories…. Thomas videos seemed to play on a constant loop in our house…. Oh! And that wretched theme tune….I never have quite managed to get it out of my head!

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