The Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry OBE (15th June, 1911 - 21st March, 1997) was an Anglican minister who created Thomas the Tank Engine and other engines who first appeared in a series of children's books called the Railway Series. These stories were used as the basis for the first four seasons of Britt Allcroft's television series Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. Although he liked seasons one and two, he did not like some of the adaptations from seasons three and four, especially Henry's Forest and Rusty to the Rescue due to their lack of realism. Better known as the "Reverend W. Awdry", he was a clergyman, keen railway enthusiast and children's author.
Awdry was born in Romsey, Hampshire in 1911. The son of Lucy and Vere Awdry, he was educated at Dauntseys School, West Lavington, Wiltshire; St. Peter's Hall, Oxford (Bachelor of Arts, 1932) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He was ordained into the Anglican priesthood in 1936. In 1938 he married Margaret Wale and two years later took a curacy in King's 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.
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 at the age of two and a half. After he wrote The Three Railway Engines Christopher wanted a model of Gordon; however that was too difficult. Instead, Awdry made a model of a tank engine from odds and ends and painted it blue and gave it to Christopher as a Christmas present. Christopher christened the model engine Thomas. Then Christopher requested stories about Thomas and these duly followed and were published in the famous book Thomas the Tank Engine published in 1946.
The first book, The Three Railway Engines, was published in 1945. After Thomas the Tank Engine, Awdry was finished with writing any more books. However, due to popular demand and children wanting a book about James, the engine who Thomas saved in the last story, he agreed to write more stories. By the time Awdry stopped writing in 1972, The Railway Series numbered 26 books. Christopher subsequently added sixteen more books to the series.
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, such as the story "Belinda the Beetle", which was about a red car and the parenting guide "Our Child Begins to Pray".
In 1957, Wilbert narrated the first two stories from The Three Railway Engines for a vinyl record release. He was a guest on The Flying Scotsman's 40th Anniversary run and gave a short interview for its BBC documentary in 1968. He was later interviewed along with Ringo Starr on TV-AM on the day of the television series' debut. Two years later he was profiled in a BBC Radio 4 program by Brian Sibley, who would eventually go on to write his biography.
In 1988, his second Ffarquhar model railway layout was shown to the public for the final time and was featured on an ITN News news item. He was again featured on TV-AM for Thomas' 40th Anniversary in 1990. In 1994 he was featured on BBC Two's Lucinda Lambton's Alphabet of Britain, but the same year he was not enthusiastic about repeating his work and legacy once again in a television interview for Australia by WIN's Sixty Seconds team. The following year, he gave no protest whilst being interviewed by Nicholas Jones for The Thomas the Tank Engine Man documentary, first aired on 25th February, 1995 and repeated again on 15th April, 1997 shortly after his death.
Wilbert Awdry was awarded an Order of the British Empire 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 passed away peacefully in Stroud, Gloucestershire on 21st March, 1997 at the age of 85. Prior to his death he served as Allcroft's technical consultant. His daughter Veronica Chambers currently lives in his house.
A British Rail Class 91 locomotive, 91 124, bears his name. Wilbert is also named after him.
Letter to Christopher
In "Thomas the Tank Engine" Awdry wrote this 'letter' to his son Christopher:
- 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
This appeared at the beginning of all Thomas and Friends episodes from 2004-2012. The "letter" appears with a story book with Thomas on the front cover with "THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE" at the top and BY THE REV. W. AWDRY at the bottom. The book then opens up and the letter is shown and read aloud, after which a "steam" transition appears and it transitions to the Thomas and Friends theme song. The letter is read by Nigel Plaskitt.
The Reverend W. Awdry actually made a few appearances in the Railway Series books, as the Thin Clergyman. His first was a cameo in the third illustration of Percy Runs Away, appearing with his wife, Margaret and his three children, Christopher, Veronica and Hilary, on the platform as Percy passes with some trucks.
He later made a possible cameo on the very first page of Duck and the Diesel Engine as the man resembling a vicar. Brian Sibley jokes in The Thomas the Tank Engine Man that this is the Reverend W. Awdry showing C. Reginald Dalby what Duck really looked like.
His 100th birthday was celebrated in Thomas and his Friends with the unveiling of a bust of his likeness. The book was published in his memory.
In the television series, he makes two cameos in Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure in the form of the Thin Clergyman. He first appears on a bicycle riding past Oliver as the excavator is making his way towards The Construction Yard. He later appears at the opening ceremony of the new branch line. He also cameos in The Great Race, speaking to Mr. Percival at Vicarstown when Thomas first meets the Flying Scotsman. He also appears at the Great Railway Show, sitting in the bleachers beside Mr. Percival.
- According to a podcast from the BBC's "Desert Island Discs", his favourite track was Baal, We Cry to Thee by Felix Mendelssohn.
- Wilbert was affectionately known as 'Granpuff' by his grandchildren, because the smoke from his pipe resembled a steam engine. This nickname would carry over into The Railway Series in the book Duke The Lost Engine, becoming the affectionate nickname for the titular character.
- Wilbert's name is a combination of his father's two brothers William and Herbert Awdry.