The Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry (15th June, 1911 - 21st March, 1997) was an Anglican minister and the author of the first twenty-six books of the Railway Series. These 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 adaptions from seasons three and four, especially Henry's Forest and Rusty to the Rescue. 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 a clergyman, 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 1943 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. 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, and by the time Awdry stopped writing in 1972, The Railway Series numbered 26 books. Christopher subsequently added further 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's story "Henry's Sneeze" (in The Railway Series book Henry the Green Engine) originally described some soot-covered boys as being "as black as ['the N word']". After complaints were made in 1972, twenty years after first publication, the description was changed to "as black as soot".
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.
In 1952, 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 was given a short interview for it's devoted BBC Documentry, he was later interviewed along with Ringo Starr on TV-AM on the day of the TV Series debut. In 1988 his second FFarquahr 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, being interviewed for Thomas's 40th Anniversary in 1990.
In 1994 he was not enthustiastic of giving a television interview by WIN's Sixty Seconds team of having to tell on how his work and legacy began, although he gave no protest whilst being interviewed by Quanta Films for The Thomas the Tank Engine Man documentry, shown by the BBC in 1995.
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 March 21 1997, at the age of 85. Prior to his death he served as Allcroft's technical consultant.
A British Rail Class 91 locomotive, 91 124, bears his name.
Letter to Christopher
In "Thomas the Tank Engine" Awdry wrote this 'letter' to 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 we see the letter, after the letter is finished a "steam" transition appears and it transitions to the Thomas & Friends theme song.
Appearances in the Railway Series
The Reverend W. Awdry actually makes 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.
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.