Wilbert Vere Awdry, OBE (15 June 1911 – 21 March 1997), was an English clergyman, railway enthusiast and children's author, better known as the Reverend W. Awdry and creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, who starred in Awdry's acclaimed Railway Series.
Awdry was born at Ampfield vicarage near Romsey, Hampshire in 1911. Awdry's father was the Rev Vere Awdry, the vicar of Ampfield, and his mother was Lucy Awdry, née Bury. His younger brother, George, was born in 1916. All three of Awdry's older half-siblings from his father's first marriage died young. In 1917 the family moved to Box, in Wiltshire, moving again in 1919, and 1920, still in Box, the third house being Journey's End (renamed from Lorne Villa).
Journey's End was only two hundred yards from the western end of Box Tunnel. There, the Great Western Railway main line climbs at a gradient of 1 in 100 for two miles, and a banking engine was kept there to assist freight trains up the hill. These trains usually ran at night and the young Wilbert could hear them from his bed, listening to the coded whistle signals between the train engine and the banker, and the sharp bark from the locomotive exhausts as they fought their way up the incline. Awdry related: "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: 'I can't do it! I can't do it! I can't do it!' 'Yes, you can! Yes, you can! Yes, you can!'" Here was the inspiration for the story of Edward helping Gordon's train up the hill, a story that Wilbert first told his son Christopher some 25 years later, and which appeared in the first of the Railway Series books.
Awdry was educated at Marlborough House School, Sussex (1919–24), Dauntseys School, West Lavington, Wiltshire (1924–9); St Peter's Hall, Oxford (BA, 1932), and gaining his diploma in theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford in 1933. He taught for three years from 1933-1936 at St. George's School, Jerusalem. He was ordained into the Anglican priesthood in 1936. In 1938 he married Margaret Wale. Painfully remembering the death of his brother in the First World War, Awdry adopted a pacifist ideology when the Second World War started. His bishop told him to find another parish. In 1940 he took a curacy in St. Nicholas' Church, Kings 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. After Awdry wrote The Three Railway Engines, he built Christopher a model of Edward, and some wagons and coaches, out of a broomstick and scraps of wood.Christopher also wanted a model of Gordon; however, as that was too difficult Awdry made a model of a little 0-6-0 tank engine. Awdry said: "The natural name was Thomas – Thomas the Tank Engine". Then Christopher requested stories about Thomas and these duly followed and were published in the famous book Thomas the Tank Engine, released 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.
In 1952, Awdry volunteered as a guard on the Talyllyn Railway in Wales, then in its second year of preservation. The railway inspired Awdry to create the Skarloey Railway, based on the Talyllyn, with some of his exploits being written into the stories.
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. The story Belinda the Beetle was about a red car (it became a Volkswagen Beetle only in the illustrations to the paperback editions).
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 died peacefully in Stroud, Gloucestershire, on 21 March 1997, at the age of 85. His ashes are interred at Gloucester Crematorium.
A Class 91 locomotive, 91 124 bears the name The Rev W Awdry. A Hunslet Austerity 0-6-0ST (saddle tank) engine on the Dean Forest Railway is named Wilbert after him; and was used as the title character in Christopher Awdry's Railway Series book Wilbert the Forest Engine.
'Letter' to ChristopherEdit
In the second book in the series, 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
Subsequent books featured a similar letter from the author, addressed to the readers of the book as "Dear Friends", which introduced the background to the stories within the book.
This text also appears at the beginning of Thomas and Friends episodes from 2003-today. The "letter" appears with a story book showing 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. A flash version of this letter can be seen on the Thomas & Friends website as "Author's Message", which inaccurately states that Awdry wrote the letter in The Three Railway Engines (the only Railway Series volume not to begin with a Foreword).
- The Railway Series books 1-26
- Belinda the Beetle (1958) illustrated by Ionicus
- Belinda Beats the Band (1961) illustrated by John T. Kenney
- W V Awdry & G E V Awdry, The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways, Kaye and Ward, 1986.
- Our Child Begins to Pray (Edmund Ward, 1951)
- P J Long & W V Awdry, The Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1987.