Obituary: The Rev W. Awdry

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The Independent Online
The name of the Rev W. Awdry will go down in history as that of "the Thomas the Tank Engine Man". It cannot be otherwise, since he is the creator of the pantheon of steam-driven childhood gods which run the rails of that enchanting railway system on the fictional Island of Sodor.

The testament is clear in the form of a literary, publishing, merchandising and financial phenomenon: 26 small books of stories which have sold some 50 million copies, in varying shapes and sizes and in a dozen different languages, spawning videos, toys, games, clothes and a hugely successful film series made for television.

When this Church of England clergyman began to achieve fame as a children's writer, the press dubbed him "the Puff Puff Parson". Although far too reserved to complain, he disliked the nickname because it seemed to denigrate both his vocation as a priest and his passion for railways. These were the two lines of life that ran, straighter than most railway tracks, through his 85 years and which were laid down in his childhood as the son of a vicar with a passion for steam engines.

The Rev Vere Awdry had built a model railway layout in his Hampshire vicarage garden, in Ampfield, and the young Wilbert Awdry (whose unusual first name combined those of his father's favourite brothers, William and Herbert) soon became "Superintendent of the Line". On walks around the parish with his father he met and talked with local railwaymen. Long before he could read, Wilbert would sit poring over the pictures in his father's bound copies of the Railway Magazine.

Following the birth of his brother, George (who was to play a significant role in the "discovery" of Sodor), the Awdry family moved to Box, in Wiltshire. As Wilbert lay in bed, as a child, listening to the trains running on the nearby Great Western Railway line from Paddington to Bristol, the seeds of the Railway Series were sown. "There was no doubt," he told me once, "that steam engines all had definite personalities. Little imagination was needed to hear, in the puffings and pantings, the conversation they were having with one another."

Wilbert and George were the children of their father's late years (he had already been twice married and bereaved and had another son who had fallen in the retreat from Mons); and Vere Awdry's death, at the age of 74, left his wife - some 25 years his junior - in financially straitened circumstances. However, the sons maintained their devotion to all things connected with railways and, in Wilbert's case, his love and respect for his father undoubtedly led him towards a career in the Church.

After being educated at Dauntsey's School in Wiltshire, Wilbert went to St Peter's Hall (now St Peter's College), Oxford, then recently founded as an educational establishment - based on the beliefs of the Evangelical wing of the Church of England - for the education of sons of low-income families.

Wilbert's academic achievements were modest: when he gained his BA it was, he said, "only a Third Class - but a brilliant Third Class, a `Gamma double plus' ". After studying Theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, but before proceeding to ordination, he spent three years as a teacher at St George's School in Jerusalem. It brought the lands of the Bible vividly alive for him; he also met Margaret Wale, a teacher at the English High School in Haifa, to whom he became engaged and, later, married.

Ordained deacon at Winchester Cathedral in 1936, Wilbert Awdry became a curate first at Odiham in Hampshire, then at West Lavington in Wiltshire, as assistant to an autocratic clergyman who had once been his school chaplain. Difficulties arose in 1939, when - with war in Europe an inevitability - Awdry declared himself a pacifist. His stand was typical of a determination (some might say stubbornness) and quiet courage that marked his character. Asked to leave the parish, he was on the point of giving up his work as a priest when the pacifist Bishop of Birmingham appointed him to a curacy at King's Norton.

It was in Birmingham, in 1942, that an event took place with a significance no one could have foreseen. The Awdrys' first child, Christopher, was confined to bed with measles. Awdry amused his son with a story about a little old engine who was sad because he had not been out for a long time. When Christopher asked what the engine's name was, his father replied - seizing on the first name that came to mind - that it was Edward. In this way, by question and answer, he invented a Cinderella-type story which he entitled "Edward's Day Out".

The story was told over and over again and eventually written down and illustrated with simple line-drawings of railway engines with faces drawn on the front of their smoke-boxes. However, the adventures of Edward might have remained nothing more than a family entertainment had Margaret Awdry not chivvied her husband into offering them for publication.

In 1945, after being turned down by several notable publishers, the book was accepted by Edmund Ward and appeared as The Three Railway Engines. The format, which was to remain the same for all the books in the series, was crucial to its success: a small, oblong, essentially child-sized volume containing an engaging story, simply told, with colourful (but not very sophisticated) pictures by an unacknowledged artist named William Middleton.

A second volume was quickly commissioned and Wilbert Awdry's most famous engine character made a cheeky debut in Thomas the Tank Engine. This time the illustrations, also uncredited, were by Reginald Payne, who established the palette of vivid blues, reds, greens and yellows that were to play such a vital part in the visual appeal of the Railway Series.

In 1946, Awdry was given his first parish at Elsworth and Knapwell, near Cambridge, where he stayed for seven years before moving to Emneth, near Wisbech. In 1965, he retired (or, as he put it, "went into private practice") and moved to a sensible red-brick house in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where his study - an agreeable jumble of railway books, maps and timetables - was denoted by a "STATION MASTER" sign on the door.

During these years, Awdry continued writing books for children and, from James the Red Engine in 1948, published a new Railway Series title each year until his last, in 1972, Tramway Engines. With the success of these books, it has now become fashionable to sneer at Awdry's literary style but, at its best, it was - like the prose of Beatrix Potter - tightly structured and economically written while, at the same time, employing satisfyingly repetit-ive rhythms and an often challenging vocabulary.

The stories featured the already established engines - impish Thomas, industrious Edward, argumentative Henry and proud and pompous Gordon - as well as introducing new characters in such volumes as Toby the Tram Engine (1952), Percy the Small Engine (1956) and Duck & the Diesel Engine (1958).

The books harnessed Awdry's knowledge and love of railway engineering and history and had to be "true-to-life": although the fictional engines had human personalities and voices, their activities always followed the rules of the railroad and virtually all the exploits described were based on something that had happened, somewhere at some time, to a real railway engine. Those adventures - mostly mishaps - included common derailments as well as more surprising disasters such as an engine running off the end of a jetty into a harbour or an unexpected disappearance down a disused mine. As often as not, however, these crises were brought about by the arrogance, stubbornness, jealousy or ambition of the engine involved.

The morality of the stories was clear and Christian: misbehaviour led to suffering and retribution; however, provided the culprit showed repentance, restoration always followed. "The important thing," Awdry said, "is that the engines are punished and forgiven - but never scrapped."

The analogies between the Christian faith and the ways of the railway are obvious: the engines are meant to follow the straight and narrow way and pay the price if they go off the rails. No wonder Awdry enjoyed drawing the parallels between railways and the Church: "Both had their heyday in the mid-19th century; both own a great deal of Gothic-style architecture which is expensive to maintain; both are regularly assailed by critics; and both are firmly convinced that they are the best means of getting man to his ultimate destination."

Despite the morality which prevails in their universe, Thomas and his cronies have nevertheless fallen foul of various establishment figures: banned from some public libraries either for being poor literature or, worse, for being politically incorrect with mindless female carriages chattering along in the wake of their engine lords and masters. Such prejudices run deep and last long, despite the fact that Awdry later introduced two female engines named Daisy and Mavis.

It was with James the Red Engine that he began a tempestuous, but highly creative, collaboration with the illustrator C. Reginald Dalby who - despite a wilful disregard for railway accuracy and authenticity - helped set the style of the Railway Series with his anthropomorphic engines looking so believably impish, guilty, happy, sad, smug or stuck-up as they chuffed through idealised rural settings captured with a gem-like brilliance.

Dalby also re-illustrated the unsatisfactory first volume and went on to produce several more books before handing over to John Kenney who, in turn, was succeeded by Peter and Gunvor Edwards. Each artist had a different approach, but each complimented the strong authorial voice found in the books and helped maintain the popularity of the series.

With his brother, George, Wilbert invented the setting for the stories, the Island of Sodor, situated between the British mainland and the Isle of Man. They made maps and wrote a detailed history of the island, its people and railway engines, which helped shape many of the events described in later volumes.

Wilbert also pursued his other railway interests: building ambitious model railway layouts in each of his homes, taking railway excursions at home and abroad with his brother or his friend "Teddy" Boston (the Fat Clergyman of the Railway Series) and becoming involved with the work of various railway preservation societies, such as the Talyllyn Railway in Wales, which was to inspire the Skarloey Railway on the Island of Sodor, featured in such books as Four Little Engines (1955) and The Little Old Engine (1959).

Another preserved railway was to honour Awdry when, in 1987, the Dean Forest Railway named one of its engines Wilbert. On an icy winter's morning on which it was announced that Wilbert Awdry had been honoured in the 1996 New Year's Honours List, I travelled on the footplate of Wilbert and was able to report to its namesake that the Forest railwaymen had proudly added "OBE" in chalk to the nameplate.

In addition to the Railway Series, Awdry wrote two children's novels about the adventures of Belinda the Beetle, a little red, three-wheeled car, which failed to achieve the popularity of his railway-engine stories. He also co-edited and contributed to several adult books about railways.

In 1983, 11 years after Awdry wrote his last Railway Series title, his son Christopher (once the little boy for whom the original stories were told) wrote Really Useful Engines, the first of, to date, 13 further books about the engines of Sodor. The following year saw the premiere of the popular television series Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, narrated by Ringo Starr.

This revival of interest in Thomas catapulted the shy Wilbert Awdry reluctantly into the limelight: journalists sought him out and pestered him with questions about the writing of the books, and how much money they had earned him. Speculation about the reasons for his modest life were not satisfied even by the surprising revelation that he had received only relatively small royalties. That he was a man of simple tastes who was unconcerned by the ways in which the world rates success was seemingly beyond the comprehension of most people outside his family and friends.

Margaret Awdry died in 1989, the year after she and Wilbert celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. His own health began to decline and osteoporosis gave him increasing discomfort. In consequence he was unable to enjoy many of the celebrations in 1995, the year which marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Three Railway Engines. An exhibition was staged at the National Railway Museum in York and a mainline engine - ironically an InterCity 125 - running on the East Coast line between London and Glasgow, was named The Reverend W. Awdry.

I asked Awdry once how he hoped to be remembered. He puffed on one of his beloved old pipes and replied: "I should like my epitaph to say, `He helped people see God in the ordinary things of life, and he made children laugh.' "

Brian Sibley

Wilbert Vere Awdry, priest and writer: born Ampfield, Hampshire 15 June 1911; ordained deacon 1936, priest 1937; curate, Odiham, Hampshire 1936- 38, West Lavington, Wiltshire 1938-40, King's Norton, Birmingham 1940- 46; Rector, Elsworth with Knapwell, Cambridgeshire 1946-53; Rural Dean, Bourn, Cambridgeshire 1950-53; Vicar, Emneth, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire 1953- 65; OBE 1996; married 1938 Margaret Wale (died 1989; one son, two daughters); died Stroud, Gloucestershire 21 March 1997.