Thomas's creator dies after making a storybook fortune

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The Independent Online
The Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry, who created Thomas the Tank Engine, died yesterday aged 85, more than half a century after his first stories graced bookstores.

Despite the disappearance of steam from the national train set, his books about talking, puffing locomotives still entrance millions of children and have ended up on the stock market in a company worth pounds 30m.

The author died at his modest Edwardian terrace in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where he had been bed-ridden for some time. He retired from writing in 1972 after the first 26 books in the series and the role was taken over by his son Christopher.

Thomas was his most famous creation. But his book The Three Railway Engines centred on three engines, Edward, Gordon and Henry and their trundlings over the Island of Sodor - a mythical construct situated near Barrow-in- Furness. The 40 books have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and been broadcast in Japanese and German.

In an age where children could blast aliens or surf the Internet, many still choose to turn the pages of the books and tune in to the televised version of World of Thomas the Tank Engine, narrated by the former Beatle Ringo Starr.

"It is a great tribute to Awdry, how popular his books still are. We had a Thomas the Tank Engine event in February and we had more than 40,000 people turn up," said Dieter Hopkin, head of library and archive collections at the National Railway Museum in York.

Perhaps the reason for the books' success can be found in their origins. The first tales were meant to entertain his son, Christopher, during a bout of measles. When Mr Awdry's wife noticed the stories scribbled on the backs of Mother's Union circulars, she got them sent to a literary agent. Overnight in 1945, Thomas steamed up the publishing express line to a runaway success.

And so Henry the Green Engine, Gordon the Blue Engine, Thomas, the Fat (and Thin) Controller came to life. The slim blue volumes were eagerly snapped up for children deprived of fresh publishing and writing during the war years.

The delight of millions of parents and children did not escape criticism and controversy.

The books were accused of racism, with references to the sooty black engines, and of sexual stereotyping, with macho hero engines and passive (or argumentative) carriages named after women (Annie and Clarabel).

Many experts on the modern railways saw Mr Awdry as a relic of yesterday's network. One spoof, written in Modern Railways, a trade magazine, was a pastiche replete with Rastafarian diesels and "socially relevant" locos enlivened with mock-medieval phrases.

The criticism was not always fair. The more recent books - written by Christopher Awdry - did incorporate British Rail engines and featured the express 125s in later stories.

And Mr Awdry's influence was acknowledged by Lord Lloyd-Webber as important in the creation of his Starlight Express show.

Mr Awdry remained a keen railway enthusiast and eventually became president of the Dean Forest Railway Company. The group, which reopened a line in Gloucestershire, named one of its three steam locomotives Wilbert after the author. The train became the subject of the 38th book in the Thomas the Tank Engine series, Wilbert the Forest Engine, written by Christopher Awdry.

A spokesman for the group said: "He used to come down here to sign his books, and he seemed to be involved with almost every rail-preservation group going.

"He'd been a long-standing enthusiast of the railways and it seemed quite a common thing for men of the cloth to be interested in that sort of thing. It's a great shame and a sad loss." Asked why rail and church, an odd coupling, were his passions, Mr Awdry said: "Both had their heyday in the mid-nineteenth 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 they are the best means of getting man to his ultimate destination."

Obituary, page 22