100 Years of the
Rev. W. Awdry
2011 marks the centenary year of the Rev. W. Awdry, the creator of Thomas the Tank Engine and The Railway Series. A man who captured the imagination of millions across the globe with his analytical mind and unique perspective on life.
I’ve looked back at archive footage of interviews with Rev. Awdry about what inspired him to create the characters and stories he did. From very early on in his life, it was clear he could see and hear things that weren’t necessarily there. To most, a steam locomotive is simply a machine, like any other machine. But to Wilbert Awdry, it was something a little more complex and meaningful.
As a child lying in bed at night, listening to the steam engines at Box station, he would interpret the puffing, heaving and straining noises in the darkness as a conversation between two living beings. The grumpy big engine would be tired and cross as it hauled it’s heavy load and crowed for a banker, not confident of making its way up the hill, with the rhythm of its effort translating to the young child as “I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it!” Whilst the plucky, energetic little tank engine would be much more cheerful and encouraging, with its freer rhythm coming out as “Oh yes you can, oh yes you can!” all the way into the distance of Box tunnel.
This planted the seed in Awdry’s head that steam engines weren’t all that different to people. Through their rhythmic sounds, they were capable of communication with one another, “And they could talk to us, if only we understood their language.” Awdry seemed to carry this notion throughout his life, and a notable quotation from several television interviews was that “A steam engine whether it’s working hard, or standing quietly, will always have something to say.”
In later life, Awdry was able to take these interpretations of the real world and transplant them into his own when creating the Island of Sodor, and it’s locomotive fleet. Each engine was unique and had his role to play within the sociological hierarchy. The affluent and privileged such as Gordon would look down upon the others, whilst those at the bottom of ‘society’ would aspire to greatness and strive constantly to get there, whilst some would believe they were already there... only to be brought back to earth with a bump and a lesson in humility, which would not be forgotten lightly.
It was also his ability to look at real life from another perspective, in a way in which no-one else could that made his storytelling truly great. His philosophy that the engine should be responsible for its own thinking and actions, and with plausibility, brought in another point of view from which a story could be told. Awdry took great pride in that his stories had happened to “some engine, somewhere, sometime.”
Awdry developed his work further as he chronicled a changing world. As Diesel locomotives came to innovate British Railways, Awdry viewed them with some contempt. He found them “dull introverts that confide in nobody” and incapable of the same expression that a steam locomotive had, “all it can do is give a self-satisfied purr... and a growl if it’s not pleased at all.”
But it wasn’t merely the sounds they made that intrigued Awdry. Diesels were touted as superior machines, but yet, he could see flaws that could be translated into character traits, ripe for exploitation within his stories. With a cab at each end, he saw them as “two-faced”, a characteristic he played upon several times throughout the Railway Series, and in a damning assessment of their overall capability by comparison with steam locomotion, “A Diesel will work within its rated capability with a cold efficiency, if it is beyond it, he will simply blow a fuse and back out... whereas a steam engine has that extra reserve of power needed, and like a thoroughbred horse, will strain until the job is done.”
Awdry’s knowledge of railways was vast, and the shelves of his Study were filled with railway related titles. His research to develop his work was meticulous. A prime example of his dedication to his world and it’s ‘reality’ can be found within the book, ‘The Island Of Sodor’, which chronicles the history, geography, topography and sociology of his world. There are elements in here with nods to reality, which once opened to interpretation, can provide interesting questions as to the author’s intentions.
In a recent endeavour to research and further develop the Skarloey Railway for the Extended Railway Series Guide, we discovered Duke’s build-date of 1880 by the Ffestiniog Railway correlated with the withdrawal of the railway’s original ‘Mountaineer’, a George England saddle-tank / tender locomotive, which Duke was based on. Reading between the lines, it could be suggested that ‘Granpuff’ had a life before Sodor...
Despite the fact that the engines embodied human characteristics, they were still essentially steam locomotives working as part of a railway. They could not be translated into any other situation or narrative. But at the same time though, children could still relate to the way the engines felt and interacted with one another.
Awdry was able to engage with children by seeing the world through their eyes, whilst still being able to translate reality from the perspective of an adult and a railway enthusiast. These are qualities that are likely to have been realised by Britt Allcroft when reading his work for the first time in preparation for an interview on the Bluebell Railway in 1979, as well as his own son, Christopher, when he assumed the mantle of Railway Series author in 1983. However, within their interpretations of his work, Britt and collaborator, David Mitton often chose to play on fantasy, and Christopher worked deeper within technicality than his father. Both emulated his style, and succeeded in their own ways, neither found the fusion that made the original classic storytelling truly special. That will remain forever unique to one man.
Despite the character’s meteoric rise to fame and fortune through global television fame, the Rev. W. Awdry will remain as synonymous with the quality and magic of Thomas The Tank Engine’s best stories and adventures, and will be forever remembered as a heavy weight of classic British fiction as A.A. Milne has with Winnie The Pooh and Beatrix Potter with Peter Rabbit.
Whilst the idea of anthropomorphic steam engines had pre-dated the Railway Series by some time, it was Awdry’s interpretation of human characteristics within machines that has made his work an enchanting experience for generations of children.
In 2011, there will be two notable events to mark the memory of the Rev. W. Awdry’s achievements and contributions in life. The first will be a special event on the Talyllyn Railway, celebrating what would have been his 100th Birthday, with a special ‘Duncan Day’ event in June. The other will be the 42nd Railway Series book, written by his son, Christopher Awdry, due for publication on the 4th of July.