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Railway Series Studies



By Martin R. Clutterbuck

Dedicated to the late Rev. W. Awdry for instilling a life-long love of real railways

Rev. W. Awdry’s heritage has been bought coupling lock, rolling stock and boiler barrel by Britt Allcroft, and now conglomerate Gullane, which have been instrumental in bringing it to larger audiences (especially in the United States), but something of the "Puffing Parson’s" unique eccentricity has inevitably been lost in the process of commodification. In the hands of both Britt Allcroft and her successors, the franchise has been developed in different ways, aimed at younger children, new characters and old painted with a post-modern brush, the focus off dogmatic technical accuracy.

It is widely recorded that Wilbert had great pride that his stories were based on real railway incidents. I can remember in the last year of infant school being thought old enough to handle the story of St George and the Dragon, while at home I was digesting "Enterprising Engines", a late Awdry (1968) and perhaps one of his best in terms of both themes and literary techniques; illustrator Peter Edwards outdoes himself. It centres around one real event that occurred near Waterloo in 1967. The four stories dovetail satisfyingly into one unit. They start with the Fat Controller being posed the problem of Gordon’s depressive anomie at the complete abolition of steam on British Rail.

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Mass Destruction ...

When, indeed, we have been indoctrinated to regard locomotives as living things, with the mass scrapping of steam engines as described in "Stepney the Bluebell Engine" (1963), replete with an illustration of the Grim Reaper working his way through scared, rusty locos with his oxy-acetylene torch, the feeling is that a terrible holocaust is being perpetrated. No wonder Percy can’t talk about it without crying, or the author moved to defend B.R. officials from hate mail.

In this case, the Fat Controller’s cure for Gordon’s anxious enquiry about the fate of his "Doncaster brothers" is an official acknowledgment of his history as an LNER A3 Pacific. A heart-felt reunion is effected with the last surviving A3, the real-life preserved locomotive Flying Scotsman, and Gordon is cured. This is a typical Awdry process of imposing technical discipline on his illustrators and readers and thus raising his books above mere children’s books.

This is an ongoing theme for the entire Railway Series from the first book ("The Three Railway Engines", 1945) onwards, when he was assigned C. Reginald Dalby as an illustrator. The hostility between the two men is well documented, right up to their acrimonious split in 1956. Dalby thought he was making pretty books for children (at which most people agree he succeeded brilliantly); he was not prepared for Awdry’s gripes that his engines were not realistic.

Dalby could not imagine, perhaps, that he was finally to be remembered as Sodor’s first Chief Mechanical Engineer. Thomas’ ancestry as an LBSCR E2 class tank is unequivocal: luckily, the first Thomas book, "Thomas the Tank Engine" of 1946, was not illustrated by Dalby, but a man named Reginald Payne. (He is otherwise uncredited, which is rather ironic status for the first illustrator of such an icon.) Dalby’s Gordon was successfully moulded into an A3 as described above. However, the first engine, Edward, does not exactly match any known class of British locomotive, although later credited by the Reverend as a rebuild of a Furness Railway "Larger Seagull". Percy is a generic Avonside locomotive, and he too has no single real prototype. Percy and Edward are thus original Dalby loco designs, carried over by successive illustrators in exact mechanical detail. To give Dalby his due, at his height in books like "Gordon the Big Engine" (1953) the scenes are the shiny tinplate of Hornby "O" gauge toys.

For the arrival of Toby, Dalby was given a prototype to work from (the Wisbech tram); James, ostensibly an L&YR 0-6-0 rebuilt with front pony truck, is otherwise a loco of mystery. The situation with Henry was so bad, however, that the Rev Awdry felt obliged to involve him in a major accident and rebuild him as a recognisable type, Sir William Stanier’s 5MT of the LMS, known among buffs as the "Black Five."

Similarly, the next new loco to be introduced, Duck, has a very definite pedigree as C.B. Collett’s classic 57xx class pannier tank, even retaining his GWR livery and brass number plate as no. 5741. Interestingly, Duck also marks a change of engine personality. While the previous engines are essentially naughty children, (even Edward is a "good child") Duck is the first "adult" type. The good reverend however saw it fit to provide a personality flaw of excessive pride in his GW heritage.

The same applies to the Scottish Twins, Donald and Douglas, both firmly members of the "812" Caledonian class of 1899, and neither workshy nor immature, if a little accident-prone. The Fat Controller’s order number of 57646 is a subtle in-joke: "Now then, which of you is 57646?" he asks in "The Twin Engines" (1960). If he had checked BR’s rolls, he would have known that neither of them could have been, as the highest number of the 812 class is 57645.

By this time, John T. Kenney had taken the illustration chores and was happily committed to the author’s technically correct vision, his trains more resembling the 00 gauge "Triang" plastic trainsets then in vogue. This was to the extent of jokily painting his own Humber car with a little face and number plate JTK 62 in one of the Skarloey Railway books, "Gallant Old Engines" (1962). That 2’3" narrow gauge railway and all its engines are of course a complete clone of the Welsh Talyllyn Railway and its engines.

"The Twin Engines" are the first intimation that all is not well on the railways. This book starts a completely new phase of the Rev W Awdry’s writing -- darker and less frivolous. While at the start, the Fat Controller needs locomotives for his railway, it is explicit by the end of the book that Donald and Douglas are in fact escaping the scrap yard. Diesels are a menace; the enemy. The first diesel loco on Sodor, named only Diesel ("Devious" is a later Britt Allcroft epithet) is the first truly villainous engine character. In real life, he is a class 08 shunter introduced in 1955 which became the most prolific of all British diesels, largely replacing engines such as the 57xx, which makes the apposition of "Duck and the Diesel Engine" (1958) apt in real railway terms. The real 08s are stalwart workhorses and were never in danger of being permanently exiled for the sin of malicious gossip.

Awdry then balances his anti-diesel prejudice with the introduction of Daisy in "Branch Line Engines" (1961). She is a Metro-Cammel diesel multiple unit, the front car of it called a "motor composite." Besides dieselisation, another major issue for British rail buffs of this period was the closure of rural branch-lines by the infamous "Beeching Axe". In real life, Thomas’ branch line would have then been closed down and buses would have served those communities. Diesel and hypochondriac though she is, Daisy keeps the old branch line alive.

"Stepney the Bluebell Engine" was the first title illustrated by Peter and Gunvor Edwards, who stuck with it until the end ("Tramway Engines," 1972). Like Kenney, they did not take risks with railway engineering: all the subsequent engines were real in some form or another. Stepney himself is like Flying Scotsman, a real engine, the famous LBSC Stroudley "Terrier" A1X class, which founded the real-life Bluebell Railway in Sussex.

By 1968’s "Enterprising Engines" even Awdry appreciated that the first generation of diesels were being replaced and that some interesting examples were worthy of preservation. Thus came to the Sodor stable the Western Region’s class 35 "Hymek" diesel-hydraulic, known in the book as 7101 or Bear. The last story in that book, about the arrival of the GW 14xx 0-4-2T Oliver, once more evokes the war-time atmosphere of unspeakable terror. The story of his daring escape from scrap with the help of friendly signalmen is reminiscent of the partisans smuggling Allied airmen out of Nazi-occupied Europe.

...and Resistance.

Thus ends the last proper book about the main line engines: The existential angst and

apotheosis of Gordon, Sodor’s top-link steamer; the Legend of Flying Scotsman; the monumental Pride of Henry, brought down to earth with Duck’s sense of humour and dirty tenders; two new diesel characters, one arrogant, and one humble; Henry’s Redemption by his heroics in moving the two failed diesels; a tank engine snatched from the jaws of death by the bravery of Douglas; and the best of possible endings due to the beneficence of the Fat Controller, deus ex machina. And they wanted me to read about St George and the Dragon?

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