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characters of sodor

thomas the tank engine

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Image enhanced from the 1955 Observer's Book of Trains.

The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway designer LB Billinton created the E2 0-6-0 tank loco at Brighton in 1913. The first five had normal rectangular water tanks, but the second five, introduced in 1915, had the "extended" tanks which make Thomas so recognisable. The other key feature identifying Thomas with the E2 is the little downsweeps at each end of the footplate. Thomas’ first illustrator, Reginald Payne, omitted the rear downsweep, which can be seen on the real E2 below. This can also be seen to possess a Westinghouse steam pump next to the smokebox, and is missing Thomas’ rather prominent splashers. Other mods received by Thomas at Crovan’s Gate Works include new safety valves, front window and removal of front steps. Otherwise, none of the class appears to have survived scrapping.

From Tony Grigg's notes on “The Island of Sodor”:
Number 1 “Thomas”

Thomas is a class E2 0-6-0T tank engine designed by Lawson B. Billinton, locomotive superintendent of the London Brighton and South Coast Railway between 1911 and 1922. The E2s were introduced in 1915 to replace earlier members of the E1 class, which had been scrapped. The last five in the ten strong class had extended side tanks to give a greater water capacity but all engines had two inside cylinders and driving wheels 4'6" in diameter. Thomas was bought to Sodor in 1915 to help with the construction of the North Western Railway, and remained after the completion. The engine was first used as Pilot at Tidmouth and then Vicarstown, before being drafted in to the Ffarquhar Branch line. The engine is now based at Ffarquhar. After an accident with a stationmaster's house, Thomas' footplate front was made straight.

The Ffarquhar Branch is known as “Thomas' Branch Line” which Thomas runs with Annie and Clarabel, and the help of TobyPercy and Daisy. Toby runs the branch extension to the Quarry, and the private Quarry line itself is run by Mavis. Serving the Ffarquhar railhead as a railway bus is Bertie.

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"Oh dear!" he said, "I am a silly engine." - GBE - Page 44

Thomas was the unfortunate victim of a mine sinkhole in the “Gordon the Big Engine” story “Down the Mine”. This is based on a true story which happened on the Furness Railway:

The Furness Railway, by W. McGowan Gordon (1946),

has the details on page 42:

“On October 22nd, 1892, about 8-16 a.m., a remarkable accident occurred on the Furness Railway at Lindal. The 0-6-0 tender engne No. 115 (a 16" ‘Sharpie’) was shunting some iron ore wagons into a siding in the yard when the ground suddenly caved in under the locomotive. The engine crew (Driver Postlethwaite and Fireman Robinson) jumped off the footplate and got away. Slowly but surely the engine sank into the cavity and by 2-15 p.m. she had disappeared from view. Only the tender was saved. The area around Lindal is honeycombed with iron ore workings, and this was evidently responsible for the subsidence. It is estimated the locomotive lies some 200 feet below the ground today. The cavity was filled up in due course and the line became quite safe for traffic. While ths was going on, goods for the area were worked round by Penrith, Keswick and Workington. For passengers, trains were worked to and from each side of the subsidence. A new engine was eventually built to replace 115, whose salvaged tender she received.”

(For more on this and other stories behind the stories refer to the Real Stories Database)


The Nene Valley Railway "Thomas"

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Many thanks to NVR volunteer Paul Bricklebank for this superb shot

This engine was built by Hudswell Clarke in 1947, just a year after the publication year of the first book to feature Thomas, Thomas the Tank Engine, with the works number 1800. The fate of this little engine and his fictional namesake were intertwined in other ways, earning him a position in the pre-TV "Thomas" mythos distinct and apart from later iterations of "Thomas" on other railways.

Spending all his working life at the Peterborough factory of the British Sugar Corporation, he was also maintained in a blue livery. When the Peterborough Locomotive Society set up its compound within the factory sidings in 1970, he became the regular standby locomotive, and with the blue livery, as well as the gap in his tank above his footplate, first earned the name "Thomas" from society members.
When the British Sugar Corporation held National Sports and Family days in 1971-2, "Thomas" was used to give brake van rides. On one of these days in 1971, the Rev. W. Awdry attended, and officially named "Thomas" with a brass name-plate, as seen in the picture below. At this date, the Rev. was still writing the final stories of the Railway Series, ironically his last to feature Thomas, as published in Tramway Engines (1972).

Thomas’ faces would appear to date from this time as well, recognisably from the illustrations in Tank Engine Thomas Again, well over a decade before the first TV show hit the air.

In 1973, he was sold to the Peterborough Railway Society and in 1977 repaired to a working condition. More repairs followed in 1990-2 and 2003, the latter with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund, returning to service on the NVR in 2004. Minor repairs were carried out in 2009. "Thomas" continues to be a major draw for the Nene Valley Railway, and retains his Railway Series-style faces, appropriately for his unique history, more details of which can be found on the NVR's website.

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Thanks also to the NVR website for this picture of the Rev W. Awdry naming "Thomas" in 1971.

Visit to NVR August 2015

Webmaster was very pleased to meet Bricky and Dylan on a cold, rainswept Peterborough platform in August 2015. While it wasn't practical to either travel on a train or see Thomas, I raced the train in my rented Nissan Leaf to the NVR's headquarters at Wansford. For the record, the steam train beat the electric car, much to the delight of the Hunslet saddle tank crew! An amount of Thomas merchandise and information was available there.

 Left and right, NVR brochures. Top to bottom: fridge magnet, postcard, and a little notice about Thomas coming back into service in 2015. Bottom: NVR route map.

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Thomas debuted in “Thomas the Tank Engine” (1946) and merited a return volume

Tank Engine Thomas Again” in 1949. This latter volume is outstanding for both text and illustrations, particularly of Thomas’ faithful coaches, Annie and Clarabel.

The Rev. Awdry's Models of Thomas

Thomas had his genesis, like the immortal Winnie the Pooh, in a toy for a small child. A wooden push-along toy from the early 1940s, predating Learning Curve by many decades, is the original Thomas made by the Rev. W. Awdry "out of a piece of broomstick" for his son Christopher.

Right: From the cover of The Thomas the Tank Engine Man. Used with the approval of Brian Sibley.

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Thomas as he then appeared in sketches prepared by the Reverend were a far cry from the illustrator’s result, Reginald Payne’s iconic version who is with us today.

Left: The Rev's first known sketch of Thomas from the 1940s, obviously bearing some relation to the toy. With thanks To Jim Gratton.

However, the Reverend was happy to endorse Payne's account that the locomotive was an LBSC E2, although the first Thomas on the Rev Awdry's model railway, from Stuart Reidpath, lacked extended tanks. In the 1979 Thomas Annual, shared with us by Ryan Healy, the Rev Wilbert describes:

“I bought Thomas in 1948 when I was writing "Tank Engine Thomas Again", and wanted to start modelling once more after a lapse of some twenty years. Thomas was one of Stewart Reidpath's standard models with a heavy, cast whitemetal body, and was fitted with his ‘Essar’ chassis and motor. Stewart Reidpath is now dead, and his motors, let alone spare parts for them, have been unobtainable for years; but Thomas still keeps going! He is, as you might expect from his age, a temperamental old gentleman, and has to be driven very carefully indeed."

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The 1979 Thomas Annual with thanks to Ryan Healy

From the Railway Modeller, December 1959

Stewart Reidpath's original 00 scale Thomas. From a photo in the Awdry Study, Tywyn published in the Wisbech Advertiser

Thomas' branchline, the Ffarquhar Branch, built by the Rev Awdry, has been in existence from 1955 to the present day.

After Hornby produced the E2 tank in the later 70s, the Rev gladly adapted one to take the role of Thomas on Ffarquhar:

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From the LBSCR Page © Dave Searle

© Colour-Rail. Used with the approval of Brian Sibley

Very ironically, despite Awdry's requests for models, to which the company then called Lines Brothers (Triang-Hornby) responded with Meccano Percy in 1967, Hornby eventually adapted this tool to be Thomas when they started Railway Series models in the 1980s.

For more Info on everyone favourite number one tank engine please visit the Thomas Wikia!

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