‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, the Rev. W. Awdry and the growth of a ‘brand’

There are children’s authors and then there are Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne and the Reverend W.V. Awdry. Each one of these, in their own way, is a giant in the field and they have spawned – after their deaths – whole industries involving ‘special editions’, cartoons, gift items (everything from high-end ceramics to foodstuffs) and even ‘re-branding’ of the original characters. Did I mention, by the way, just how much I utterly hate, loathe and despise what Disney has done to Winnie the Pooh? I am quite certain that Ernest Howard Shepard is turning in his grave at a very respectable rate of knots (despite the fact that he came to dislike the fact that he was always thought of just as the illustrator of the ‘Winnie the Pooh’ books, and his other work ignored).

I have no doubt that the holders of the copyright of the many works involved would argue that they have every right to protect the public image and intellectual property of the estate involved or the authors concerned, and maximize the return for their shareholders. I know that in the United States at least, those who break the copyright law, (Title 17 of the US Code), are pursued most vigorously, if they can be reached, that is. However, what happened to the works of the Reverend Awdry, OBE, is the subject of some controversy.

When he was a boy, in the early 1920s, Wilbert Awdry was brought up in a house less than a quarter of a mile from Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway tunnel at Box, Wiltshire, where Brunel’s Great Western Railway ran through, on its way from Bath to Paddington Station, London. The cricket ground at Box is only a couple of hundred yards away from the line, and when I used to play there (in the Wiltshire League), I marveled at the way the modern trains rushed out of the tunnel and up the incline towards their distant goal. These powerful diesel locomotives need no assistance now, but in Awdry’s day, a ‘banker’ – a small steam engine that was coupled onto a train to provide extra motive power – was stationed at the bottom of the incline, to assist the fast express trains. Awdry undoubtedly fell asleep to the sound of steam engines labouring away on the main line, and this sound would affect him deeply in later life. Wilbert Awdry went up to Oxford where he gained a BA and a diploma in theology, in 1933. Eventually, in 1936, he followed the example of his father, and became an Anglican priest.

The Reverend Awdry occupied various ecclesiastical posts, but his pacifist stance on the outbreak of WW2 offended his bishop, and he was obliged to find a new position. By now he was married, with a son Christopher, and it was whilst his son was ill, in 1943, and demanding stories, that the Reverend Awdry began to amuse the sick 3-year old with tales about a small railway, and the engines and other rolling stock – which he named – and the ‘Fat Director’ (as he was initially called). Later, this rotund personage would become (when the actual British railways were Nationalized in 1947) the Fat Controller, Sir Topham Hatt. Although Wilbert Awdry had intended these short tales to be for the amusement of his own children, especially Christopher, it became obvious that the mythical island of Sodor, on which they were set, and the anthropomorphized steam engines, coaches, steam shovels and ‘buses had great general appeal.

The very first book in what was to become the ‘Railway Series’ – ‘The Three Engines’ – was published in 1946, when the British wartime restrictions on the use of paper (No 48, Paper Control Order, 1942) for publishing books had been partially lifted. This little book featuring the three ‘shedmates’, the engines named Edward, Gordon and Henry, was published by Edmund Ward & Co, and was just 72 pages long. The author did not care for the original illustrations by William Middleton, so they were re-drawn by C. Reginald Dalby, who lasted through Book no. 11, ‘Percy the Small Engine’. The Reverend Awdry seems to have had his problems with illustrators for he disagreed strongly with Dalby’s depiction of Percy, describing the little engine as looking like “a green caterpillar with red stripes”. Dalby was replaced for Book No. 12, ‘The Eight Famous Engines’. The books usually contained four short tales (rarely three or five), which often had a moral flavour, or a ‘teaching moment’, contained therein. There were wildly successful from the outset, and even I can remember pouring over the brightly coloured panels and simple text, when I was four or five. I felt an affinity to the stories in the little books, because lying in my bed, I could hear the sound of the big London, Midland & Scottish locomotives – and their high-pitched whistles – as they rushed through the night along the main London to Sheffield line, just over the hill. Later, this would bring me to the superb poem, and short film, ‘Night Mail’, which wonderfully summed up that whole moment in time. All the ‘Rialway Series’ books have a straightforward set of moral plot points – virtue is rewarded, pride leads to a fall, misdeeds do not prosper the individual, yet redemption is always possible.

The mythical isle of Sodor was supposed to lie in the Irish Sea, halfway between the mainland and the Isle of Man. When British Railways withdrew steam locomotives, Sodor, of course, kept them in service (although Awdrey did introduce some diesel engines in later books). Thomas the Tank Engine, the most beloved of all the engines, made his initial appearance in the eponymous Book No. 2. As with all the books, there is a page of text (fairly simple, yet with a wide-ranging vocabulary), followed by a colour-plate.There would be a total of 26 books by the Reverend Awdry, ending with ‘The Tramway Engines’, in 1972, after which he retired from writing. There was a gap of 11 years, until 1983, during which time the original TV cartoon series had been successfully shown, voiced amazingly by Ringo Starr.

Wibert Awdry was not just an author, he was a total railway enthusiast, building model railway layouts in each house the family lived in, becoming a volunteer guard on the Talyllyn preserved narrow-gauge railway in Wales, and visiting many other heritage lines in the U.K. It was on one of these trips, to the Nene Valley Railway at Wansford, that the Reverend Awdry saw an 0-6-0 industrial tank engine, No. 1800, manufactured in 1947 by Hudwell, Clarke and Co. Ltd, of Leeds; No. 1800 had spent its entire working life pushing trucks filled with sugar beet up an incline at the British Sugar Corporation factory at Peterborough, until replaced by a diesel in 1973. The Reverend Awdry decided that the little tank engine epitomized the spirit of ‘Thomas’, and agreed that it should be so named! Consequently, a diamond shaped brass plate was affixed to No. 1800, which reads ‘This locomotive was named Thomas, by the Reverend W Awdry, author of the famous Thomas the Tank engine books, on 26th June, 1971’. The locomotive was painted in the ‘Thomas’ colour scheme, and a circular ‘face’ secured to the front of the smokebox (of which, more later). This wasn’t the only heritage railway that had an engine either named by the Reverend Awdry, or where one was named in his honour; the Bluebell Line had an 0-6-0 named ‘Stepney’, the Forest of Dean Railway renamed a 0-6-0ST Hunslet Austerity class loco, ‘Wilbert’, and the Talyllyn Railway named two narrow-gauge engines ‘Sir Handel’ and ‘Peter Sam’!

The Reverend Awdry, unfortunately, did not make a lot in the way of royalties from the books, whilst giving up the copyright to what was now Kaye & Ward Ltd. The TV rights were licensed by K & W to Britt Allcraft Ltd. When Heinemann bought K & W in 1984, TV began to drive the ‘brand’, and in 1996, when Heinemann sold its children’s publishing arm, the successor to Britt Allcoft, HIT entertainment, snapped up all the rights to the Railway Series! Now, the original books are no longer reprinted, and ‘Thomas and Friends’ (TM) has become a global brand, with TV programmes, toys, computer games, stage shows, and theme parks in Japan and the U.K. and a massive marketing effort.

It was found, ever since autism was recognized, that children on the ‘autism spectrum’ were in many cases drawn to Thomas. Therefore, the interest in Thomas increased by leaps and bounds. HIT Entertainment decided to organize ‘Days Out With Thomas’, where heritage railways would pay a fee to HIT to hold an event which would boost their attendance. Many bought into this concept, but some, including those that owned engines named by the Reverend Awdry, decided to continue to hold their own independent events. HIT did NOT appreciate this, and threatened action through the courts. Some railways took legal advice, and ignored HIT’s demands. Nene Valley was on especially strong ground, of course, and ensured that HIT had no cause to complain by making sure that their ‘Thomas’ had a face which in NO way resembled that of the tank engine shown on the TV.

It is sad when an iconic series of children’s books is subsumed by a massive international corporation who could not care less about the original works. Children have a right to see the Railway Series as they were written, and to be introduced to the Reverend Awdry’s gentle vision in its original pure form, if possible.





One comment on “‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, the Rev. W. Awdry and the growth of a ‘brand’”

  1. Non-fiction is often more interesting than fiction and you have shown that to be so true with this story 🙂


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