This summer is the centenary of the birth of Thomas the Tank Engine creator Rev W.V. Awdry, whose little blue engine is still as popular today as it was 65 years ago
Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends were born in 1942, when Rev. Awdry made a small toy engine out of wood and wire for his son Christopher as a Christmas present.
“He painted it blue, probably because he happened to have a tin of blue paint in the shed, and it had a one on the bunker because father said that was the easiest number to paint,” Christopher Awdry recalls. “I played with it on the carpet, and I asked him if he would tell me some stories about the little engine. He said yes I will, but it needs to have a name – how about Thomas the Tank Engine?”
Thomas and his friends developed when Christopher caught the measles and his father would entertain him with stories of the coloured engines and draw him pictures of them in their sheds.
Sixty-five years later and Thomas’ face appears on plates, bedding, bubble bath, clocks, armbands and clothes, as well as in the 200 stories that Rev. Awdry went on to publish.
Christopher remembers his mother and two grandmothers having to encourage the reverend to try and get the stories published, as there weren’t sufficient children’s books around because of the war. Awdry eventually found a benefactor in Edmund Ward, who had retired from De Montfort Press in Leicester, and was looking for new children’s stories to invest in.
The first four Thomas the Tank Engine stories were published on May 12 1945 and became firm favourites with children and parents all over Britain. Awdry wrote more stories and came to think of the little engines as fondly as his own children. His daughter Veronica says: “Father never had a favourite character - if he was ever asked he would answer by asking the interviewer if they had children, and if they had a favourite. He would say, well, they’re my children, I don’t have a favourite.”
Thomas’s creator also made frequent appearances in the books as illustrations, and the Awdry family often appeared on the railway station platforms in the books. The Awdry children – Christopher, Veronica and Hilary – say they never foresaw just how far Thomas would go.
“My father used to get letters from parents all over the world saying that they felt the stories were the sort of things that they were happy for their children to read and watch because of the way that they were written – the humanity, and the way that things always came out right,” says Veronica.
“The general recognition that the name gets from all over the world is a bit stunning sometimes,” says Christopher. “How long the stories and TV will continue is anybody’s guess, but having survived 65 years hopefully there’s a bit of steam left.”