Wilbert Awdry

Wilbert Awdry

Wilbert Awdry in 1988, with one of his creations, "Peter Sam" on the Talyllyn Railway, Wales
Born (1911-06-15)June 15, 1911
Ampfield, Hampshire, England
Died 21 March 1997 (1997-03-22) (aged 85)
Rodborough, Stroud, Gloucestershire, England
Occupation Anglican cleric, railway enthusiast, author
Years active 1945–1997
Spouse Margaret Awdry (née Wale)
(m. 1938–1989; her death)
Children Christopher Awdry (1940-)
Hilary Fortnam (1946-2013)
Veronica Chambers (1941-)

Wilbert Vere Awdry OBE (15 June 1911 – 21 March 1997) was an English Anglican cleric, railway enthusiast, and children's author. Better known as the Reverend W. Awdry, he was the creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, the central figure in his Railway Series.


Awdry was born at Ampfield vicarage near Romsey, Hampshire on 15 June 1911. His father was the Reverend Vere Awdry (1854-1928), the Anglican vicar of Ampfield, and his mother was Lucy Awdry (née Bury) (1884-1965). His younger brother, George, was born on 10 August 1916 and died on 27 October 1994.[1][2] All three of Awdry's older half-siblings from his father's first marriage died young. In 1917 the family moved to Box, in Wiltshire,[3] moving again in 1919 and 1920, still in Box, the third house being "Journey's End" (renamed from "Lorne Villa").[4] which remained the family home until August 1928.[5]

"Journey's End" was only 200 yards (180 m) from the western end of Box Tunnel. There the Great Western Railway main line climbs at a gradient of 1 in 100 for two miles. A banking engine was kept there to assist freight trains up the hill. These trains usually ran at night and the young Awdry could hear them from his bed, listening to the coded whistle signals between the train engine and the banker as well as the sharp bark from the locomotive exhausts as they fought their way up the incline. Awdry related: "There was no doubt in my mind that steam engines all had definite personalities. I would hear them snorting up the grade and little imagination was needed to hear in the puffings and pantings of the two engines the conversation they were having with one another: 'I can't do it! I can't do it! I can't do it!' 'Yes, you can! Yes, you can! Yes, you can!'" Here was the inspiration for the story of Edward helping Gordon's train up the hill, a story that Wilbert first told his son Christopher some 25 years later, and which appeared in the first of the Railway Series books.[4]

Awdry was educated at Marlborough House School, Sussex (1919–24), Dauntseys School, West Lavington, Wiltshire (1924–29); St Peter's Hall, Oxford (BA, 1932) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford where he gained his diploma in theology in 1933. He taught for three years from 1933 to 1936 at St. George's School, Jerusalem. He was ordained to the Anglican priesthood in 1936. In 1938 he married Margaret Wale (1912- 21 March 1989). Remembering the death of his brother in the First World War, Awdry adopted a pacifist ideology when the Second World War started. His bishop told him to find another parish.[6] In 1940 he took a curacy in St. Nicholas' Church, Kings Norton, Birmingham where he lived until 1946. He subsequently moved to Cambridgeshire, serving as Rector of Elsworth with Knapwell (1946–53) and then Vicar of Emneth (1953–65). He retired from full-time ministry in 1965 and moved to Stroud, Gloucestershire.

The characters that would make Awdry famous and the first stories featuring them were invented in 1943 to amuse his son Christopher during a bout of measles. After Awdry wrote The Three Railway Engines, he built Christopher a model of Edward, and some wagons and coaches, out of a broomstick and scraps of wood.[7] Christopher also wanted a model of Gordon; however, as that was too difficult Awdry made a model of a little 0-6-0 tank engine. Awdry said: "The natural name was Thomas – Thomas the Tank Engine".[7] Then Christopher requested stories about Thomas and these duly followed and were published in the famous book Thomas the Tank Engine, released in 1946.

The first book (The Three Railway Engines) was published in 1945, and by the time Awdry stopped writing in 1972, The Railway Series numbered 26 books. Christopher subsequently added further books to the series.

In 1952, Awdry volunteered as a guard on the Talyllyn Railway in Wales, then in its second year of preservation.[8] The railway inspired Awdry to create the Skarloey Railway, based on the Talyllyn, with some of his exploits being written into the stories.[9]

Awdry's enthusiasm for railways did not stop at his publications. He was involved in railway preservation, and built model railways, which he took to exhibitions around the country.

Awdry wrote other books besides those of The Railway Series, both fiction and non-fiction. The story Belinda the Beetle was about a red car (it became a Volkswagen Beetle only in the illustrations to the paperback editions).

Awdry was awarded an OBE in the 1996 New Year's Honours List, but by that time his health had deteriorated and he was unable to travel to London. He died peacefully in Stroud, Gloucestershire, on 21 March 1997, at the age of 85. His ashes are interred at Gloucester Crematorium.

A biography entitled The Thomas the Tank Engine Man was written by Brian Sibley and published in 1995.


Rev. Awdry's study, now preserved in the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum on the Talyllyn Railway

A Class 91 locomotive, 91 124, used to bear the name The Rev W Awdry. A Hunslet Austerity 0-6-0ST (saddle tank) engine on the Dean Forest Railway is named Wilbert after him; and was used as the title character in Christopher Awdry's Railway Series book Wilbert the Forest Engine. In 2015, he was rendered in CGI for a special cameo in Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure, then later in 2016, he was rendered in CGI again as a cameo in, The Great Race.

Letter to Christopher

In the second book in the series, Thomas the Tank Engine, Awdry wrote this "letter" to his son Christopher:[10]

Dear Christopher,
Here is your friend Thomas, the Tank Engine.
He wanted to come out of his station-yard and see the world.
These stories tell you how he did it.
I hope you will like them because you helped me to make them.
Your Loving Daddy

Subsequent books featured a similar letter from the author, addressed to the readers of the book as "Dear Friends", which introduced the background to the stories within the book.

This text also appears at the beginning of Thomas and Friends episodes from 2004-2012. The "letter" appears with a story book showing Thomas on the front cover with "Thomas the Tank Engine" at the top and "By the Rev. W. Awdry" at the bottom. The book then opens up and we see the letter, after the letter is finished a "steam" transition appears and it transitions to the Thomas & Friends theme song. A flash version of this letter can be seen on the Thomas & Friends website as "Author's Message", which inaccurately states that Awdry wrote the letter in The Three Railway Engines (the only Railway Series volume not to begin with a foreword).




  1. "George Awdry".
  2. Belinda Copson, "Awdry, Wilbert Vere (1911–1997)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online edn, Jan 2007 accessed 17 Aug 2010
  3. ODNB
  4. 1 2 Sibley, Brian (1995). The Thomas the Tank Engine Man. Heinemann. p. 50. ISBN 0-434-96909-5.
  5. Sibley, Brian (1995). The Thomas the Tank Engine Man. Heinemann. p. 62. ISBN 0-434-96909-5.
  6. Jones, Nicholas (7 January 2010). "Why the grumpy vicar who created Thomas The Tank Engine ended up hating him". (An analysis of why the books were no longer in print and how Awdry viewed the TV series.). Daily Mail online. Retrieved 26 January 2011.
  7. 1 2 Sibley, Brian (1995). The Thomas the Tank Engine Man. Heinemann. pp. 112–113. ISBN 0-434-96909-5.
  8. "Thomas the Tank writer's centenary marked at Talyllyn". BBC News. 15 June 2011. Retrieved 15 June 2011.
  9. Potter, D. (1990). The Talyllyn Railway. David St John Thomas. p. 89. ISBN 0-946537-50-X.
  10. Rev. W. Awdry (1946). Thomas the Tank Engine. Edmund Ward (Publishers) Ltd. p. 3. ISBN 0-434-92779-1.

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