Thomas the Tank Engine

This article was first published in The Reader, issue 25. This version is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license, July 2007.

The Tyranny of Thomas

By Chris Routledge

Growing up near to a railway line, trains were as much a part of my childhood as conkers in the Autumn and frogspawn in the Spring. The volcanic rumble of the 100-tonne Class-55 Deltic pulling out of the station on its way to London was our alarm clock on school days. In the holidays a favourite activity was persuading train crews to let us into the cab for a few minutes while they waited at the platform. Even now I have a working, if not encyclopedic, knowledge of the diesel locomotives of that era. And naturally Thomas the Tank Engine was big in our house.

What I didn’t realise then, but know only too well now, is that Thomas exerts a tyranny over small children and their parents. Skip forwards thirty or so years from those innocent days at the end of the platform and you will find me in an armchair with my daughter on my knee, reading Troublesome Engines or Eight Famous Engines, or one of the many modern stories based on Reverend W. Awdry’s original series. I do them in funny voices, with all the animal noises and steam engine noises. I invent back stories for the characters and suggest silly names for the anonymous ones. Anything to avoid yet another straight read through. When I had a cold, reading Thomas the Tank Engine stories actually made me lose my voice.

But for all my daughter’s relentless demands to “Read Thomas and James!” while chasing me round the house, it is difficult to work out what it is that makes “Thomas and Friends” so attractive. Awdry’s prose is old-fashioned and often clumsy. The stories are repetitive and, by the umpteenth reading, dull. The world Awdry describes is one of rigid hierarchies where everyone knows his (it is almost always his) place and is punished for stepping out of line. The stories scorn the modern world with its newfangled equality and opportunity and free-spiritedness. What must have been charming and reassuring about the books in the 1950s and 1960s is now just nostalgic sheen; and what do toddlers know about nostalgia?

Wilbert Vere Awdry was born in Ampfield, Hampshire, in 1911, the son of a Church of England vicar who was also an amateur railway expert. As a child Awdry went with his father on walks along the railway line, where they talked with men working on the track. Later, when the family moved to Box Hill in Wiltshire, Awdry could hear the railway from his room. In an interview with Brian Sibley for The Listener in 1986, Awdry said: “I would listen to the trains, and it needed little imagination to hear, in the sounds they made, the engines talking to each other. … there developed in my mind the idea that steam engines had personality, and could express it.”1

Awdry became a clergyman himself in 1937 and married in 1938, but maintained his interest in railways. When his three year-old son Christopher fell ill with measles in 1943, Awdry began telling him stories about the adventures of a group of steam engines. He began to write them down and was persuaded to send them to an agent by his wife Margaret. The first book in the series, The Three Railway Engines, appeared in 1945. At first the setting for the stories was non-specific, but as time went by Awdry began to struggle to keep the stories consistent. Taking inspiration from the Church of England diocese of Sodor and Man, he “discovered” the island of Sodor, lying between the Isle of Man and the Lancashire coast. From there he created an imaginary community, using geological features to work out the best place to put the towns, villages, quarries, and beaches. Sodor is linked to the “mainland” with a bridge across a narrow strait, making it a haven for steam engines and the “old ways.” Awdry wrote 30 collections of railway stories, finishing in 1972 with Tramway Engines.

For all their faults the books remain a central part of the “Thomas and Friends” franchise established by Christopher Awdry, who also took over writing new books. The strong storylines, the switchback emotions of the engines, and the clear “lessons” they have to learn, seem to resonate with the lives of small children. Awdry himself claimed that it was the truthfulness of his stories that made them so successful. Early illustrators of the books knew very little about railways and made factual mistakes which Awdry then had to explain to young correspondents. But as the series grew, so did its accuracy and attention to detail. Awdry made sure that everything that happens to the engines has some grounding in reality, basing the stories on tales he had been told by his father and by railwaymen.

In common with many children’s books Awdry’s carry significance that reaches well beyond what a child might understand. Some commentators have picked up on the Cold War context, likening the diesel-dominated “Other Railway” to a totalitarian regime from which dissidents must escape. Several of the stories involve plucky steam engines rescued from the scrap yard. Like his near contemporary, J.R.R. Tolkein, Awdry was fascinated with Norse mythology and Sodor reflects that. His biographer in The St James Guide to Children’s Writers2 makes a connection between the bridge across to Sodor and the “Bifrost Bridge” of Norse mythology, used to escape advancing frost giants.

The series also has value in terms of the history of England, its class structures, its uneasy relationship with public ownership, and with the personal freedoms that sprung from the 1960s. More directly the series chronicles the formation of British Railways and the retreat of privately-owned railways after nationalisation. The arrival and gradual spread of diesel power in the books seems to accompany the waning of a gentler, perhaps mythical England, where stern, patriarchal bosses manage childlike, grateful workers; and where the worst thing that can happen is that an “old lady” drops her parcels on the platform. The implicit class structures behind the Sodor railway are clarified in book six when we discover that The Fat Controller’s full name and title are Sir Topham Hatt. The knighthood confirms that he is more than a mere railway functionary, but has social status as well.

But it is for the characters of the engines–cheeky Percy, arrogant Gordon, earnest Thomas–and their adventures that children love these books. Anyone who doubts their mesmeric power should try reading them aloud in a public place and watch children appear as if from nowhere to listen. Perhaps Awdry’s greatest achievement was his creation of an imaginary world which manages to be both limited in its boundaries but at the same time promises greater things: a world beyond the “big station” at the end of the line. In a way that’s also what the books do. Although a sinking heart, inward groans, and sheer physical pain accompany yet another request to read about how Thomas became a Really Useful Engine, Awdry’s troublesome books are just working a branchline. Beyond the junction, more powerful engines pull faster, heavier trains: all we have to do is make the connection.

1 Sibley, Brian “A Runaway Success,” in The Listener, May 15, 1986, pp. 13-14.
2 “W(ilbert) V(ere) Awdry.” St. James Guide to Children’s Writers, 5th ed. St. James Press, 1999.