Creating Thomas the Tank

21 April 2020
As the cheeky character celebrates its 75th anniversary, Phil Parker retraces the history and evolution of this inter-generational and most famous of locomotives.

Thomas was a tank engine who lived at a big station. He had six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler and a short stumpy dome." - so it was that Thomas the Tank Engine was introduced to us on page four of the second book in the Railway Series.

Thomas was born in 1943 thanks to a bout of measles afflicting two-year-old Christopher Awdry. His father, the Rev. Wilbert Awdry OBE, invented some stories about trains as a way of entertaining his poorly son and made him a model of the locomotive that became Edward.

After the war, his wife encouraged him to seek a publisher for his stories and the first book, The Three Railway Engines, appeared courtesy of Kaye & Ward in 1945. As well as Edward, this book introduced us to Gordon and Henry.

Gordon the Big Engine.  Based on the experimental prototype built in 1922 for Sir Nigel Gresley's A1 Pacific design for the Great Northern Railway. (Bachmann model)

The series could well have stopped there, but Christopher wanted a model of Gordon. Sadly, in the post-War period, materials were hard to come by and building an express locomotive wasn't possible. Instead, the Reverend built a tank locomotive from 'odds' and 'ends'. The youngster named it Thomas and his father then had to devise more adventures for the new arrival. These were the basis for the book Thomas the Tank Engine, which appeared in 1946.

By now, public demand persuaded Awdry to keep writing the series. In his eyes, locomotives and rolling stock were all children with distinct characters. In one interview he explained “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 and the conversation they were having with one another."

Thomas and Percy were cheeky, misbehaving whenever possible. Gordon was proud, James troublesome, Henry vain. All get their comeuppance and learn valuable lessons. Unsurprisingly for a vicar, there is a moral to each tale.

Just as importantly for the author, the reader learns about real railway operation. Awdry was involved as a volunteer guard with the nascent Talyllyn Railway (TR) as well as other preservation societies. He wrote a non-fiction book on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, and served as the Editor of Industrial Archaeology of Gloucestershire. When appearing on Desert Island Discs, two of the records he chose were steam train soundtracks.

He was also a railway modeller, exhibiting his own Thomas layout at the International Model Railway Exhibition (IMREX) several times. In addition, there was an extensive layout based on Barrow-in-Furness in the attic at Emneth.

Reverent Awdry exhibiting his own layout

The Rev. Awdry operating an early version of the Ffarquhar Railway.

Awdry didn't just create characters, he invented an entire island for his trains. Sodor is situated between mainland Britain and the Isle of Man. An enthusiast's paradise, all the locations are based on real places and railway lines, especially those on the narrow gauge where the TR and Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway are the Skarloey Railway and Arlesdale Railway respectively. This was made explicit and young readers were encouraged to persuade their parents to pay a visit to the lines on school holidays.

Isle of Sodor

In the Irish Sea, between Barrow-in-Furness and the Isle of Man, you will find the Isle of Sodor.

“Discovered” by Wilbert and his younger brother George Awdry, they created the entire island, complete with history and landscape, for the railway stories to take place. The name derives from the Manx Diocese of Sodor and Man, the boys deciding that while there is an Isle of Man, there wasn't an Isle of Sodor – at least until they invented it.

62 miles wide and 51 miles long, Sodor is considerably larger than Man. The capital is the city of Suddery, but the largest city is Tidmouth, which makes a number of appearances in the books.

The North Western Railway is the main transport provider, with a main line from Vicarstown, where it connects with the UK via a bridge. Nine standard gauge branches connect the main towns. There are four narrow gauge railways including the Culdee Fell railway that climbs the island's highest mountain in the same way as the Snowdon Mountain Railway does in Wales.

It was important to Awdry that the railway maintained a consistent look. Readers had spotted inconsistencies between illustrations so he used the background history to prevent this. Of course it didn't stop every mistake, hence the creation of The Fat Controller, who could be blamed for making changes.

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Bringing Thomas to life

Books weren't the only place Thomas appeared. In 1957, Awdry narrated two stories for vinyl records. A few years later, popular television presenter Johnny Morris records a series of albums for Delyse Records. Whereas the author simply read the books, Morris enhanced the story with his own sound puffs and chug sound effects, in a similar manner to his work on the TV series Animal Magic around the same time. This must have gone down well because Morris reading the story Edward and Gordon would also go to the desert island with its author.

The popularity of the books had reached the BBC and in 1953 it decided to televise them using Hornby OO gauge models on purpose-built sets. Episode one, The Sad Story of Henry was broadcast live on Sunday, June 14 from the Lime Grove studios. Live TV drama was common as video recording facilities were at best primitive so sadly, no version exists today.

By all accounts, the programme was a bit of a disaster. An incorrectly set point derailed Henry and a giant hand is suddenly seen putting him back on the track. Awdry complained about this and the unrealistically jerky movement of the trains. A planned second programme was cancelled and the author and publisher decided to concentrate on producing books, instead.

The models

The very first models from the Railway Series, were created by Awdry. Thomas initially looked like an LNER J50 with smaller tanks, painted blue with 'NW' on the sides. Sadly, this model was lost in the U.S.. This push-along model was replaced by an RTR locomotive. Awdry explained, "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 20 years. Thomas was one of Stewart Reidpath's standard models with a heavy, cast white metal body." 

Lack of spares caused this to be replaced by a modified Tri-ang 'Jinty' and then later a Hornby LBSC tank in 1980.

Commercially, the first model in the shops came from Meccano. 1965 saw the production of an O gauge clockwork Percy, complete with a yellow truck and red goods van. Surprisingly, this didn't sell well and the model later appeared with the face replaced with a red smokebox. Perhaps this is why it was the last O gauge train set made at the famous Binns Road factory?

Hornby took on the licence in 1985, eventually producing 22 different models. Many were based on existing tooling, sometimes modified to look more like the character. 

Thomas was easy – the locomotive was based on an LB&SCR 0-6-0T 'E1' and there was already one in the electric range. However, it also produced clockwork models of Thomas and Percy, which were produced from scratch with very different, arguably closer to the TV series, proportions to the electric models. Initial productions of Thomas have faces resembling those from the books. After a year, this was retooled to match the TV series. 

Other locomotives required more work. James is the Tri-ang '3F' with an extension to smokebox and chassis. Edward is an LNER 'D49' fitted with a taller chimney and cylinders removed. 

James the Red Engine. Based on L&YR Class 28, mixed-traffic tender locomotives. According to The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways, James is an experimental member of the class fitted with a front pony truck , larger driving wheels and a Fowler tender. (Bachmann model)

Rolling stock was based on existing models. Pedants pointed out that coaches Annie and Clarabel had two axles from Hornby and in the TV series, whereas the books gave them bogies. 

Märklin produced a German range of models in 2006 using chassis designed for its three-rail system and Hornby bodies. Hornby gave up the licence in 2018.

Bachmann USA has long held the licence in the U.S. and produces a large number of models in OO gauge, although labelled HO for the local market. As well as the standard gauge items, OO9 models of the Skarloey Railway appeared in 2015. G scale models appeared in 2009 and because the Hornby licence only covered OO/HO models, they were allowed to be sold in the UK. All the models were created from scratch to represent the character from the TV series and usually include moving eyes and in OO gauge, are fitted with Next 18 DCC sockets. 

While the OO gauge range couldn't officially be imported, models found their way across the Atlantic in small numbers. The OO9 locomotives are particularly popular and kits exist to adapt them to TR prototypes. 

Bachmann has the licence and revealed the first examples from the range at the 2020 London Toy Fair. These should appear on our shelves in the autumn. An N gauge range is also under development. 

Finally TV success 

It would be over 20 years before another attempt was made to bring the characters to our screen. In the meantime, comedian Ted Ray had read five books on the BBC's Jackanory but he was simply sitting in a stationmaster's office with occasional illustrations appearing on screen.

Andrew Lloyd-Webber remembered the books from his childhood and by 1973, enjoyed the clout and finance to believe he could create a series and sell it around the world. Awdry worked directly with Lloyd-Webber as both he and the publishers weren't confident about the plans. Part of the problem was that the deal required all the rights and control of the characters to be signed over, essential (apparently) for deals to be done in the U.S.. As the good Reverend predicted, “Once the Americans get hold of it, the whole series would be vulgarized and ruined.”

The plan was for a series featuring 2D cut-outs in the style of the illustrations in the books. These would be animated in a way that would be familiar to anyone who watched Ivor the Engine as a child. A pilot episode was produced in 1976, but the sale of the show to the U.S. never happened and the project didn't proceed further. Lloyd-Webber went on to write Starlight Express, based on a very similar concept to the railway series and called his organisation 'The Really Useful Group' after a description of Thomas.

Thomas finally became a hit thanks to TV Producer, Britt Allcroft. Researching a documentary on the Bluebell Railway, home to Stepney from the series, she met Awdry and read the books. The stories quickly cast a spell. "It really didn't take me long to become intrigued by the characters, the relationships between them and the nostalgia they invoked," she later said.

Five years were spent securing the finance to get the series into production and 1984 saw stories from the first eight books filmed using gauge one models on giant sets. Märklin chassis were fitted with purpose-built bodies to represent the characters.

26 episodes were filmed, narrated by Ringo Starr. All but one were from the books, the final Thomas' Christmas Party being a brand new tale written by Allcroft and David Mitton. It was subsequently adapted into a book by Awdry.

Bachmann OO and G scale models of Thomas.

Series two in 1986 adapted more of the Rev. Awdry's stories, plus one from Christopher Awdry, who had taken over writing the series in 1983, adding 20 books until 2011.

At this point, the series was re-worked for the American market as a segment within the show Shining Time Station. For this, an alternative narration had to be provided to accommodate American English. Ringo Starr continued with his duties for the first series, being replaced after this by George Carlin.

By 1992, the UK series was back in production but featuring fewer Awdry stories and more written by Allcroft and Mitton. The excuse was that the originals introduced many new characters that would require more models and locations, greatly increasing the production costs.

Sadly, this meant that the railway realism started to dissipate. Henry's Forest saw the locomotive stop to look at some trees, a contravention of British Railways Rule 55, which states that the driver should contact the signalman if the train has to stop for more then three minutes in a section. Allcroft didn't appreciate Awdry pointing this out, nor his complaint that the line ran far too close to the trees and a stray spark could have started a fire.

Toby the Tram Engine. Spotted by the Rev. Awdry on holiday in Yarmouth, Toby is a J70 steam tram built by the LNER. He would have worked thr Wisbech and Upwell Tramway, close to the authors Emneth home. (Bachmann model)

Series four returned to the books and introduced the narrow gauge trains, but the next series abandoned original material entirely. New characters were introduced, some based on ones in the books but others to provide a basis for more “edgy” tales and dramatic plot lines.

At the turn of the millennium, Thomas made it to the big screen as the star of his first film Thomas and the Magic Railroad. Aimed at the US market, British viewers found themselves having to deal with American terms, but it still covered its costs, making a tiny profit.

By this point, very little of the railway realism remained. One of the main characters is Diesel 10, a Class 42 'Warship', fitted with a preposterous crabbing arm on the roof. The Rev. Awdry didn't live to see this, passing away in 1997.

By 2009 and series 13, production had moved away from physical models to CGI. The appearance of the locomotives changed slightly and additional voices joined the narrator.

Toy giant, Mattel, obtained the rights to the series in 2012 and continued production of TV shows and films. Recently, Edward, Henry and Toby have been relegated to the supporting cast of characters to make way for new lead locomotives. One of the problems for a 21st Century production company is that nearly all the original characters were male. Only Mavis and Daisy provided gender balance. The locomotives were 'in charge' and male. Coaches were pulled around, and were female.

While these changes might have generated a lot of controversy in the press, it's hardly surprising that such a long-lived and loved series of stories has needed to evolve over time. Despite this, Thomas and his friends are still popular with children worldwide. On its 75th birthday, there doesn't seem to be any sign of this changing either, ensuring a healthy supply of railway enthusiasts for the future.

The Talyllyn Railway Museum

Seen in the TR museum, the entire Ffarquhar layout.

Located at Tywyn Wharf station, the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum is collection of artifacts relating to narrow gauge railways in the British Isles. 

Member No. 79 - Rev. Awdry's connection to the TR resulted in the contents of his study finding their way to the museum after his death. A section of the room has been recreated in the museum (pictured below), along with a display of artifacts including a model of the Ffarquhar Railway. 

For more information, visit the museum website:

For more model railway inspiration covering all gauges from OO gauge through to N gauge, click here.