Railway to heaven

Monday, April 5 2010

Front dustjacket illustration of Brian Sibley’s biography of the Rev Wilbert Awdry, The Thomas the Tank Engine Man, published by Heinemann in 1995.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph Lucinda Everett has just published her list of The 20 greatest children’s books ever. The list includes many perennial  favourites such as Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, Edith Nesbitt’s The Railway Children and Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Modern works include Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy.

Missing from Ms Everett list are such best sellers as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden or Lemony Snicket’s A series of unfortunate events. Sadly, but predictably, the works of the 20th century’s best selling children’s author are never included on such lists. By the time the Reverend Wilbert Awdry died in March 1997, over 50 million books had been published all around the world featuring Thomas the Tank Engine or the other locomotives of the Isle of Sodor. Today the figure must surely be over 60 million.

Three generations of British railway enthusiasts have been weaned on Thomas. Thanks to the spin off TV series by Britt Allcroft children learn to distinguish between its various engine heroes before they learn to read. The Rev W Awdry was a stickler for realism and the mishaps suffered by his engines were gleaned from careful study of The Railway Gazette. If you read in one of his stories that an engine fell down a disused mine, or had a fish in its water tank, you can be sure that somewhere, on some railway, a similar event had really happened.

In the books these accidents were brought about by the arrogance, stubbornness, jealousy or ambition of the engine involved. The message is clear: misbehaviour leads to suffering or punishment – such as being relegated to shunting – repentance leads to forgiveness. Writing Awdry’s obituary in The Independent Brian Sibley commented, the analogies between the Christian faith and the ways of the railway are obvious: the engines are meant to follow the straight and narrow way and pay the price if they go off the rails. No wonder Awdry enjoyed drawing the parallels between railways and the Church: “Both had their heyday in the mid-19th century; both own a great deal of Gothic-style architecture which is expensive to maintain; both are regularly assailed by critics; and both are firmly convinced that they are the best means of getting man to his ultimate destination.”



  1. It’s a very long time since I read any of the “Railway Series” – as a small child, I actually didn’t like the books much; I took railways with great seriousness, and got upset at any mishap on them, which the good Reverend recounted. From what I remember, though (and fair enough, they were aimed first and foremost at young children, so he kept things simple): the more thorny thickets were avoided – such matters as “bad things happening to good engines”, or eternal damnation (being under the scrapper’s torch over and over again throughout eternity?).

  2. In the closing paragraphs of Awdry’s biography Sibley quotes Awdry saying this about his engines, Like us humans, they go their own way and inevitably come to a sticky end. Then the offender has to show that he is sorry and accept his punishment. But, the point is, they are punished, but they are NEVER scrapped.

  3. “Look at me,” wheeshed James. “I’m a splendid red engine!”

    We know what will happen next.

    “I see you’ve learnt your lesson, James” said the Fat Controller.

    It’s not for nothing that the Rev W Awdry was Britain’s greatest 20th Century mystical philosopher.

    To the Seven Deadly Sins, the Rev W Awdry added Cheekiness. “Poof! Do you smell what I smell?” asked Thomas.

    And took away lust. (Unless I missed “Get your knockers out, Daisy!” panted Gordon.)

    ‘NEVER scrapped’ – but wasn’t there that American narrow-gauge engine that didn’t give a dime for smooth running and rode rough-shod, who had his wheels removed? (I found that shocking as a child).

    • ‘NEVER scrapped’ – but wasn’t there that American narrow-gauge engine that didn’t give a dime for smooth running and rode rough-shod, who had his wheels removed?

      There was indeed! Based on Baldwin 590 of the Welsh Highland Railway.

  4. Mention of Daisy brings to mind, that feminists have spoken against the “Railway Series”, for its being a highly male-chauvinist scene. All the locos are male; the coaches are female, and thus meekly follow … and I seem to recall that Daisy the diesel railcar is a bit of a pain – forever whingeing that she is “highly sprung”, and that various things are “bad for her swerves”… Well, you can’t please everybody ; and it’s unlikely that gaining the approval of feminists, was high on the Rev.’s agenda.

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