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- “Thomas is the eternal child! Thomas is given a prohibition; naturally, as all children do when they’re told not to do something, they want to know why, and they find out why by doing it.”
- ―Wilbert Awdry, on Thomas' lasting popularity
Wilbert Vere Awdry OBE (15 June 1911 - 21 March 1997) was an English Anglican clergyman, railway enthusiast, and children's author. He was best known for creating The Railway Series and its characters, as well as writing the first twenty-six books in the series from 1945 to 1972. His series and several of his original stories were later adapted for the television show Thomas & Friends by Britt Allcroft.
Wilbert Vere Awdry was born in Romsey, Hampshire on 15 June 1911. The son of Lucy and Vere Awdry, he was educated at Dauntseys School, West Lavington, Wiltshire; St. Peter's Hall, Oxford (Bachelor of Arts, 1932) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. From 1933 to 1936, he taught at St George’s School in Jerusalem. In that same year, he was ordained into the Anglican priesthood. In 1938 he married Margaret Wale, a fellow teacher from his days in Jerusalem. Thrown out of one curacy and denied another due to his pacifist beliefs, he was finally able to serve in 1940 at St. Nicholas' Church, Kings Norton, Birmingham, where he lived until 1946. He subsequently moved to Cambridgeshire, serving as Rector of Elsworth with Knapwell, 1946-1953 and Vicar of Emneth, 1953-1965. 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 1942 to amuse his son Christopher during a bout of measles at the age of two and a half. The Reverend Awdry did not plan to do anything with the stories; his wife, however, thought otherwise. After the war’s end, these stories were published as The Three Railway Engines. After the publication of the book, Christopher wanted a model of Gordon; but this could not be done. Instead, Awdry made a model of a tank engine from odds and ends, painted it blue, and gave it to Christopher as a Christmas present. Christopher christened the model engine Thomas. Then Christopher requested stories about Thomas, and these stories would be published as Awdry’s second and most famous book, Thomas the Tank Engine.
After Thomas the Tank Engine, Awdry was finished with writing any more books. However, due to popular demand, Awdry pressed onward. By the time Awdry stopped writing in 1972, The Railway Series numbered 26 books. His son Christopher subsequently added sixteen more books to the series, including the later two posthumous releases.
Awdry wrote other books besides those of the Railway Series, both fiction and non-fiction, such as the story "Belinda the Beetle", which was about a red car and the parenting guide "Our Child Begins to Pray". He also worked with P. J. Long to write a nonfiction book regarding the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, and served as the editor of Industrial Archaeology of Gloucestershire.
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. The Reverend was president of the Dean Forest Railway, and in 1987, the railway's Austerity locomotive, G. B. Keeling, was renamed in Awdry's honour.
In 1957, Wilbert narrated the first two stories from The Three Railway Engines for a vinyl record release. He was a guest on The Flying Scotsman's 40th Anniversary run, and gave a short interview for its BBC documentary in 1968. He was later interviewed along with Ringo Starr on TV-AM on the day of the television series' debut. Two years later he was profiled in a BBC Radio 4 program by Brian Sibley, who would eventually go on to write his biography.
In 1988, his second Ffarquhar model railway layout was shown to the public for the final time and was featured on an ITN News news item. He was again featured on TV-AM for Thomas' 40th Anniversary in 1985. During all this, he faced many battles - health problems, depression, and the death of his wife, his brother, and close friend Teddy Boston. Five years later, he gave no protest whilst being interviewed by Nicholas Jones for The Thomas the Tank Engine Man documentary, first aired on 25 February 1995 and repeated again on 15th April 1997 shortly after his death.
Wilbert Awdry was awarded an Order of the British Empire 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 passed away peacefully in Stroud, Gloucestershire on 21 March 1997 at the age of 85. Prior to his death he served as Allcroft's technical consultant. His daughter Veronica Chambers currently lives in his house.
"The Thin Clergyman"
Wilbert Awdry has appeared as himself in The Railway Series under the nickname "The Thin Clergyman". He first made a cameo appearance in Troublesome Engines, but did not have his first speaking role until the Small Railway Engines story, Tit for Tat. He also appeared in Duke the Lost Engine as one of the men looking for Duke, alongside the Fat Clergyman (Teddy Boston) and the Small Controller. In the final volume of the series, Thomas and his Friends, the North Western Railway celebrated his 100th birthday.
The Thin Clergyman has also appeared in Thomas & Friends, first appearing in Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure as a special cameo for the 70th Anniversary. Since then, he has made numerous appearances in the specials and episodes, and made his first speaking role in the Series 20 episode Tit for Tat, reprising his role from the original story. He is voiced by Rob Rackstraw in both dubs.
- Wilbert's name is a combination of his father's two brothers: William and Herbert Awdry.
- Wilbert was affectionately known as "Granpuff" by his grandchildren because the smoke from his pipe looked similar to a steam engine's. The nickname would carry over to The Railway Series in Duke the Lost Engine, becoming the affectionate nickname for Duke.
- According to a podcast from the BBC's "Desert Island Discs", his favourite song was "Baal, We Cry to Thee" by Felix Mendelssohn.
- A. W. Dry & Co. and Wilbert were named after him.