If you visit the little parish church of St Mary Magdalene, Rodborough, in rural Gloucestershire, you may be more than a little surprised at one of the stained glass windows.
It features Thomas the Tank Engine. Yes, Thomas the Tank Engine from TV. Thomas the Tank Engine from the toy shop.
It’s not a shameless attempt to hang on the coat-tails of a children’s media phenomenon – far from it, because, if anything, Rodborough Parish Church is the spiritual home of the famous steam engine.
The original stories of Thomas were written by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, who was an Anglican vicar and pastor for 60 years. He wrote the original stories to entertain his son, Christopher. He and his wife moved to Rodborough in 1967 and spent many happy years in the Parish – and that’s why there’s a stain glass window featuring Thomas the Tank Engine. The window was designed by Alfred Fisher who worked with Wilbert on the design of the window.
Wilbert Awdry was the son of a clergyman who was also a railway buff. His father, Vere, had built a model railway layout in the vicarage garden. Before Wilbert learned to read, he was looking at the pictures in his fathers railway magazine. He also met and chatted with local railway men while walking around the parish with his father.
The family later moved to Wiltshire, where the young Wilbert would lie in bed listening to Great Western Railway trains puffing from Paddington to Bristol. “There was no doubt,” he once told his biographer, Brian Sibley, “that steam engines all had definite personalities. Little imagination was needed to hear, in the puffings and pantings, the conversation they were having with one another.”
And that was the seed that became Thomas the Tank Engine and his world.
Wilbert Awdry was ordained in 1936, and worked as a curate in Hampshire and Wiltshire. But in 1939, with the outbreak of war, his pacifist views caused him to be asked to leave his parish and he was considering giving up the ministry until he was appointed to a curacy in Birmingham by the Bishop of Birmingham who was also a pacifist.
It was while the family were in Birmingham that the Awdry’s son, Christopher, fell ill with measles. Wilbert entertained the youngster with stories about a little old steam engine who was sad because he was not being used.
Awdry amused his son with a story about a little old engine. When Christopher asked what the engine’s name was, his father replied that it was Edward. And the story became “Edward’s Day Out”.
The morality of the stories is clear and Christian
The story became a family favourite and was told and retold, until eventually it was written down and illustrated with line drawings featuring steam engines with faces at the front – an image that Thomas the Tank Engine fans would be instantly familiar with.
Wilbert’s wife Margaret encouraged – you could even say badgered – him to offer the story to be published, and the first book in the series was “The Three Railway Engines” which included “Edward’s Day Out”.
The book was a success, and a second volume, featuring Thomas the Tank Engine, was soon published. Wilbert Awdry went on to write a book a year through until 1972, when his last book, “Tramway Engines” was published.
The books were true-to-life, in that the situations they described were all situations that occurred within the rail industry – and Wilbert Awdry was a stickler for sticking to rail industry rules and practices.
But the personalities of the engines enabled Wilbert to use the stories to teach children about Christian principles and morality. if the engines got into trouble (which of course they do) then it’s usually because of their own jealousy, or arrogance, or disobedience.
If they repent, they may be punished but they are always forgiven by the ‘Fat Controller’ – and never scrapped.
And Wilbert enjoyed pointing out the similarities between the Church and British Railways – “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.”
As the stories grew, Wilbert created a world around them – they’re all set on the fictional island of Sodor, and he created maps and a history of that community. He also became involved with some of Britain’s railway preservation societies – most notably the Tal-y-llyn railway in mid-Wales, which features in several of the books. In return, to this day, the Tal-y-llyn engines (above) all have faces on their locomotives.
Thomas the Tank Engine went on to become a world-wide phenomenon, thanks to the TV series which began in 1985. That was not without controversy – when the TV producers made an episode in 2011 which branded Christmas as ‘the winter holidays’, with a ‘holiday tree’ and with all mention of Christmas erased, Wilbert’s daughter, Hilary, wrote an angry letter to Britain’s Daily Telegraph. She said ‘He would feel very strongly about this politically correct age and that those who now wrote his stories should not have taken Christ out of Christmas. He was a priest first and children’s author second.’
Wilbert Awdry died in Stroud, in Gloucestershire in 1997. When asked by biographer Brian Sibley how he would like to be remembered, he said, “I should like my epitaph to say, `He helped people see God in the ordinary things of life, and he made children laugh.’ ”
You can find out more about Wilbert Awdry, his faith and his books in Brian Sibley’s autobiography, “The Thomas The Tank Engine Man”, available in paperback, published by Lion Hudson.