The Railway Series
Map showing the railways on the fictional Island of Sodor
|Author||Rev. W. Awdry |
|Illustrator||William Middleton |
C. Reginald Dalby
John T. Kenney
|Cover artist||(see illustrators above)|
|Subject(s)||Railways, and their engines|
|Publication date||1945–1996, 2007|
The Railway Series is a set of story books about a fictional railway system located on the fictional Island of Sodor and the engines that lived on it. There are currently 41 books in the series, the first being published in 1945. Twenty-six were written by Rev. W. Awdry up to 1972. From 1983 to 1996 a further fourteen were written by his son, Christopher Awdry. Christopher has now written an additional book, Thomas and Victoria, taking the series to 41. It is due for publication in September 2007.
Nearly all the stories in The Railway Series were based upon real-life events. As a life-long railway enthusiast, Wilbert was keen that his stories should be as realistic as possible. The engine characters were almost all based upon real classes of locomotive, and some of the railways themselves were directly based upon real lines in the British Isles.
The books are now best known as the basis of the children's television series Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.
Audio adaptations of The Railway Series have been recorded at various times under the title The Railway Stories.
The Rev. W. Awdry's books - the origins of the series
The stories began in 1942. When Christopher Awdry had measles, his father would tell him stories and rhymes. One of Christopher's favourite rhymes was,
- Early in the morning,
- Down at the station,
- All the little engines
- Standing in a row.
- Along comes the driver,
- Pulls a little lever
- Puff puff, chuff chuff,
- Off we go!
The precise origins of this rhyme are unknown. Wilbert Awdry's answers to Christopher's questions about the rhyme led to the creation of a short story, 'Edward's Day Out'. This told the story of Edward the Blue Engine, an old engine who is allowed out of the shed for a day. Another story about Edward followed, which this time also featured a character called Gordon the Big Engine, named after a rather bossy child who lived on the same road as Christopher.
A third story, 'The Sad Story of Henry', had its origins in a limerick:
- Once an engine attached to a train
- Was afraid of a few drops of rain.
- It went into a tunnel
- And squeaked through its funnel
- And never came out again.
As with the previous rhyme, the origins of this are unknown, but research by Brian Sibley suggests that it originated at some point prior to the First World War. This story introduced the popular characters Henry the Green Engine and the Fat Director. Encouraged by Margaret, his wife, Wilbert submitted the three stories to Edmund Ward for publication in 1943. The head of the children's books division requested a fourth story to bring the three engines together and redeem Henry, who had been bricked up in a tunnel in the previous story. Although Wilbert had not intended that the three engines live on the same railway, he complied with the request in the story 'Edward, Gordon and Henry'. The four stories were published in 1945 as a single volume, The Three Railway Engines, illustrated by William Middleton.
Christmas 1942 saw the genesis of the character that grew to become the most famous locomotive in the world. Wilbert constructed a toy tank engine for Christopher, which gained the name Thomas. Stories about Thomas were requested by Christopher, and 1946 saw the publication of Thomas the Tank Engine. (The foreword from this book is used at the beginning of current seasons of Thomas & Friends), This was illustrated by Reginald Payne, whom Wilbert felt to be a great improvement over Middleton. Like its predecessor, this book was a success and Wilbert was asked to write stories about James, a character who first appeared in 'Thomas and the Breakdown Train', the final story in Thomas the Tank Engine. The book James the Red Engine appeared in 1948, the year in which the railways in Britain were nationalised, and from this point onwards the Fat Director was known by his familiar title of the Fat Controller.
James the Red Engine was notable as the first book to be illustrated by C. Reginald Dalby, perhaps the most famous of the Railway Series artists, and certainly the most controversial. Dalby illustrated every volume up to Percy the Small Engine (1956), and also produced new illustrations for The Three Railway Engines and made changes to those of Thomas the Tank Engine.
In making the stories as real as possible, Awdry took a lot of inspiration from a number of sources in his extensive library, and found the Railway Gazette's 'Scrapheap' column particularly useful as a source of unusual railway incidents that were recreated for the Railway Series characters.
Rev. Awdry continued working on the Railway Series until 1972, when Tramway Engines (book 26 in the series) was published. However, he had been finding it increasingly difficult to come up with ideas for new stories, and after this he felt that "the well had run dry" and so decided that the time had come to retire. He wrote no further Railway Series volumes, but later wrote a spin-off story for the television series Thomas' Christmas Party and expanded versions of some of his earlier stories, as well as The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways. In addition, he wrote a number of short stories and articles for Thomas the Tank Engine Annuals.
Christopher Awdry's books – the continuation of the series
Christopher Awdry, for whom the stories were first devised, continued writing the stories almost by accident. He was a keen railway enthusiast like his father, and it was on a visit to the Nene Valley Railway that he received the inspiration for his first story. A railwayman's account of a locomotive running out of steam short of its destination became 'Triple Header', a story in which Thomas, Percy and Duck take on Gordon's Express but find it more than they can handle. Christopher devised three other stories, 'Stop Thief!', 'Mind That Bike' and 'Fish'.
He showed them to his father, who suggested that he submit them for publication, with his blessing. At the time, work on the television adaptation was underway, and so Kaye and Ward (then publishers of the series) were willing to revive the Railway Series. The book Really Useful Engines was published in 1983. By coincidence, Rev. W. Awdry had considered this as a title for his own 27th volume before abandoning the project.
Thirteen more books followed, including the series' 50th anniversary volume, Thomas and the Fat Controller's Engines. A number of stories were also written for the television series, most notably More About Thomas the Tank Engine, the Railway Series' 30th volume.
However, Christopher Awdry found himself increasingly coming into conflict with his publishers, which ironically arose through the success of the television series. The television series had made Thomas its central character, and therefore the most well-known of the engines. Consequently, the publishers were increasingly demanding stories that would focus on Thomas at the expense of other characters. As a compromise, volumes appeared that were named after Thomas but did not actually focus upon him. Thomas and the Fat Controller's Engines featured only one story about Thomas and Thomas Comes Home did not feature Thomas until the last page.
The series' 40th and (at the time of writing) final volume, New Little Engine, appeared in 1996. The then publisher, Egmont Fleetway, expressed no further interest in publishing new Railway Series books and allowed the existing back catalogue to go out of print.
Despite this setback, in 2005 his own publishing company, Sodor Enterprises, published a book entitled Sodor: Reading Between the Lines. This volume expanded the fictional world of Sodor up to the present day and dealt with many of the factual aspects of the series. With this publishing company he also wrote several railway-based children's books, most of which were set on real railways in Britain. He continues to promote the original stories and to participate in Railway Series-related events.
Fortunately, for fans of the series, the publishers reviewed their policy and, in 2006, started to re-introduce the books in their original format. After many years of being unavailable, the fourteen books written by Christopher are finally due to be re-released, early in August 2007.
Furthermore, Christopher has written a new book, extending the series to 41 volumes. The new book, titled "Thomas and Victoria", addresses issues relating to the railway preservation movement. It is illustrated by Clive Spong, and is scheduled for publication on 3 September, 2007.
The Railway Series is perhaps as highly regarded for its illustrations as for its writing, which in the immediate post-Second World War era were seen as uniquely vivid and colourful. Indeed, some critics (notably Miles Kington) have claimed that the quality of the illustrations outshines that of the writing, an accusation that fans have been quick to deny.
The first edition of The Three Railway Engines was illustrated by the artist William Middleton, with whom Wilbert Awdry was deeply dissatisfied. The second artist to work on the series was Reginald Payne, who illustrated Thomas the Tank Engine in a far more realistic style. Despite an early disagreement as to how Thomas should look, Awdry was ultimately pleased with the pictures produced.
Payne proved impossible to contact to illustrate James the Red Engine, and so C. Reginald Dalby was hired. Dalby illustrated the next eight books in the series. The Three Railway Engines was reprinted with Dalby's artwork replacing William Middleton's and he also touched up the artwork for the second book. His work on the series proved popular with readers, but not so with the author, who repeatedly clashed with him over issues of accuracy and consistency. Dalby resigned from the series in 1956, following an argument over the portrayal of Percy the Small Engine in the book of the same name. Despite the tempestuous relationship with Awdry, he is probably the best remembered of the series' artists.
The series was taken over from The Eight Famous Engines (1957) by John T. Kenney, whose style was less colourful but more realistic than Dalby's. As a result of his commitment to realism and technical accuracy, he enjoyed a far more comfortable working relationship with Awdry, which lasted until Gallant Old Engine (1962), when his eyesight began to fail him.
The artist initially chosen to replace him was the Swedish-born artist Gunvor Edwards. She began illustrating Stepney the "Bluebell" Engine, but felt unsuited to the work. She was assisted for that volume by her husband Peter, who effectively took over from then on. Both artists retained credit for the work, and the "Edwards era" lasted until Wilbert Awdry's last volume, Tramway Engines. The style used in these volumes was still essentially realistic, but had something of an impressionist feel.
When Christopher Awdry took the series over in 1983, the publisher was keen to find an illustrator who would provide work that was appealing and colourful like Dalby's pictures, but also realistic like the Kenney and Edwards volumes. The artist chosen was Clive Spong. He illustrated all of Christopher Awdry's books, a greater number than any other artist working on the Railway Series. He also produced illustrations for a number of spin-off stories written by the Awdrys, and his artwork was used in The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways.
Format and Presentation
The books were produced in an unusual landscape format. Each one was around 60 pages long, 30 of which would be text and 30 illustrations. The books were each divided into four stories (with the exception of Henry the Green Engine, which was divided into five).
Each book from Thomas the Tank Engine onwards opened with a foreword. This would act as a brief introduction to the book, its characters or its themes. They were written as a letter, usually to the readers (addressed as "Dear Friends") but sometimes to individual children who had played some part in the story's creation. The foreword to Thomas the Tank Engine was a letter to Christopher Awdry. This section would often advertise real railways or acknowledge the assistance of people or organisations. The foreword to The Little Old Engine is unique in acknowledging the fact that Skarloey (and, by implication, the entirety of the Railway Series) is fictional.
The unusual shape of the books made them instantly recognisable. However, it did prompt complaints from booksellers that they were difficult to display, and even that they could easily be shoplifted. Nonetheless, the format was imitated by publishers Ian Allan for their Sammy the Shunter and Chuffalong books.
Unusually for children's books of the austerity period, the Railway Series was printed in full colour from the start, which is cited by many critics as one of its major selling points in the early days.
The Island of Sodor
- Main article: Sodor (fictional island)
The Rev. W. Awdry received numerous letters from young fans asking questions about the engines and their railway, as well as letters concerning inconsistencies within the stories. In an effort to answer these, Wilbert began to develop a specific setting for the books. On a visit to the Isle of Man, he discovered that the bishop there is known as the Bishop of Sodor and Man. The "Sodor" part of the title comes from the Sudreys, but Wilbert decided that a fictional island between the Isle of Man and England by that name would be an ideal setting for his stories.
In partnership with his brother George (the librarian of the National Liberal Club), he gradually devised Sodor's history, geography, language, industries and even geology. The results were published in the book The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways in 1987.
Rev. W. Awdry and Christopher Awdry both wrote about Sodor as if it were a real place that they visited, and that the stories were obtained first-hand from the engines and Controllers. This was often "documented" in the foreword to each book. However, in some of Rev. W. Awdry's later books, he made appearances as an actual character. The character was known as the Thin Clergyman and was described as a writer, though his real name and connections to the series were never made explicit.
He was invariably accompanied by the Fat Clergyman, the Reverend "Teddy" Boston, who was a fellow railway enthusiast and close friend. The two Clergymen were portrayed as railway enthusiasts, and were responsible for annoying the Small Engines and discovering Duke the Lost Engine. They were often figures of fun, liable to be splashed with water or to fall through a roof.
Rev. W. Awdry also appeared in a number of illustrations, usually as a joke on the part of the illustrator. In one illustration by John T. Kenney in Duck and the Diesel Engine he appears with a figure who bears a strong resemblance to C. Reginald Dalby, which Brian Sibley has suggested might be a dig at Dalby's inaccurate rendition of the character of Duck.
Christopher Awdry never appeared in the books, but would often describe meetings with the engines in the book forewords, usually with some degree of humour.
The Railway Series and British Railways
Developments on British Railways were often mirrored, satirised and even attacked in the Railway Series. The book Troublesome Engines (1950), for example, dealt with industrial disputes on British Railways. As the series went on, comparisons with the real railways of Britain became more explicit, with engines and locations of British Railways (always known as "The Other Railway") making appearances in major or cameo roles.
The most obvious theme relating to British Railways was the decline of steam locomotion and its replacement with diesels. The first real instance of this was in the book Duck and the Diesel Engine (1958) in which an unpleasant diesel shunter arrives, causes trouble and is sent away. The 1963 volume Stepney the "Bluebell" Engine explained that steam engines were actually being scrapped to make way for these diesels, and again featured a diesel getting his comeuppance. The book Enterprising Engines was published in 1968, the year when steam finally disappeared from British Railways, and was the most aggressive towards dieselisation and Dr Beeching's modernisation plan. It features yet another arrogant diesel who is sent away, a visit by the real Flying Scotsman locomotive and a steam engine, Oliver, making a daring escape to Sodor.
Thereafter, the books were less critical towards BR. Indeed, by the time of Christopher Awdry's 1984 book James and the Diesel Engines, the series was acknowledging that diesels could, in fact, be useful.
The Railway Series and the Preservation Movement
With the series' popularity and Rev. W. Awdry's interest in railways, it was perhaps inevitable that he would use the books to promote steam railways in the UK. The first instance of this was the creation of the Skarloey Railway, a railway on Sodor that closely resembled the Talyllyn Railway in Wales, of which Rev. W. Awdry was a member. Books focusing on this railway would inevitably include a promotion for the Talyllyn Railway, either in the stories themselves, in a footnote or in the foreword.
From the 1980s onwards, this association was carried further, with the Awdrys permitting the Talyllyn Railway to repaint one of their engines in the guise of its Sodor "twin". The first engine to receive this treatment was their No. 3, Sir Haydn, which was repainted to resemble the character Sir Handel. The second was No. 4, Edward Thomas, which became Peter Sam. In 2006 No. 6, Douglas runs in the guise of Duncan. These characters' appearances have been written into the Railway Series' continuity by Christopher Awdry.
Two other railways on Sodor are directly based on real railways. The Culdee Fell Railway (usually known as the Mountain Railway) is based on the Snowdon Mountain Railway, also in Wales. The Small Railway, more correctly known as the Arlesdale Railway, is based on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway in Cumbria. Some other lines on Sodor are heavily inspired by real lines. For example, Duke's railway (the Mid Sodor Railway) acknowledges the Ffestiniog Railway and Corris Railway and Duck's branch line (aka the Little Western) bears a resemblance to the South Devon Railway.
From Duck and the Diesel Engine onwards, a number of real engines and railways were explicitly featured. The characters of Flying Scotsman, City of Truro, Stepney and Wilbert were all real locomotives that made significant appearances in the Railway Series, the latter two having entire volumes dedicated to them, Stepney the "Bluebell" Engine and Wilbert the Forest Engine . Wilbert's appearance was of particular significance. The locomotive in question was named in tribute to Rev. W. Awdry, the president of the Dean Forest Railway at the time. Christopher Awdry wrote Wilbert the Forest Engine in gratitude.
Thomas and the Great Railway Show (1991) featured a visit by Thomas to the National Railway Museum in York, along with appearances by several of the real locomotives living there. At the end of this book, Thomas is made an honorary member of the National Collection. This was mirrored by the real life inclusion of the Railway Series in the National Railway Museum's extensive library of railway books in recognition of their influence on railway preservation.
Characters from The Railway Series
The series has featured numerous characters, both railway-based and otherwise. Some of the more notable ones are:
- Donald and Douglas the Scottish twins
- Annie and Clarabel, Thomas' coaches
For other characters, see:
Books in The Railway Series
Main article: List of Railway Series Books
The following table lists the titles of all 41 books in The Railway Series.
Books 01 - 26 were written by Rev. W. Awdry.
Books 27 - 41 were written by Christopher Awdry.
References in popular culture
Satirical magazine Private Eye produced a book Thomas the Privatised Tank Engine, written in the style of The Railway Series. The stories were strongly critical of private railway companies and the Government of John Major, and covered subjects such as the Channel Tunnel, London Underground, transport of radioactive waste and the perceived dangerous state of the railways.
- List of books and stories in The Railway Series (61 Kb, in Portable Document Format)
- The Real Lives of Thomas the Tank Engine - fansite