Rev. Wilbert Vere Awdry, English (1911 - 1997)

"My father, Wilbert Awdry, was Vicar of Ampfield, near Romsey in Hampshire, and it was in Romsey that I was born in 1911. My father had been interested in railways all his life, for he had been born in 1854 and had, as he said, grown up with them. Many of his parishioners were railwaymen, and he visited them in their platelayers’ huts or on the station - sometimes he would take me with him. The men were all aware that their Vicar knew almost as much about railways as they did, and no-one ever turned ‘Railwayman Parson’ away."

"I, along with my brother George, born in 1916, inherited our father’s love of railways, and after moving to Box, Wiltshire, in 1917 our house was within sight and sound of the Great Western Railway’s main line line near Middle Hill. I used to lie in bed at night, listening to the engines struggling up the hill to Box tunnel, and imagining that they were talking to themselves."

"After a spell of teaching at St.George’s School, Jerusalem, I was ordained at Winchester in 1936 and married Margaret Wale, a teacher whom I had met in Palestine, in August 1938. After curacies in various places, we moved to King’s Norton, Birmingham at the end of 1940 and it was there, two years later when our son, Christopher, caught measles, that the first stories in what have now become known as the Railway Series were told to amuse the invalid."

"That Christmas I made Christopher a small, simple wooden model engine out of odds and ends, later christened Thomas. At Christopher's urging I made up stories about Thomas too. Margaret suggested that I 'do something' about the stories, and in May 1945 the first book, The Three Railway Engines, was published. Thomas the Tank Engine followed the next year, and new titles followed almost every year until 1972. By then there were 26 books in the Railway Series, none of which, until recently has ever been out of print. I retired from parish work in 1965 and we moved to Gloucestershire, where I went, as I liked to describe it, into ‘private practice’."

Wilbert Awdry, it has been said, created a publishing phenomenon, though it seems fairly certain that he never saw it that way. As time went on he built several model railway layouts, which he greatly enjoyed taking to exhibitions all over the country, often assisted by his great friend and fellow railway enthusiast the Revd E R (Teddy) Boston. Wilbert was involved with railway preservation from its first days in 1950, and was always grateful that he was, through his models and in other ways, able to make a useful contribution to it.

In 1995, the writer & broadcaster Brian Sibley published a biography of Wilbert Awdry, entitled "The Thomas the Tank Engine Man". This is now out of print but second-hand copies can be found. (More recently, Brian Sibley has been closely involved with the films of The Lord of the Rings and is currently working on a biography of Peter Jackson.

Wilbert Awdry was awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List of 1996, but by then his health had deteriorated and he was unable to travel to London to receive it. Instead it was presented to him at home by the Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire. Wilbert died peacefully at his home in Stroud, Gloucestershire on 21st March 1997, aged 85.

Written by Christopher Awdry

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