Chuffed about centenary of Thomas the Tank Engine’s creator

A Fenland vicar, who was born 100 years ago this month, created one of the most beloved characters in children's fiction. Trevor Heaton tells the story of the Rev Wilbert Vere Awdry.

There are many classic children's books series. But, I would suggest, there are only two you could close your eyes and know what they were just by touch because of their utterly distinctive formats.

One is the Beatrix Potter books. The other is WV Awdry's railway stories, those little rectangular pocket-sized titles which have delighted countless millions of children.

The Rev Wilbert Vere Awdry, vicar of Emneth from 1953 to 1965, published his first railway story when he was a vicar at King's Norton, Birmingham, in 1945. The tale – like so many other great children's characters – had arisen out of that daily problem: how to entertain his children.

His son Christopher was so enthralled by his tales of steam engines that the clergyman wondered if others would be interested too. After a false start, the series gained a sympathetic illustrator and quickly became a favourite.

The clergyman continued to bring out a steady stream of titles, all carefully based on actual railway incidents. As the series grew, so did the range of characters.

With Thomas the Tank Engine now enjoying worldwide fame as a children's character, it is interesting to notice just how little fuss was made about the Fenland vicar's literary sideline at the time.

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Checking back through the cuttings in Eastern Daily Press files, a single cutting mentions that 'he writes children's stories' but that is about that. Much more is made of his campaign to improve a dyke at the back of the village school.

For the full story about Thomas the Tank Engine's local links and how his creator's centenary was celebrated see the EDP Sunday supplement in tomorrow's EDP.