On 7 April 2020 the Wisbech Standard published the sale of Reverend Wilbert Awdry’s former home in Emneth, Norfolk. It was The Old Vicarage and it was there, between the years 1953 to 1965, where Awdry wrote around half of his much-loved and popular children’s stories; principally, the Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends series of books which children, around the world, still enjoy today. The 8-bedroom detached house itself was built in 1858, using distinctive Victorian red bricks and set in 1.5 acres of grounds. This was where Awdry’s parishioners came on those occasions when they wanted to see their vicar. These visitors usually entered the house through the east side of the property, thus giving them access to his study. It was in this study where Awdry, not only attended to his day job of looking after his flock but also continued to write his famous books.
Wilbert Awdry was born at Ampfield vicarage near Romsey, Hampshire on 15 June 1911. His father was the Reverend Vere Awdry, the Anglican vicar of Ampfield who was 56 years old at the time of Wilbert’s birth; his mother was Lucy Awdry (née Bury). More importantly perhaps is that the experiences upon which much of young Wilbert Awdry’s writings were to be based in later life began in 1917 when the family moved to Box, in Wiltshire when he was six years old. The family settled at “Journey’s End”, a house which was only 200 yards from the western end of Brunel’s 1841 Great Western Main Line ‘Box Tunnel’, through which the line passed on its way to Bath and Chippenham. Wilbert would lie in bed at night listening to the noise of the engines and he later described to Roy Plomley on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs how he and his father would engage in trainspotting the names of GWR engines, with a telescope aimed through his father’s dressing room window.
Railway enthusiasts would know that it is at this point where the railway climbs at a gradient of 1 in 100 for some two miles. A banking engine used to be kept there to assist freight trains up the hill. These trains usually ran at night and the young Awdry could hear them from his bed, listening to the coded whistle signals between the train engine and the banker, as well as the sharp bark from the locomotive exhausts as they fought their way eastwards up the incline.
Here was where young Awdry’s imagination began to believe that all steam engines had definite personalities and that in their ‘puffings’ and ‘pantings’ he could hear the conversation they were having with one another. From this point, Awdry quickly developed his passion for steam engines. As the son of a vicar, of whom he was very fond, Awdry also grew gradually towards a vocation as a priest and was ordained into the Church of England priesthood in 1936. It was these two lines passion – steam engines and religious devotion – that were to run throughout his life of 85 years; two lines that were straighter than most railway tracks and, together, were to be the inspiration for the story that Wilbert first told his own son Christopher.
The origin of that particular story happened in Birmingham, in 1942; Wilbert having taken the curacy at St Nicolas Church, Kings Norton, Birmingham in 1940. Christopher was confined to bed with measles. Wilbert set about amusing his son with a ‘germ’ of a story about a little old engine who was sad because he had not been out for a long time. When Christopher asked what the engine’s name was, his father said that it was Edward – the first name that came into his mind. It was Edward who, in Awdry’s subsequent first story book entitled “Edward’s Day Out”, helped Gordon’s train climb an incline – the inspiration for that act of charity clearly came from the time when Awdry listened to the sounds at Box Tunnel.
After Awdry wrote ‘The Three Railway Engine’, he built Christopher a model of Edward, together with some wagons and coaches, out of a wooden broomstick and scraps of wood. Children being children, Christopher also wanted a model of Gordon; however, the wartime shortage of materials limited Awdry to just making a little 0-6-0 tank engine which he named Thomas because, according to Awdry, it was the most natural of names to give this particular engine – Thomas the Tank Engine was born! Christopher liked a train named Thomas and asked his father for more stories about Thomas; these duely followed. By the time Awdry stopped writing in 1972, his Railway Series numbered 26 books. They all featured what became ‘established engines’ – the impish Thomas, industrious Edward, argumentative Henry and proud and pompous Gordon – as well as introducing new characters in such stories as Toby the Tram Engine, Percy the Small Engine and Duck & the Diesel Engine from the 1950’s.
In 1946 Awbry and family moved from Birmingham to Cambridgeshire to serve as Rector of Holy Trinity Church, Elsworth with Knapwell which was near Cambridge.
Thomas the Tank Engine – in the Flesh!:
In 1947 a 0-6-0T steam engine, No.1800 was built by Hudswell Clarke for the British Sugar Corporation (BSC) to work at Woodston at Peterborough. It remained at Woodston for all of its working life where it was in daily use, in the sugar beet season, pushing wagons of beet from the farms up the steeply graded line to be uploaded at the factory. It also marshalled lengthy trains in the extensive siding that BSC had near the Fletton Loop just east of Orton Mere Station. It was in the late 1960s when diesel traction took over the duties from this steam locomotive; fortunately, however, the pensioner was maintained in good condition.
Then in 1970 the newly formed Peterborough Railway Society (later to become the Nene Valley Railway) appeared on the scene, setting up their working base in a compound within the BSC sidings. The company then sold its steam locomotive No.1800 to the Society for a nominal £100, and it was sometime around this point when the engine acquired the nickname of ‘Thomas’ – because of its blue livery! Almost twelve months later, in 1971, the retired Rev Wilbert Awdry returned to Cambridgeshire to officially name the locomotive ‘Thomas’, thereafter to become the star of what is now the Nene Valley Railway.
Of Thomas’s lasting popularity, Wilbert Awdry wrote:
“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.”
As for Awdry, he served seven years at Elsworth with Knapwell before moving to Bourn in 1950 as Rural Dean and then, in 1953, as Vicar of Emneth, Norfolk, near Wisbech. According to the Wisbech Society:
“It seems that concerns about his daughters’ future schooling drew Awdry from Elsworth to the Wisbech area and St. Edmund’s Church at Emneth. Both daughters attended Wisbech High School, three miles from Emneth Vicarage, and his wife Margaret taught in Wisbech at the Queen’s Girls School for 10 years.”
‘Gordon the Big Engine’ was the first book published after Awdry moved to Emneth and 12 more were to follow during his incumbancy. Whilst there, he also maintained his enthusiasm for railways and was very much involved in railway preservation, building model railways, which he took to exhibitions around the country. At Emneth he created an extensive model railway network in his loft – it was based on Barrow-in-Furness layout. Fuelling his enthusiasm, Awdry’s Emneth home was also close to three Wisbech railway stations. The former Emneth railway station itself was on the EAR line from Watlington (formerly Magdalen Road Station) to Wisbech East. The GER Wisbech and Upwell Tramway tram engines, coaches and rolling stock were similar to ‘Toby the Tram Engine and ‘Henriett’ on the Ely to King’s Lynn mainline with Wisbech East (Victoria Rd) station. The M&GN Peterborough to Sutton Bridge via Wisbech North (Harecroft Rd) station. There were also harbour lines either side of the River Nene – M&GN Harbour West branch and GER Harbour East branch.
Time, inevitably, slipped away and in 1965, Wilbert Awdry “went into private practice” – retiring in other words. He moved to a smaller red-brick house in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where his study there became “an agreeable jumble of railway books, maps and timetables”, and was denoted by a “STATION MASTER” sign on the door. During these years, Awdry continued writing books for children, published a new Railway Series title each year until his last ‘Tramway Engines’ in 1972.
According to Awdry’s biographer, Brian Sibley:
“All these stories harnessed Awdry’s knowledge and love of railway engineering and history, which had to be “true-to-life”. Although the fictional engines had human personalities and voices, their activities always followed the rules of the railroad and virtually all the exploits described were based on something that had happened, somewhere at some time, to a real railway engine. Those adventures – mostly mishaps – included common derailments as well as more surprising disasters such as an engine running off the end of a jetty into a harbour or an unexpected disappearance down a disused mine. As often as not, however, these crises were brought about by the arrogance, stubbornness, jealousy or ambition of the engine involved. The morality of the stories was clear and Christian: misbehaviour led to suffering and retribution; however, provided the culprit showed repentance, restoration always followed. “The important thing,” Awdry said, “is that the engines are punished and forgiven – but never scrapped.
The analogies between the Christian faith and the ways of the railway are obvious: the engines are meant to follow the straight and narrow way and pay the price if they go off the rails. No wonder Awdry enjoyed drawing the parallels between railways and the Church: ” 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.”
In 1983, Wilbert made his final visit to Wisbech when he opened the Tramway Centenary Exhibition at Wisbech Museum. In 1996 Awdry was awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List, but by that time his health had deteriorated and he was unable to travel to London. He died peacefully in his sleep in Stroud, Gloucestershire, on 21 March 1997, at the age of 85.
In Emneth, a stained-glass window was commissioned by the Awdry family and unveiled at St Edmund’s church in 2003; and in 2011 a blue plaque was unveiled by his daughter Veronica Chambers at The Old Vicarage where he had lived from 1953 and until 1965. Finally, in 2020, the Old Vicarage was placed on the market with an asking price of £895,000.
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