Thomas the Tank Engine is a fictional steam locomotive in The Railway Series books by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry and his son, Christopher. He became the most popular character in the series, and the accompanying television spin-off series, Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends.
Thomas is a tank engine, painted blue with red lining, and displays the running number one. All of the locomotives in The Railway Series were based on prototypical engines; Thomas has origins in the E2 Class designed by Lawson Billinton in 1913.
Thomas first appeared in 1946 in the second book in the series, Thomas the Tank Engine, and was the focus of the four short stories contained within.
In 1979, the British writer/producer Britt Allcroft came across the books, and arranged a deal to bring the stories to life as Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends (later simplified to Thomas and Friends). The programme became an award-winning hit around the world, with a vast range of spin-off commercial products.
Prototype and back-story
When Awdry created Thomas, the engine existed only as a wooden toy made for his son, Christopher. This engine looked rather different from the character in the books and television series, and carried the letters NW on its side tanks. Awdry claimed that this stood for “No Where”; as the Railway Series and its back-story developed, the railway Thomas and his friends worked on became known as the North Western Railway.
Thomas wasn’t originally based on a prototype, rather, the initial stories were an accompaniment to the toy made for Christopher. After Awdry’s wife encouraged him to publish the stories, the publisher of the second book in The Railway Series, Thomas the Tank Engine, hired an illustrator named Reginald Payne. Awdry selected a real locomotive for Payne to work from to create authenticity; a Billinton designed 0-6-0 E2 Class of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. This may have been chosen simply because Awdry had a photograph to hand. Thomas is one of half a dozen locomotives fitted with an extension to the front of the water tanks. While the language used and the behaviours exhibited often closely resemble those of real locomotives there are some significant and artistic differences. For example, Thomas’ wheels are driven by internal cylinders typical of such tank engines. The cranks and connecting rods and therefore not visible externally.
One detail of the illustration bothered Awdry. This was the fact that the front end of his footplate featured a downward slope, which meant that his front and back buffers were at different levels. This was an illustrator’s mistake that was perpetuated in subsequent books. The accident, in “Thomas Comes to Breakfast” was partly devised as a means of correcting this.
Unfortunately, despite creating the visual image of such an iconic character, Payne did not receive any credit for his work, and it is only since the publication of Brian Sibley’s The Thomas the Tank Engine Man that he has started to receive major recognition. It had often been erroneously assumed that C. Reginald Dalby, responsible for illustrating books 3–11 and repainting the illustrations of book 1, was the character’s creator.
Thomas arrived on Sodor in 1915, when The Fat Controller bought the locomotive for a nominal sum to be a pilot engine at Vicarstown. After rescuing James in Thomas & the Breakdown Train, he became a “Really Useful Engine” and was rewarded by being put in charge of the Ffarquhar branchline. Although Thomas is seen today on various heritage railways, the last of the LB&SCR E2 classwas scrapped in 1963.
Thomas in The Railway Series
Despite becoming the most popular character in The Railway Series, Thomas did not actually feature in the first book, The Three Railway Engines (namely Edward, Henry and Gordon).
Thomas was described in the opening to “Thomas and Gordon”, the first story in book two, Thomas the Tank Engine, as
a tank engine who lived at a Big Station. He had six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler and a short stumpy dome.He was a fussy little engine, always pulling coaches about. […] He was a cheeky little engine, too.—from the story “Thomas and Gordon” in Thomas the Tank Engine.
Thomas was used initially as a station pilot engine in the first three stories in book 2, but longed for more important jobs such as pulling the express train like Gordon; his inexperience prevented this. In the fourth story, “Thomas and the Breakdown Train”, Thomas rescues James and is rewarded with his own branch line. He has remained in charge of the Ffarquhar branch ever since, with his two coaches Annie and Clarabel, and help from Percy and Toby. Thomas is generally depicted with a cheeky and even self-important personality. He believes that he should be more respected by the others, and he gets annoyed when he does not receive this respect. However, Percy and Toby are more than capable of standing up to him, and Annie and Clarabel often rebuke him.
He is aware of his fame in the real world, and following a visit to the National Railway Museum at York he became an honorary member of the National Collection, joining such legendary locomotives asMallard, City of Truro and Rocket.
Thomas has been the source of some friction between Christopher Awdry and his publishers, who repeatedly asked for more books centred around the character. Although Thomas was the most popular character in the books, both the Reverend Wilbert and Christopher Awdry had always treated the characters in the books as an ensemble, and so before the television series there had been only ten stories with Thomas named in the title, the four in each of Thomas the Tank Engine and Tank Engine Thomas Again, plus “Thomas in Trouble” (in Toby the Tram Engine) and “Thomas Comes to Breakfast (in Branch Line Engines). After the debut of the television series, there were five books explicitly named after Thomas: (More About Thomas the Tank Engine,Thomas and the Twins, Thomas and the Great Railway Show, Thomas Comes Home, Thomas and the Fat Controller’s Engines). Some of these are rather tenuous in their links with the character:Thomas and the Fat Controller’s Engines (the 50th anniversary volume, originally to be called The Fat Controller’s Engines) has only one story out of the four centred on Thomas; in Thomas Comes Home, Thomas appears only on the last page, the rest of the book dealing with the other engines on his branch line while he was away at York.