On the right tracks: meeting the man behind Thomas the Tank Engine in 1979

The Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry was a steam enthusiast and avid model railway man – but he could never have guessed his stories of a cheeky engine would go on to enrapture the world

Before the Angry Engines became a global megabrand and Ringo Starr’s side hustle, The Observer (22 July 1979) went to meet their creator: the Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry. Then 68, retired and living in Stroud, he appears otherworldly and bemused at his own celebrity, in a surprisingly loud checked jacket, dog collar and tinted specs.

Steam was a family affair: Awdry’s father, also a vicar, was an enthusiast and as a child, Awdry Jr lay in bed listening to engines along the tracks near the vicarage. His vision of them speaking, ‘boasting, complaining’ became the stories he told his three-year-old son, sick with measles, then, eventually, the first Thomas the Tank Engine books.

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