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Thomas the Tank Engine

Did you know that the Thomas the Tank Engine stories were based on the fictional Isle of Sodor, which is located between Barrow-in-Furness and the Isle of Man? Did you also know that a railway accident on the Furness Railway at Lindal-in-Furness provided the inspiration for one of the stories?

Isle of Sodor and the Furness area

Isle of Sodor 1958 map (click to enlarge)Wilbert Awdry was born in 1911, the son of the Rev Vere Awdry, and was brought up in a small town near Romsey, Hampshire. He lived near the Great Western Railway's main line, and he developed a deep love of trains. His father built a model railway layout for him in the vicarage garden, and they often went on walks round the parish together where they met and talked with the local railwaymen.

In due course, Wilbert followed in his father's footsteps and became a vicar. In 1943 his son Christopher became ill with measles. The Rev Wilbert Awdry invented stories about a train called Edward to amuse him. In 1945 he published his first book, "The Three Railway Engines", about Edward, Gordon and Henry. His second book was "Thomas the Tank Engine", published in 1946.

Many of The Railway Series books were based on real events, such as the Furness Railway engine that fell down a deep hole at Lindal-in-Furness in 1892. The Railway Series No 8, "Gordon the Big Engine", includes a story called "Down the Mine". In the story, Thomas the Tank Engine is shunting trucks when a loud rumbling noise is heard. As the driver and fireman jump clear, a hole opens up in the ballast and the rails give way underneath Thomas. Thomas gets stuck in the hole, which is caused by an abandoned mine collapsing under the railway. Fortunately Gordon the Big Engine is nearby, and he hauls Thomas to safety.

Sodor: reading between the linesThe connection between "Down the Mine" and the incident in Lindal was kindly confirmed by Christopher Awdry in June 2004.

After publication of the first books, the Rev Wilbert Awdry was asked by readers to explain where the stories took place. Whilst on holiday on the Isle of Man, he discovered that the local bishop had the title "Bishop of Sodor and Man". Sodor actually relates to the Southern Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. The Rev Wilbert Awdry and his brother George liked the name, and invented the fictional Isle of Sodor, which they located between the Isle of Man and Walney Island. They made maps and invented a history of its people and railway engines. A map of 1958 shows the island as originally planned, some five times the size of the Isle of Man, with Barrow, Ulverston and Millom all shown on the mainland. Later the Isle of Sodor was modified to incorporate Walney Island. A map of 1972 shows the revised layout. Vickerstown on Walney is incorporated into Sodor and renamed Vicarstown.

The Rev Wilbert Awdry continued writing The Railway Series books until 1972 when he wrote book no 26, "Tramway Engines". His son Christopher  wrote a further 14 books between 1983 and 1996. For copyright reasons, no more books in the series could be published after 1996. The Rev Wilbert Awdry was awarded an OBE in 1996, and died peacefully in 1997.

In 2005, Christopher Awdry published a book "Sodor: reading between the lines", in which he refers to the Lindal-in-Furness "Down the Mine" incident, and he describes a number of other connections between his father's stories and the Furness area. For example, Edward the engine was probably based on the 4-4-0 K2 "Large Seagull" class introduced on the Furness Railway in 1896. Boco was based on the BR Metropolitan Vickers diesel electric type 2 locomotive introduced in 1958, which worked mainly in the Barrow area. Several stories are also based on the nearby Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, which the Rev Wilbert Awdry visited a number of times. The book can be purchased from the World of Sodor website.

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E-mail: neil@lindal-in-furness.co.uk