THINK of Thomas the Tank Engine and his railway adventures and you’d probably connect the best-loved locomotive with the fictional Isle of Sodor.
But, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of his creator, a Calderdale connection chuffs into view.
The author, the Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry, was the great-grandson of Thomas Carr of Halifax.
The connection has been made by local historian and genealogist David Glover and it was a new set of stamps issued this month by the Royal Mail, that set him off on the right track.
“I had carried out a little bit of research on Thomas Carr and his India links a while ago and it was looking into his extended family that I spotted one of his daughters married into the Awdry family. I suppose I just filed it away,” says David.
“Then when I heard of the stamps being issued, I remembered the link. Like many boys brought up in the 1960s, I loved the stories about Thomas the Tank Engine and all the other characters such as Bertie the bus and the Fat Controller. My own favourite story was The Sad Story of Henry from The Three Railway Engines, telling of Henry the green Engine being stuck in a tunnel, from which he would not move for fear of getting his new paint wet and so was bricked in for a while!
“Since the 1940s the books have delighted millions of boys and girls throughout the world and I am sure the stamps will thrill many.”
David reveals that Thomas Carr was baptised at Halifax Minster (then the Parish Church) on November 30, 1787 - his father (also named Thomas) had come to Halifax in the early 1770s initially working as a book-keeper.
When Thomas was a young boy the family moved to Gomersal before he became a pupil at Giggleswick School and then afterwards going to study at St John’s College, Cambridge, graduating in 1813.
Four years later he was appointed as a chaplain to the Hon East Indian Company before becoming Archdeacon of Bombay. In 1833 a British parliamentary bill was passed which created two new Indian dioceses at Bombay and Madras. Eventually in 1838, Thomas was to be installed as the first Bishop of Bombay, having been consecrated at Lambeth Palace the previous year.
“In India he set about establishing new churches and ordaining a number if Indian clergy. He resigned in 1851 because of health concerns and on returning to England accepted the post of rector at Bath Abbey. He served for four years and only resigned when he knew he was dying.
After his death, a fine memorial made in marble, showing a recumbent Carr in full episcopal regalia was placed in Bombay Cathedral where it can still be seen today.
“Thomas was married twice and had several children and it is thought his younger daughter by his second wife, that the link to Thomas the Tank Engine is made,” explains David.
Thomas’s daughter was Frances Ellen Carr, born in Bombay who went on to marry Sir John Wither Awdry, the Chief Justice of Bombay.
Their youngest son was Vere Awdry, born after his parents returned to England. Vere was to become vicar of Ampfield, near Romsey. He married Lucy Bury and their first-born was Wilbert Awdry.
Growing up, the young Wilbert was fortunate enough to have a model railway layout in his garden, built by his father. He soon became “superintendent of the line” and on walks with his father around Ampfield he met and talked with local railwaymen and long before he could read, he would pore over the pictures in his father’s copies of The Railway magazine.
The family eventually moved to Box, Wiltshire to a house called Journey’s End, a mere 200 yards from the western end of Box Tunnel.
There the Great Western Railway main line climbed at a gradient of 1 in 100 for two miles and a banking engine was kept to assist freight trains up the hill.
“The trains normally ran at night and the young Wilbert could hear them from his bed, listening to the coded whistle signals,” says David.
Wilbert Awdry, who was to become the Rev Awdry (he was ordained in 1936) was later to recall: “There was no doubt in my mind that the steam engines had definite personalities. I would hear them snorting up the grade and little imagination was needed to hear in the puffings and pantings the conversations they were having with one another: ‘I can’t do it, I cant do it.’ ‘Yes you can!, Yes you can!’”
Here was the inspiration for the famous stories, says David.
The stories were first told to his son, Christopher, some 25 years later, invented to amuse him during a bout of measles. The first story was about Edward helping Gordon up the hill. The young boy was captivated and demanded more, but it was only down to the Rev Awdry’s wife, Margaret, who encouraged him to publish the stories, that the world has been able to enjoy Thomas the Tank Engine and all his friends.
So then, could it be that the Rev W. Awdry named his famous blue engine after his Halifax-born great-grandfather?
“Well of course there’s always that possibility,” laughs David
l THOMAS the Tank Engine is a ten-stamp issue, with six large stamps showing Thomas, James, Percy, Daisy the diesel railcar, Toby the tram engine and Gordon which celebrate the images from the TV series, plus a miniature sheet of four additional stamps reflecting on the heritage of the book.
They feature the original illustrations capturing scenes involving Thomas and Bertie the bus, James, Percy and Henry.