by Niall Gooch
Thursday, 14
May 2020

The pre-modern idyll of Thomas the Tank Engine

The children's book celebrates its 75th anniversary this week
by Niall Gooch
Thomas the Tank Engine celebrates its 75th anniversary this week

Several years ago, when my son was just starting to sleep in his own room, we invested in a boxed set of the Railway Series, aka Thomas the Tank Engine. Over the subsequent years, along with thousands of other parents up and down the country, I have read each of those books literally dozens of times, to the point where I have my own personal favourite stories and engines.

I sometimes consider going on Mastermind with the series as my specialist subject. At one point I went through a phase of getting exasperated by continuity errors, e.g. in the main loco shed are there three berths, as shown in “Percy The Green Engine”, or six, as shown in “The Three Railway Engines”? Is there a turntable in front of the shed, as in “The Eight Famous Engines”, or not, as in “Percy The Green Engine”? And is the Big Station next to the sea or set amid rolling green hills? I’m great fun at parties these days.

As with much perennially popular children’s literature, the Railway Series is set in an Edenic pre-modern England. The world of the books was already dated when they were written in the post-war years, but it is positively archaic now. Sodor exists forever in a sort of pre-Beeching, pre-1960s idyll. Policemen in old-fashioned tunics potter about, occasionally directing a bit of traffic or giving naughty schoolboys a clip round the ear but otherwise superfluous. Fathers dressed in smart suits, ties and belted overcoats oversee well-behaved families.

Branch lines whose economic value must be highly dubious weave lazily through beautiful countryside. The Fat Controller, impeccably clad at all times in morning dress, top hat and spats, oversees the affairs of his railway company with a stern patrician benevolence (at home he has a butler to answer the telephone on his behalf). Progress, whether in the form of diesel trains or pro-road Communist agitation by Bulgy the Bus, is kept firmly at bay.

In 2017 The New Yorker published a semi-serious column entitled ‘The Repressive, Authoritarian Soul of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends’, making a political case against the books for their supposed advocacy of illiberalism and their promotion of obedience. And it is true that any signs of insubordination among the engines are firmly dealt with. Percy the Small Engine, for example, is originally purchased to act as a scab, to break a “no shunting” strike by the tender engines.

The above-mentioned socialist bus Bulgy ends up as a henhouse, while on more than one occasion badly-behaved rolling stock are simply smashed to pieces by the engines, to general approval. This is part of a wider cavalier approach to health and safety at work on the Fat Controller’s part, if the sheer number of crashes, derailings, mechanical failures and other mishaps are anything to go by.

It’s a fun read, but as with most attempts to politicise children’s literature it rather misses the point. I suspect children continue to enjoy the Reverend Awdry’s books for the same reason they still enjoy The Wind In The Willows and The Famous Five; because they are fun, charming stories that fire the imagination with their semi-mythic setting, in a world that cleverly intertwines the familiar and the fantastical.

So happy birthday to Thomas and Gordon and the rest of them, and many happy returns!

Join the discussion

  • The Rev Awdry continued to write the railway series into the 1970s. And there were some very feisty female characters in the later stories. Diesel engines Mavis and Daisy. And Nancy the Thin Controller’s daughter.

  • A moving tribute.
    What is surprising is their contemporary popular appeal, some 52 years after the last steam engine was banished by the then British Rail.
    What is it that enthrals?

  • I completely agree! Those happy days on the ACE for example. It seemed to go on forever.

  • To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

    It's simple, quick and free.

    Sign me up