Thomas the Tank Engine is a fictional steam locomotive in The Railway Series books by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry and his son, Christopher, published from 1945 on. He became the most popular character in the series, and is the title character in the accompanying television spin-off series Thomas & Friends.
Thomas is a steam engine and has a number 1 painted on his side. 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. Thomas’s best friends are Percy and Toby.
In 1979, British writer/producer Britt Allcroft came across the books, and arranged a deal to bring the stories to life as the TV series Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends (later simplified to Thomas & Friends). The programme became an award-winning hit around the world, with a vast range of spin-off commercial products.
Thomas had his genesis, like Winnie-the-Pooh, in a toy for a small child, both coincidentally named Christopher. A wooden push-along toy from the early 1940s is the original Thomas made by the Reverend Awdry out of a piece of broomstick for his son Christopher. This engine looked rather different from the character in the books and television series and was based on an LNER Class J50 with smaller side tanks and splashers. He was painted blue with yellow lining and carried the letters NW on his side tanks.
Awdry claimed that this stood for “No Where”, but later works would identify the railway Thomas and his friends worked on as the fictional North Western Railway. Christopher Awdry lost this model when he was in the US, although it was recreated for a sizzle promo for the 70th Anniversary. However, the Reverend was happy to endorse Payne’s account that the locomotive was an LBSC E2, although the first Thomas on the Awdry’s model railway, from Stuart Reidpath, lacked extended tanks. In the 1979 Thomas Annual, Awdry wrote:
“I bought Thomas in 1948 when I was writing “Tank Engine Thomas Again”, and wanted to start modelling once more after a lapse of some twenty years. Thomas was one of Stewart Reidpath’s standard models with a heavy, cast white metal body, and was fitted with his “Essar” chassis and motor. Stewart Reidpath is now dead, and his motors, let alone spare parts for them, have been unobtainable for years; but Thomas still keeps going! He is, as you might expect from his age, a temperamental old gentleman, and has to be driven very carefully indeed.”
After Hornby produced the LBSC E2 tank in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Awdry gladly adapted one to take the role of Thomas on his layout, the Ffarquhar branch.
Despite Awdry’s requests for models, to which Lines Brothers (later Triang-Hornby) responded with Meccano Percy in 1967, Hornby eventually adapted the tool to be Thomas when they started Railway Series models in the 1980s.