Cambridge Past Present & Future has partnered with global toy company Mattel, to unveil a special blue plaque at the Old Rectory of The Holy Trinity Church in the village of Elsworth in South Cambridgeshire. The plaque is to commemorate The Reverend W. Awdry, rector at the church from 1946-1952 and well-known as the author of The Railway Series books, that first introduced the world to Thomas & Friends. Many of his books were published while he was rector at the Elsworth church.  

The Cambridge & District Blue Plaque Scheme recognises and celebrates notable people and events that have made a significant impact on the area, the UK or, indeed, the world. This scheme is run by local charity Cambridge Past, Present & Future largely through the fantastic efforts of volunteers.  

The Reverend. W Awdry (1911 - 1997) was an Anglican clergyman, railway enthusiast and hugely successful children’s author who created the enduringly popular Railway Series of books and characters, including the much-loved Thomas the Tank Engine.  Awdry had just become rector of the parish of Elsworth in 1946 when the success of his first two books led the publisher, Edmund Ward, to commission Awdry to write a new book for the Railway Series every year. He would do so for the next 24 years, writing five titles at Elsworth before moving on to serve another Cambridgeshire parish, Emneth. The Reverend W. Awdry put down his pen in 1972.

What began as a father’s stories to amuse his three-year-old son, in bed with measles, became a literary, publishing, merchandising and financial phenomenon. At the time of his death in 1997, Awdry’s Railway Series books had sold in the order of 50 million copies, in a dozen languages, and inspired videos, toys, games, clothes and a popular television series.

Image: Rev Awdry with Ringo Starr and crew in 1984 (copyright Mattel Inc)

Speaking on Desert Island Discs in 1964, Awdry explained why railways fascinated him, giving insight into the source of his creativity: “Of all the mechanical contrivances made by man, the steam engine is the most human. The steam engine is an extrovert. He likes you to know how he’s getting on and how he’s feeling about things. On the move, locomotives, always have something to say.”

His daughter, Veronica Chambers said: “I am delighted and moved at the news that in this 75th Anniversary year, a blue plaque has been put up at the Old Rectory in Elsworth, in tribute to my father, the man who wrote the stories about Thomas and engines with personalities…but who was also, most importantly, a very dedicated and hardworking rector.”

Elsworth Village Primary School is taking part in the celebration and pupils have been working hard on producing numerous hand-drawn pictures and describing their favourite memories of The Reverend W. Awdrys work and legacy.  For Ben, age 5, it’s Gordon. He says: “Gordon goes really fast, he’s an express train. He always runs out of water and he keeps filling up, but he can’t get there! He does it in the end.”

Parents love the Thomas & Friends characters too. “They’re my favourite stories,” said Elsworth Teaching Assistant, Mrs Gilby. “My daughter would make her Thomas train track go all around the house and listen to the stories for hours. Thomas & Friends stories are enjoyable for adults and children.” The artwork and comments are on display at the church.

Kelly Philp, Director of Marketing, Mattel UK said: “We’re delighted that in this 75th anniversary year of Thomas & Friends, the imagination and creativity of The Reverend W. Awdry is being recognised and celebrated with a blue plaque in the place in Cambridge where he wrote five of his early Thomas the Tank Engine tales. For 75 years, his stories and the characters he created, have been brought to life in books, on screen and in products for millions of children to enjoy, to become the number one pre-school train property worldwide. It’s an amazing legacy and this is a fitting tribute to both him and the many Thomas & Friends fans worldwide.”

James Littlewood, Chief Executive for Cambridge PPF “I was one of the many children who read the books, watched the television series and played with the toys. There can’t be many of my generation who did not do the same and he must have inspired thousands of railway enthusiasts and engineers.  We’re delighted to put up this plaque near his former home, to recognise his life and work and we’re grateful to Mattel Inc., for sponsoring it. This is the second blue plaque the charity has erected in South Cambridgeshire District since the scheme was expanded in 2019 and we’re keen to install more in other villages.”

Click here to read a fuller biography of the Revd Awdry.