On the 12th May 1945 a little book called The Three Railway Engines was published. It was written by Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry, an Anglican cleric and railway enthusiast and was based on tales he’d made up for his son Christopher as the boy recovered from measles. His second book introduced the little steam train Thomas the Tank Engine. In May 2020 we celebrate 75 years of this series of books which have captured children’s hearts worldwide.
Lorne House has an important part to play in the history of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories as it was the childhood home of Reverend Awdry and is situated close to the Great Western Railway line constructed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1836-1841. Renamed by Awdry’s parents as “Journey’s End”, Lorne House lies just 200 yards from the western end of the famous Box Tunnel where the railway main line climbs at a gradient of 1 in 100 for two miles. A banking engine was kept there to assist freight trains up the hill. These trains usually ran at night and the young Awdry could hear them from his bedroom at Lorne House, listening to the coded whistle signals between the train engine and the banker as well as the sharp bark from the locomotive exhausts as they fought their way up the incline.
Awdry related, “There was no doubt in my mind that steam engines all had definite personalities. I would hear them snorting up the grade and little imagination was needed to hear in the puffings and pantings of the two engines the conversation they were having with one another – “I can’t do it! I can’t do it! I can’t do it!” and “Yes, you can! Yes, you can! Yes, you can!”
Wilbert’s passion for railways was inherited from his father, also a clergyman, the Reverend Vere Awdry. Vere had a model railway which was set up in the greenhouse at Lorne House and young Wilbert was appointed “Superintendent of the Line”. On walks around the parish with his father he met and talked with local railwaymen. Long before he could read, Wilbert would sit poring over the pictures in his father’s bound copies of the Railway Magazine. His father’s photographs of Box railway station and engines can be seen in a local history blog. This photograph shows Lorne House some years after that time but the large greenhouse can clearly be seen in the garden. Wilbert lived at Lorne House from the ages of 8-18 and he and his brother George would frequently climb over to the railway bank behind the garden to watch the trains pass by.
In both 1985 and 1991, The Reverend W. V Awdry revisited Box to open the local fete. A charming letter that he sent to the organisers in 1985 included this hand drawn picture of Gordon the Blue engine emerging from Box Tunnel with the spire of St Thomas a Beckett church and the village in the background. Reverend Awdry died in 1997 aged 85. He wrote the first 26 of the Railway Series books; his son Christopher then carried on his legacy and produced a further 13 titles in the series. In 2012, Reverend Awdry’s three children, Christopher, Hilary and Veronica along with some of his grandchildren and great grandchildren visited Lorne House to unveil the blue plaque that now adorns our front wall. It stands as a permanent reminder of Reverend Awdry’s happy childhood here and the significant influence of the nearby railway on his famous children’s stories.