One of the staples of fantasy fiction is the creation of a fictional world. While fantasy is by its very nature not set in the real world, it needs a framework within which it can operate – history, geography, science and culture. Some works simply throw a generic fantasy setting together (the Inheritance trilogy). Some are set in a world almost identical to our own (Twilight). Some evolve over a long period of time and many books (Discworld). And some works simply seem like an excuse for the author to write about the world he has created (Tolkien’s Middle Earth books). To what extent this world intrudes on the story depends on the author. Some authors will bludgeon the reader with endless discussions of the setting – to put things in perspective, Tolkien spends about fifty pages just talking about the history of hobbits at the start of Lord of the Rings. By contrast, other fantasy worlds might give you only a little of the setting – a few hints on the history and language here and there, nothing you couldn’t ignore. One of the most complete and yet least intrusive worlds in fantasy that I’ve ever come across is also one of the least known. I draw your attention to this chap:
The books, collectively known as the Railway Series, first appeared in 1945. The first title was The Three Railway Engines, and didn’t even feature Thomas. The engines just lived on some railway somewhere. As author Rev. W. Awdry wrote more books set on this railway, he found himself in need of continuity. Initially this took the form of simple maps and notes – to get from here to here, this engine must pass through here and so forth. Gradually they became more elaborate, and Awdry created the Island of Sodor as a setting. This was inspired by the fact that the diocese in which the Isle of Man is located is known as “Sodor and Man.” While there is an Isle of Man, there is no corresponding Isle of Sodor. So Awdry put Sodor between England and Man. With the significant help of his brother George, who was the librarian at the Liberal Club, Sodor started to take shape – history, geography, economy, geology, demographics, religion and dialect were all created. Real historic figures and events were woven into Sodor’s history. Minor background figures and places were fleshed out.
Not that you’d know any of this from the actual stories themselves. The research simply serves the function of making the stories consistent and realistic (well, as realistic as children’s stories about talking trains can be). Not wanting to waste the heinous amount of research that went into making sure that Edward the Blue Engine doesn’t pull a train of clay in the wrong direction, the Awdry brothers published a volume called The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways. This is not the sort of thing you would read to a three-year-old child. It barely even references the in-universe fact that the trains are alive. Not to mention the slightly traumatising information that the Fat Controller from the early stories is dead and it’s now his identical grandson running things.
I’ve got an awfully long way without talking about London even once. So allow me to explain. You see, an important part of making the series realistic was ensuring that the trains running on Sodor were also realistic (usual but-they-have-faces disclaimer). Therefore, Awdry had to invent plausible histories for each character – Henry the Green Engine was built as a result of industrial espionage in the early 1920s, for example, and Percy the Small Engine is a heavily-modified product of the Avonside locomotive works.
In most cases, this involved a heavy amount of retroactive continuity – as I say, Awdry had had only the vaguest idea of setting when he started the books, and so those early characters had long and sometimes implausible histories invented to fit them and to explain why they didn’t look like any real-life locomotive.
In the case of Thomas himself, the good Reverend had a head start. You see, the original illustrator of The Three Railway Engines was a gentleman named William Middleton, who was frankly terrible. Awdry demanded a better illustrator for the second book, and received former Admiralty artist Reginald Payne, whose career had made him very familiar with painting machinery.
The second book was Thomas the Tank Engine, and you can see Payne’s cover above. Having had the situation and requirements explained to him, I like to imagine that Payne nodded thoughtfully and clicked a pipe between his teeth, and set to work. He went rather beyond Rev. W. Awdry’s specifications that the pictures should be realistic, and actually based Thomas on a real life locomotive.
The real life locomotive in question was the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway’s E2. This was a small, obscure class of engine, mostly used for shunting. In particular, they saw a lot of use in and around London – Victoria, London Bridge, Herne Hill, Crystal Palace and Hither Green all had them at one time or another. In the first story in which he appears, Thomas works at an unnamed big station getting coaches ready for trains – just the sort of work the E2s were used for at Victoria and London Bridge. It’s entirely possible that Payne saw these engines at work personally. Depending on which version of events you go with, either Awdry suggested the engine to Payne, or Payne chose the engine himself.
So, uniquely among those early characters, Thomas the Tank Engine had a real-life basis, and may well have worked in London. Unfortunately, Awdry never quite figured out how a London or South Coast-based tank engine should end up off the coast of Cumbria…