Thomas the Tank Engine Goes to College

Thomas at Cal Gate

I can’t believe that it has been more than 13 years since our grandson Silas and I were spending hours in our Glen Ellen basement playing with Thomas the Tank Engine. It is an understatement to say that Silas was obsessed with this little blue fictional guy.

Now that Silas is graduating from high school and heading off to the big university, I have been concerned that this early childhood obsession could have left him irreversibly warped, both socially and politically.  More specifically, I worry about whether his Early Childhood Thomas Obsession (aka ECTO) will be a roadblock to successfully adapting to the notoriously liberal-leaning environment of Cal (I couldn’t help slipping in that he has been accepted to U.C. Berkeley – not that we are proud of him or anything silly like that!). I’ll get back to my ECTO concerns in a bit, but first here is some background.


Just a few of the commercially promoted figures.

ThomasTrain 004Craigs1

Just a few of the figures that lived in our basement in Glen Ellen.

In case you don’t know,  Thomas is a fictional steam locomotive originally featured in stories created by British author Wilber Awdry in 1945 to entertain his son Christopher. In 1979 these stories were produced as a TV series Thomas and Friends, which became immensely popular around the world.  The two main protagonists were Thomas the Tank Engine and Sir Topham Hatt, the “fat controller.”  Ringo Star, and then George Carlin, were narrators for the series. Thomas-related toys were featured in toy stores everywhere.   

TophamHatt and Thomas

Sir Topham Hatt and Thomas didn’t always see eye to eye on who was boss.

By the age of four Silas had become obsessed with Thomas.  Each visit to our home in Glen Ellen included a jaunt to the local toy store with Nana and Grampa (me) to pick out a “special” Thomas character. Keep in mind these were the pre-Amazon days when people actually went to toy stores with their kids and grandkids.  Even though we always told Silas that he could pick out only one Thomas-related toy, inevitably at least two pieces would come home with us after much agonizing decision-making in the toy store. And I am not even mentioning his Thomas underpants, pillow cases, and toothbrushes.

In the spirit of full disclosure I have to admit that still I harbor a lingering resentment that in our play sessions I always, and I mean always, had to be Sir Topham Hatt “the Fat Controller.”   Silas always got to be the star, Thomas the Tank Engine, who managed to save the day in the many crises that unfolded in the fictional train community, Sodor.  

Sir Topham Hatt (that’s me), was supposedly the overseer of all of the engines and had to keep them in line and being productive.  He was an ill-tempered autocrat who constantly had to deal with what he considered to be the peevishness and ineptitudes of his Sodor workers.   

Topham Hatt boss

I was always Sir Topham Hatt!

Despite my grousing about being Sir Topham Hatt, I have many fond memories of our play time with those little wooden trains.  That is, until I decided to share this for our blog and did some research.

It turns out that the tales of Thomas the Tank Engine may have had some sinister social and political undercurrents.  An article in the Telegraph entitled “Why do so many liberal parents hate Thomas the Tank Engine?” cites reviews that lambasted the TV series for being nasty, negative and a bad example for youngsters.  Another commentator wrote that “Stalin would probably have approved of Thomas, who always does what the Fat Controller tells him and strongly disapproves of other engines who step out of line.” Furthermore, “within the engine ranks, the trains enforce clear hierarchies and mirror the class rigidity of their aristocratic masters.”  Yikes!

Thomas as Stalin

Thomas as Stalin?

I must confess that while Silas and I were play-acting on those wooden train tracks in our basement I failed to detect this subtext of social malaise. On the contrary, in retrospect I find Silas’s interpretation of Thomas’s character to be pretty much antithetical to what these critics have suggested. Rather than a pawn of the overseer, Silas’ Thomas was crafty, independent, and acted out against the authoritarian fat controller.  The most fun part of our “play” time together was when Thomas (Silas) would thwart the rules and antagonize me (Topham Hatt). The fact that I never, I mean never, got to be Thomas is testimony to that.

Silas playing trains

One of the tricks up Silas’ sleeve –  turning Thomas into a ghost train so Sir Topham Hatt couldn’t see what he was up to.

Jessica Roake in her entertaining article posted on Slate,  Thomas the Imperialist Tank Engine – The not-so-hidden subtexts of the popular children’s showends with this declaration:

Cast off your shackles and rise up, little engines! Down with Topham Hatt! Sodor revolution now!

Silas prepping

Silas culling through college applications.

I’d like to point out that Silas’ version of Thomas managed to “rise up” in our basement long before she wrote those words.  I hope Cal is ready for Thomas to come rolling in.


  1. tricia53 says:

    Fun to read this! When my nephew was about four, I was on the floor playing with him and his extensive Thomas set. I couldn’t keep the eleventy-five characters’ names straight, so when I repeatedly asked him, “Who is this again?” he would give me a pitying look and patiently say, “That’s PERCY,” Aunt Tricia.


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