By: David Seddon
July 25th, 2023
Thomas the Tank Engine was a long-running franchise, starting in 1984 and airing until 2021 for a total of 24 seasons — An impressive runtime for any children’s series. Or in English terms, it ran from Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership up to Boris Johnson’s.
When tuning into an episode, children would enjoy short stories set on the fictional island of Sodor, located somewhere in the UK. In it, Thomas, as well as a variety of other trains, work at their train yard and go through various misadventures related to their job, but often things work out.
What the child sees is a fun, happy story. However, what a parent might notice are the themes of the show. One of the largest themes, especially early on in the story, is the focus on the importance of hard work. Since most of the main characters are trains, their days seem to only consist of work, sleep, and being idle when they don’t have to work. They are happiest when they are given work, they try to work as hard as they can, and do not play unless it’s part of their work.
In fact, an early arc of the show revolves around Thomas trying to get a more prestigious job of carrying around train cars at the station. However this fixation on hard work comes through most clearly in the third ever episode of the show, The Sad Story of Henry.
The episode starts off with a green train driving into a tunnel during a light rainstorm. However, instead of continuing through to the other side, he decides to stay under the tunnel. It turns out that this train, Henry, refuses to drive in the rain for fear that it’ll ruin his green paint. Other characters come in to try and force him out, or reason with him to come out, but he doesn’t budge.
At the end of the episode, the characters give up on trying to get him out, and instead tear up the tracks, and brick off the tunnel entrance so he can’t get out. The other trains continue to run by, mocking him as they go, while his paint job gets ruined, and he can’t respond. The episode ends with our narrator saying, “I think he deserved his punishment, don’t you?”
He is let out of his tunnel in the next episode; however, he is only let out because he promises to work again. This message goes beyond just emphasizing hard work, it presents a world where bosses possess uncontested power over their workers. It even explicitly presents this as just and normal.
Some of these lessons can take on new significance from this viewpoint. In season 1, episode 11, Thomas and the Guard, the main lesson seems to be something along the lines of “don’t be too impatient, or you might make mistakes.” Which is, obviously, a perfectly fine moral for children’s media, but it can feel different when it’s delivered through the lens of hard work. It can feel like it’s specifically trying to shape the children watching it into good workers before anything else.
What media we consume can be very influential to us. A quote from the New York Times article You Are What You Watch? The Social Effects of TV, reads “A wave of new social science research shows that the quality of shows can influence us in important ways, shaping our thinking and political preferences, even affecting our cognitive ability.” This doesn’t seem to be as true for children as it is for adults, but if TV can shape our thinking and political beliefs, then it’s important to ask what kinds of messages all shows are trying to send.
As this pertains to Thomas the Tank Engine, the show seems to be trying to send messages that will not just help kids become better people, but better workers, specifically.
If we are to take the show’s message to heart, then we might believe that playing isn’t important, at least not outside of getting work done. If characters refuse to work, then they are given harsh punishments. When Thomas does well he is rewarded with more and harder work. When a character does something wrong, it’s often framed as a failure based on how it impacts the train line; people asking for refunds from the train company means a character did something really wrong. All of this focuses on, and glorifies, being a worker.
This is, perhaps, not a surprising lens for the show to take on either. As mentioned above, the show was originally released in 1984, which was right in the middle of Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership.
Margaret Thatcher was a conservative who famously defined her own style of political thought, known as Thatcherism. To quote an article from Britannica, “As prime minister, Thatcher called for greater independence of the individual from the state… She advocated an end to what she viewed as excessive government interference in the economy… She sought to keep taxes low and to curb the power of trade unions.”
Thomas the Tank Engine’s first season neatly lines up with the tenets of Thatcherism: particularly the emphasis of hard work, individuality, and a lack of worker power. Going back to the Sad Story of Henry, we can see how as a worker, Henry has no power over his situation. If he goes against the wishes of the train company, and its owner Mr. Topham Hat, he is punished severely, and deservedly.
This isn’t to suggest that the creator’s of Thomas the Tank Engine were in conspiracy with Thatcher to spread her ideas to kids, or anything along those lines. It’s just to make it clear that children’s media isn’t immune from being influenced by current political thought. We shouldn’t overlook the messages our media is trying to spread, especially to the youngest parts of the population.
David Seddon is a senior undergraduate student with a major in professional and public writing and a minor in Chinese. A big fan of fantasy and sci-fi, David can often be found playing games, reading books or working on his own self-published books in his free time.