Awdry was born in Romsey, Hampshire in 1911. The son of a clergyman, he was educated at Dauntseys School, West Lavington, Wiltshire; St. Peter's Hall, Oxford (Bachelor of Arts, 1932), and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He was ordained into the Anglican priesthood in 1936. In 1938 he married Margaret Wale, and two years later took a curacy in King's Norton, Birmingham where he lived until 1946. He subsequently moved to Cambridgeshire, serving as Rector of Elsworth with Knapwell, 1946-53, and Vicar of Emneth, 1953-65. He retired from full-time ministry in 1965, and moved to Stroud, Gloucestershire.
The characters that would make Awdry famous, and the first stories featuring them, were invented in 1943 to amuse his son Christopher during a bout of measles at the age of two and a half. After he wrote The Three Railway Engines, Christopher wanted a model of Gordon; however that was too difficult. Instead, Awdry made a model of a tank engine from odds and ends and painted it blue. Christopher christened the model engine Thomas. Then Christopher requested stories about Thomas and these duly followed and were published in the famous book Thomas the Tank Engine published in 1946.
The first book, The Three Railway Engines, was published in 1945, and by the time Awdry stopped writing in 1972, The Railway Series numbered 26 books. Christopher subsequently added further books to the series.
Awdry's enthusiasm for railways did not stop at his publications. He was involved in railway preservation, and built model railways which he took to exhibitions around the country.
Awdry's story "Henry's Sneeze" (in The Railway Series book Henry the Green Engine) originally described some soot-covered boys as being "as black as niggers". After complaints were made in 1972, twenty years after first publication, the description was changed to "as black as soot".
Awdry wrote other books besides those of The Railway Series, both fiction and non-fiction. The story "Belinda the Beetle" was about a red car (it became a Volkswagen Beetle only in the illustrations to the paperback editions).
Wilbert Awdry was awarded an Order of the British Empire in the 1996 New Year’s Honours List, but by that time his health had deteriorated and he was unable to travel to London. He died peacefully in Stroud, Gloucestershire on March 21 1997, at the age of 85.