Sir Richard Topham Hatt

Sir Richard Topham Hatt, the current 'Fat Controller' on the Island of Sodor takes the time to speak to SiF about his work, his views and his engines!

You’re the fourth generation of your family to inherit the role of ‘Fat Controller’ on the Island of Sodor.  Can you tell us a bit about your early life and how you reached these dizzying heights?

 

I certainly can! I was born,  as you all know, in 1972 to Sir Stephen Topham Hatt and Lady Helen Hatt (Maiden name Margaret ) - The Hatt Family, it would be fair to say, were (and still are) one of the most wealthy of Sudrian families, thus, I lived in Hatt House, by Wellsworth (and still do to this day.)  I lived with all generations of the family surviving at the time, my father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, brothers and sisters all living under the same roof. We had a very easy life and one with plenty of spare income, and naturally I was introduced to the NWR near immediately.

 

At this age, however, I had little knowledge of what my father actually did. I would often see him talking to engines and their drivers and I knew his office was inside the big station, but the true source of our fortunes was quite unknown to me.

I was the first in the Hatt family not to be sent to the Mainland for schooling, instead attending the Abbey School nearby Cronk. When I finished education, I became an apprentice to many parts of the NWR's operation, starting as a clerk and learning the ranks of firemanning, driving, engine repairs, engine cleaning and eventually was introduced to the fronts of controlling the railway, becoming a clerk to my father.

 

He introduced me steadily into controlling the railway and showing me the importance of the line.  As time went on, my father aged, as did my seniority in the company, and in 2006 to great surprise he offered me the position and retired in my favour, the board of directors agreeing with the minimum of argument.

Were you intimidated stepping into your father, grandfather and great-grandfather’s shoes, particularly as your job is such an iconic role in terms of British children’s literature and television?

 

In many ways, yes, but I had been preparing for it the majority of my life. While our railway's media is vastly important it is by far our priority, and quite simply the position in literature and television is second to the running of the North Western Railway. As intimidating as it was, it was my duty to take over the 'family business' - my father remains very much in the railway's affairs when required and always offers his expertise, which has ensured a very smooth operation.

When Sodor: Reading Between the Lines was published in 2005, Christopher Awdry hinted that your father had no intention of retiring just yet, however, you took over his role in 2006.  What swayed his decision to stand down?

 

My father's retirement was a surprise to us all, truthfully. However, he had been considering it for years previous. By the later years of the 20th century, The NWR had been brought to a stretch, with availability few and far between, and the engines aging at that! The delays in swopping locomotives for the express at Barrow was a source of great contention. Our utility engines, Donald and Douglas, were severely overworked. Our timetables were becoming too slow when compared with those on the mainland, and unfortunately my father was finding the job increasingly difficult, stressful and above him. My father was an old fashioned man and simply hadn't expected such growing passenger use, nor the requirement for such improvements on our facilities - youth was required, he believed, and he quickly set me up for the position without a word of fuss.

Given that we have seen very little of Sodor since privatisation began in 1995, how much has the railway changed since being released from control of British Railways?

 

It would be against the railway's spirit, you'll understand, for any major changes in our railway. Things have remained very much the same although the administrative side, of course, has changed drastically. We have grown as a company but our mileage remains exactly the same as it has been for years. The main change since 1995 has been the modernisation effort that began shortly after my introduction as controller of the railway. It began in 2007 when piece by piece our older pieces of line had signal systems replaced and updated, new lines laid and tighter, more troublesome curves replaced for smoother stretches. Old buildings were either restored or in some cases rebuilt, and our land agreements changed to ensure further leniency when updating our old trackside facilities. This effort is still ongoing, and is likely to have the railway in the finest of conditions by 2015.

 

With the privatisation of the railways we need to be competitive for a high speed network, and in 2011 Pip and Emma finally arrived (after a lot of haggling!) to take over our express services. This has delegated Gordon to 'fast' passenger services, Henry to heavier goods and local trains, Bear to mixed traffic and early/late passenger services whereas James is now another 'utility' engine like Donald and Douglas (although more commonly at the head of freight services as ever).

 

Ultimately, privatisation changed us very little - but the effects on the mainland are felt here prominently, and the importance of our corporate image has increased drastically.

Is the railway now franchised by Network Rail or owned outright as a privately owned entity?

 

The NWR is a completely private entity we're wholly responsible for, from track to taverns!

 

The Awdry family made your railway, and Sodor itself, truly famous – how would you describe the relationship the Islanders, and your own family in particular, had with them?

 

We were all very fond of the Awdry family. They are a wonderful group of people with similar passions for the true British Isles - rolling hills, drystone walls and steam engines - to the majority of Sodor. They were industrious people, great friends to engines and marvellous enthusiasts for what we stand for. I've never heard a negative word towards them, and I dare say I never shall on Sodor.

The Rev. Awdry laid down his pen in 1972, choosing not to write any more about the famous engines.  Are there any great events that happened in the 11 years between then and 1983 that we missed out on as Railway Series books or stories?

 

As far as I am aware, there were no incidents quite major enough to make for a good story. There will, of course, have been the odd derailment or jammed whistle, but I cannot think of a thing that would constitute a book worth of information. That's quite unusual for our railway, but it would be fair to say that in the past thirty/forty years our line finds far less 'major' incidents than it used to!

The TV Series began in 1984, how much involvement has the railway had with the production since the beginning?  Would you describe yourselves as having a good relationship with the production teams working on the series?

 

We had very little in the way of involvement (Note how the 'North Western Railway' name is never referenced in television productions!), although we would often see producers, directors and model makers visiting the NWR to take notes or sketches. We had nothing against it, of course, it was harmless enough, and they were quite amiable people with an aim of producing high quality television for children, something I am completely for. My grandfather, in his later life, was a keen modeller and would often ask them about their 'secrets' and what have you.

 

We have a good enough relationship with those who visit us although (thankfully??) we've never met the writing teams.

The TV Series has taken its own direction since 1998, verging off from the world that the Awdrys presented us with.  What are your thoughts on the way your railway and island have been showcased in recent years?


Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. It's children's television, we of course understand, and it's evidently aiming to entertain above all else, but it's of no high literature and for the past few years it has simply not been a program I would show my children (if they were still young...one can dream..) I genuinely think it is unsuitable in many ways, whether it be bizarre prejudiced writing or simply dangerous visual stunts.

 

Similarly, it caters to children in such a way it believes they are only interested in such nonsense as children's parties and ice cream, something that the books prove to be completely false. It is largely inaccurate, untrue and frankly rather frustrating. As for these fictional land masses that apparently spring up around Sodor (which is apparently connected to the United States?!)...well, let us just say I would never allow behaviour like that on my railway.

How do the engines feel about their reinterpretation for television?


Naturally they too are upset at how irresponsible and unintelligent they are often portrayed on the screen. However, it is rarely in their minds, and it must be said they do not watch television (as you'd expect from a locomotive) nor do they waste much time talking about a fictionalised account of the NWR. They have far more important things to deal with!

Are there any engines in the TV Series you’d particularly like to have on your stock roster?

 

A fine question, and it must be said there is a few. An Ivatt Class 2MT Tank engine ('Arthur') would be of great use to us, as would a Bullied Q1 ('Neville'), a USA Tank engine ('Rosie'), and a Standard 4MT Tank engine. ('Belle')  - these are all very enterprising classes of locomotive, excellent, multi-use engines that are fairly powerful - that we would no doubt find very valuable to our network.  Other than this we hardly have enough freight on our line for a 9F ('Murdoch') nor would we ever need umpteen Manning Wardle tank engines...

Are many visitors to the island disappointed when they find that your railway is dissimilar to the one they’ve seen portrayed on television?

Not as far as I know. I may well be wrong, but after seeing a few episodes myself I'd expect them  to be relieved we're not like the televised Sodor! (The board of directors to the NWR most certainly are!!)

The Railway Series continues to live on through our own Extended Railway Series on SiF – granted, it’s an interpretation of how Sodor could have gone, but what are your thoughts as to what we’ve written?

 

Some incredibly fine writing, excellent ideas and a nice idea for development of our little island. It must be said we haven't developed quite so much, but if we had I hope our line would have shaped in a way so similar to your stories.

 

Is there anything from the Extended Railway Series you wish existed on your own railway?

 

Another fine question. 'Sodor Castle' would be very much useful for us, I feel, as would 'Winston', the Western Diesel-Hydraulic. 'Brad' and 'Rosie' would be a similarly useful  choice, my preference to USA tanks already having being stated. An extension to Ulfstead on the Ffarquhar Branch would be incredibly useful, too, and something we have considered quite thoroughly...

Over 65 years, your railway has accumulated a large following through the books and television series, which continues to grow.  How do you feel about the fan community?


Needless to say, it is wonderful to see so many people have been touched by us and our engines.

 

It must be said, however, that there are many 'types' of fan online that I would prefer not to know about, something I do not intend to touch upon in great detail. I am not a man to generalise, and there are many mature people with great intelligence when it comes to our stories, and some excellent artists.

 

Ultimately, I welcome them - as they continue the Awdry legacy that remains well deserved.

You regularly take time to answer questions from fans of your railway and engines, would it be fair to say you enjoy reaching out to people on a personal level?

 

It is a wonderful experience, especially as not only can I discuss but also educate and explain our little corner of the world. It is intriguing to see how people see our railway, some of the things they don't quite understand and indeed see just what people feel are subjects the Awdrys do not touch upon sufficiently. It is a pleasure to reach out to these people, and an even bigger pleasure knowing I have made the day of some children, or assisted a charity, etc...

 

In your wake since joining Twitter, you’ve been joined by a whole raft of other Sudrian residents from across the Island, including your younger brother, Charles.  How do you feel about the 'Sodor Social Network'?

 

Charles always was one to follow in my footsteps..!  My feelings are most certainly positive. If they wish to join Twitter, so be it - the 'devil is in the detail' and I will only discuss things with those that, well, match with what I wish to spread on Twitter - that being the education and extended understanding for those foreign to Sodor. All the same, it is again very nice to see so many old faces becoming popular in their own right, and it proves only further we exist! I am pleased I 'started something' and I hope the trend continues - but I've no idea who some of them are and I get quite confused!

It also seems that some of the engines have Twitter accounts as well.  How on earth does that work?

 

I was rather hoping you could tell me..!  I know the majority of people on Sodor barely have a computer, and my engines certainly do not, nor smartphones. Similarly, they do not watch television or listen to pop music - and of course, they most certainly do not use coarse language. I do not approve of certain accounts taking my engines names when they use them so poorly.

 

A further oddity as well, there also seems to be a vexed issue of reality on Twitter as well with ‘characters’ from various Sodor universes consolidating into one... what are your thoughts on that?

There is a bit of confusion, isn't there?! I don't have much in the way of thoughts as I'm largely unaware of the people! I believe the issue has become that my 'profile' is a bit of a 'hub' for it all - and as a result I get all of the confusion head on..! I suppose these alternate universes are harmless enough but I can't claim direct affiliation with any of these television characters or those claiming to be employees/locomotives on my railway.

You also maintain Sodor’s presence through regular contributions to the online enthusiast e-magazine, UK Heritage Hub.  How did your involvement with this group come about?

 

They asked for material, and I stepped forward! UK Heritage Hub has become a very important part of my Twitter presence, and I hope your members have all read the articles I have authored on my engines and their origins. It gives me full opportunity to share the dark and cobwebbed archives on our engines - and in the next issue, my miniature biography shall be shared with you all directly.

 

Ultimately, it is just as important to me as my regular updates on Twitter - if any of your readers have not read the magazine, I wholly recommend it - not just for information on my own railway but also valuable articles from the Talyllyn, charter schedules and inside information on heritage lines and locomotive restoration.

The NWR runs as a testament to three centuries of railway heritage, a rare boast for any line or museum, does the NWR capitalise upon this unique selling point?

It would be foolish of us not to! We now organise photography passes and what have you for those whom wish to see our unique railway at close view. Our posters these days star our most 'interesting' locomotives and Gordon's past in particular has become of great importance to us. We may be old fashioned, but we understand our importance, and we're all too happy to give information on our engines whenever requested. We even have a 'heritage centre' outside Tidmouth station devoted to books, paintings and information on our railway's rich history.

What innovative ideas and plans do you have to take the railway forward during your tenure?

 

Since my modernisation has worked so nicely I aim to use 21st century steam advancements to improve our engine's working lives. We already use Water Treatment and I hope we shall soon find ourselves the ultimate centre for modern steam traction. Don't get me wrong, of course, our engines will remain the same old fashioned pieces of machinery as ever, but we hope to, simply, take better care of them.

 

Crovan's Gate is being constantly upgraded this year, and I hope to advance our corporate image while remaining a 'heritage site'. Knapford station is due for some improvements and extensions, as is the yard, and I am going so far as to consider modern traction in our future.

 

With the retirement of some old DMU systems on the Mainland I hope we may open our arms to further diesel traction. I also hope to invest in some businesses and industries on Sodor and the Mainland in order to increase our capital and the breadth of the North Western Railway's markets.

 

We are currently in talks to construct 'Railway Hotels' in certain places on the island and with luck these shall go as planned. Our Steam line services between Kirk Ronan and Dublin are growing in popularity with tourists and shoppers, and perhaps in future I can cement their importance to the NWR and its railway services.

 

In the future I am also considering a similar 'blue plaque' system to that of English Heritage, to be placed on our stations and parts of our railway to highlight the importance of our more impressive 'adventures'.

 

Ultimately, our changes are planned to increase the NWR as a company that is capable of running not only a transportation service but serve important hubs and places on Sodor in every step of their journey and trade.

The engines, and Thomas in particular, are now iconic figures and part of British literature and television history.  How do you all feel about having such an important place on the world stage?

 

It is wonderful to know of our importance to so many people - I only wish people would stop referring to me as 'The Fat Controller' in public..!!

 

Finally, do you have anything you’d like to say to fans of the books and television series?

 

Thank you to you all for continuing to ensure our legacy will continue as long as that of the Great Western Railway. You are all as important to us as we are to you, and if you ever have the slightest story to tell or question to ask, I will always endeavour to not only listen but answer, assist and inform you in all things Sodor. I offer you all my greatest respect, best wishes and sincere hopes for your futures whether it involve railways or otherwise.

Thank you, similarly, to SiF, for allowing me to become 'part of the family', and remember - I'll be keeping an eye on you all, so behave..!

 

Yours truly,

Sir Richard Topham Hatt
Controller of the North Western Railway

Sir Richard has been very active on Twitter for quite some time and gives regular updates about his engines and the railway itself on a daily basis here.  Click the link to check out his feed and give him a follow!

Sir Richard has been very active on Twitter for quite some time and gives regular updates about his engines and the railway itself on a daily basis here.  Click the link to check out his feed and give him a follow!

UK Heritage Hub is an online e-magazine written by British railway enthusiasts for railway enthusiasts - Sir Richard makes regular contributions about his engines to their magazines every month.

Sodor has a growing number of Social Networkers with more and more of Sir Richard's friends and peers from the Island joining Twitter and making accounts.  Check out our SiF Blog entry about the Sodor Social Network!