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Old bill — cartoon hero of the First World War trenches

By dan shaw  |  Posted: November 05, 2012

Bruce Bairnsfather

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In bugle 1041, John C. Darby of Sutton Coldfield sent in a picture of an ashtray that had belonged to his grandfather. It is decorated with the famous First World War cartoon figure Old Bill, created by Bruce Bairnsfather, and he wanted to know more about it.

Old Bill was incredibly popular during the war and the decades that followed and his image was used in a wide range of merchandise, from postcards to motorcar mascots. Perhaps the best known is the range of Old Bill pottery produced by Grimwade’s of Stoke-on-Trent.

Also popular were the brass ashtrays and they frequently come up for sale at auction today.

Bairnsfather (1889-1959) served with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in the war and drew cartoons of life in the trenches which The Bystander magazine began to publish in 1915. Roger Southely, of Pattingham, near Wolverhampton, has loaned to us his copy of Fragments from France, published in January 1916, the first of eight volumes of Bairnsfather’s cartoons published by The Bystander. The first volume features on its cover perhaps Bairnsfather’s most famous cartoon, “Well, if you knows of a better ’ole, go to it”.

Old Bill was by far Bairnsfather’s most popular creation, the archetypal old warhorse of the British Expeditionary Force. There is some debate as to who was the inspiration for the character. Some references suggest it was Bairnsfather’s commanding officer in France, the popular general Sir Herbert Plumer (1857-1932), others say Old Bill was based upon Private Sidney Godley (1889-1957), the first soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War, while it may be that Old Bill represented a general type of soldier rather than a specific personality.

Old Bill’s popularity endured when the war was over and the soldiers had returned home. As well as the wide range of merchandise the cartoon character became flesh in a number of stage productions. The first actor to play Old Bill was John Humphries in the 1916 revue Flying Colours. The play The Better ’Ole, or The Romance of Old Bill, opened in August 1917, starring Arthur Bourchier as Old Bill, and the following year this was filmed for the cinema, with Charles Rock in the role. Other Old Bill films include Old Bill Through the Ages (1924), with Syd Walker, the 1926 remake of The Better ’Ole, starring Charlie Chaplin’s brother Sydney, the first Old Bill talkie, Old Bill’s Christmas (1929), with Henry Wenman, and Old Bill and Son (1941) with Morland Graham as Old Bill, which saw the redoubtable fighter signing up once more, to take on the Nazis, with his son, played by John Mills. In all, around 30 actors played Old Bill on stage and screen.

Old Bill may also be the origin of the well-known nickname for the police. No one knows for sure how the nickname came about and the Metropolitan Police cite 13 possible origins for it, but two of them relate to Bairnsfather’s Old Bill.

In 1917 Bairnsfather drew a series of posters for the government making public announcements under the heading “Old Bill says…”, which featured the character dressed as a special constable and this inspired the name.

Alternatively, the name may came from the resemblance of many police constables to Old Bill, particularly after the war when many ex-soldiers joined the force, as lots of policemen sported heavy moustaches like the cartoon character.

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