In Search of Old Bill: The Life of Thomas Rafferty

In Search of Old Bill: The Life of Thomas Rafferty

Winter 2022

In Search of Old Bill

During the winter of 2020 / 2021 I was approached by John Belcher to ask if I would be interested in editing together his years of research concerning his great Uncle, Thomas Rafferty, who had fought in World War One, and died at the second battle of Ypres. Having a wide-ranging interest in history I was immediately intrigued by the topic, and this was to become my ‘lock-down’ project. John had come into possession of an archive of material from Rafferty’s daughter, Ivy, which had been passed down to her by her mother – and Thomas’s wife – Kate. One of the most intriguing aspects of the archive was the indication that Rafferty may actually have been closely associated with Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, and indeed, had been the inspiration for the creation of his famous cartoon character ‘Old Bill’. There had been an ongoing debate within Bairnsfather’s lifetime as to whom had been the original ‘Old Bill’, or indeed if anyone could be regarded as such. When asked, Bairnsfather had simply stated that he was depicting a ‘type’ of soldier rather than a specific individual. However, the evidence within the archive demonstrating that Rafferty was indeed the inspiration for Bairnsfather’s ‘Old Bill’ would subsequently appear to be unequivocal, but in another sense what emerges from the archive is much more interesting.

John had produced an initial timeline within which to place much of Thomas Rafferty’s archive, which consisted of photographs, newspaper cuttings, official documentation, and correspondence. By providing additional research I was able to contextualise much of the primary evidence so that this material could sit within a narrative structure that would appeal to a wider audience.

Those interested in learning more about Thomas Rafferty’s remarkable life are encouraged to pick up a copy of In Search of Old Bill: The Life of Thomas Rafferty from Brewin Books Ltd here.

In addition I have written an article simply titled ‘Old Bill’ for the Bulletin Number 125 of the Western Front Association – published September 2023 – that discusses the facial similarity between the sketches Bairnsfather made of ‘Old Bill’ and surviving photographs of Thomas Rafferty.

As part of the promotion for the book, renowned social historian, Carl Chinn, wrote an article in the Birmingham Mail “Great War icon ‘Old Bill’ was a Brummie”, (December 6, 2022), outlining Thomas Rafferty’s personal history.

“Thomas edited my research on a Great War soldier, Thomas Rafferty, a relative who happened to be the inspiration for Captain Bruce Bairnsfather’s famous cartoon creation, ‘Old Bill’. Thomas’s editing of my original manuscript provided a convincing and engaging narrative of Rafferty’s life, enabling the publication of the book, ‘In Search of Old Bill’. Without Thomas’s input, which was both inspirational and diligent, this would not have been possible.”
John Pimm Belcher, Certificate H E Birmingham University, War Studies.

‘In Search of Old Bill’ is now on Goodreads: Please leave a considered review here.