My name is John Belcher. My research into ‘Old Bill’ began in 1990 when I was researching the Belcher family history. A casual remark to my mother at the time began: “…was there anyone of interest in your family”? Mom spoke about her cousin’s dad Thomas, which made my dad laugh and comment ”Ivy’s dad was Corporal Jones”, (referring to the character from ‘Dad’s Army’ a t v comedy programme.) Mom was not amused by this and suggested that I visit Ivy and so my interest was born…. I needed to find out more about Thomas Henry Rafferty!
(Above header is of a postcard showing Thomas Henry Rafferty taken with 1st Battalion of Royal Warwickshire regiment in 1909 at Bordon Camp which was sent to Kate Howell when they were a courting couple. Kate became his wife in 1911. Thomas is in the front row 4th from the left. )
Thomas died at Ypres in the Great War 25th April 1915 !
With Thomas’s daughter Ivy’s help I was able to uncover photographs newspaper cuttings and documents dated 1914 to 1923 relating to her father Lance Corporal Thomas Henry Rafferty 7840. 1st Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment. My Great uncle that the public accepted as ‘OLD BILL’ in 1917. Time has been against research into The Old Contemptibles of the British Expeditionary Force who were lost killed in action within a few months of the start of the Great War. Of those that did survive many came home to the Great ‘flu Pandemic that claimed more lives than the war did! Many official army records were destroyed in the blitzes in the second world war by fire and water in London. It is the decision of the reader to decide in their own mind who ‘OLD BILL’ was by looking at the evidence from the past such as the photograph taken by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather showing Thomas Henry Rafferty and the lads in the trench and look at the cartoon ‘The Tin Opener’ one of the famous cartoons drawn by the artist! Information which Ivy supplied regarding her father for example the letter from Bairnsfather’s secretary. (Kate wrote to Bairnsfather enquiring after her missing husband and enclosed some photographs of her husband.) I have several original letters from The Uneeda Film Service, newspaper articles of the time all pointing to the fact that ‘OLD BILL’s character was based on Thomas. C.B Rollins understood from his father S .Rollins that the men understood that ‘Pat Rafferty’ ie. Thomas was known as ‘Old Bill’ out there. Since letters/ newspaper articles in the nineteen nineties to back up the evidence which all of interest to help in your final judgement! eg. The Independent -‘Old Bill identified after 77 years in that ‘ole’. 26th May 1992. ‘ Remember Old Bill’ by Tonie and Valmai Holt wrote in the Stand To! no 34 April 1992.
I have an interesting article on Captain Bruce Bairnsfather titled ‘ Cartoonist at War’ by Bel Bailey, who looks back on the early life of the man and goes on to say how success had come at the darkest hour and in the most unlikeliest of places. How he survived and that the Warwickshires alone had lost 17 officers and 500 other ranks killed, wounded or missing. He suffered shell shock and hearing damage and was sent home to recover.
Ivy died in 1999 she was 87. In her will she left me all the original documents she had relating to her father THOMAS HENRY RAFFERTY/ ‘OLD BILL’ ? A substantial file– newspapers, photographs, letters, certificates , war office letters and his medals. All helped my research !!!
Latest finds discovered in the British Library:———
The Times Literary Supplement Thursday December 21st 1916. ‘The Soldier Who Made the Empire Laugh’.
I found proof that Bairnsfather had referred to Thomas Rafferty as Old Bill in an interview he did with the Weekly Dispatch 5th August 1917. ”Have I insulted the British Army?” (shows a photo naming the three originals Bill, Bert and Alf.)—– (looks as it was initiated regards the Times article Dec 21st 1916).
An original news paper article I have from Ivy ” The Weekly Dispatch ” Discovers the original of ”Old Bill”. it is dated 30th September 1917:- ie; —Bairnsfather’s Great War Character was Once a Tramway Worker. There are two pictures shown:- headed :- How War Transforms the Man. ”Old Bill” when he was plain Thomas Rafferty before the war. ”Old Bill” as he was photographed in the trenches by Captain Bairnsfather. Evidence indeed of who the original Old Bill is and was!
I found an article in the John Bull magazine 5th October 1918 under Candid Communications, the editor makes his comments known to celebrities :-ie To Capt, Bruce Bairnsfather regarding the widow of Pat Rafferty, the Birmingham Tramways inspector regards how she might be a struggling widow with a child. and words along that vein.