Bairnsfather’s Great War Character was once a Tramway Worker in Birmingham

Bairnsfather’s Great War Character was Once a Tramway Worker in Birmingham,(Typed version of The Weekly Dispatch Article 30TH SEPT 1917

OLD BILL belonged to Birmingham. Bairnsfather’s immortal creation once worked on a tramway-car in the Midland capital.There is no doubt about his identity. Officials and mates vouch that Old Bill was one of their company, and his wife is similarly satisfied. Besides the Editor of The Weekly Dispatch has received photographic evidence that the man Bairnsfather knew and the man Bairnsfather created have one and the same personality. In Bairnsfather’s delightful and intimate portraiture of the Gapper Tommy they recognise Old Bill, who on duty and off in Birmingham was the same unmistakeable individual, cheery, humorous, commanding, picturesque, and, above all a man’s man able to inspire at once respect and affection, a pal and a foreman.Mention Pat Rafferty to the Birmingham tramway men on the Handsworth route, and a broad smile, such as Old Bill loved, envelope their features ” Ah !, you mean Old Bill” they say.Rafferty was a soldier who loved soldiering for soldiering’s sake . He had served time in the Royal Warwicks and been transferred to the Reserve when in the middle of 1909, he joined the Birmingham Corporation Tramways and thence onwards until 1913 served as a motor man, when he became acting inspector, promoted for merit. At the outbreak of war, on leaving to join his regiment in the Isle of Wight, he stood on the back of a tramway car going from Handsworth to the city and breezily called out to his mates who were wishing him ” Good luck and a safe return”:”So long boys, we’ll soon have this job over, and then I’ll be with you again.’Alas Rafferty for all his qualities, was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet; the job was not destined to be soon over, and he was not destined to return. He lies poor fellow, somewhere in France or Flanders, with two years soil over his head — so much they know in Birmingham — but he did his duty and played the game as those who have him in tender recollection knew he would, and so in the Valhalla of humble patriots he has a place and a niche, than which even the greatest among us could wish for no finer reward.They didn’t call him Old Bill in Birmingham before the war. They called him ”Pat”. When you are known to your mates by a racial sobriquet you have earned their affection.Among his class Rafferty led. In an argument, his was the opinion that prevailed. You might be cleverer and more pungent, but Rafferty’s say held the field.” If Pat says it is so, then it is so” That clinched it. Immaterial whether Rafferty was right or wrong, he had his way. In that sense he was a great man in a little world. He was honoured in his own country, of scant screage though it may have been. ‘The proof of this also is easy to seek.Old Bill had that rare gift we describe as ”Initiative.” He did not wait on his fellows; they waited on him. When there was a tramway block it was to Old Bill they looked to put things right.Old Bill instinctively assumed the part, rarely disappointed them. Imagine a score of cars held up in a line and Rafferty the driver of the rearmost; it would be a very sorry moment for general expectation if he didn’t step off his car, push himself to the front, apply himself to the mischief and get things right.All of us in our own walks of life must have met the type, for Old Bill was not so much a distinct generation as a type—-men in the bulk are more or less sheep waiting to be led; and Rafferty was one of those who led. Born to greater things, he must have achieved greatness, since the essence of greatness, leadership was in him, and leadership, as the truthful will admit, is not a matter of red tabs; it is personality.Soldier habits persist, and they recall of Rafferty that his buttons were always well polished and that there was an almost fastidious neatness about his get up. He had the old soldier’s naïve faith in the prowess of British arms and did not believe that any other nation could produce soldiers to touch ours. He smiled at the idea of the Germans,”miserable, under-fed blighters,” as he conceived them, standing up to the regiment of British Regulars.Old Bill doted on being in the picture. Call it weakness or what you will, but unless you grant that sense of personal pride to him your image is faulty. He liked music and was a member of the tramway band His instrument was the big drum, no doubt chosen because it made the most noise and set our hero apart from the rest. How he thumped that drum— the Homeric energy of the man – the genial, agreeable concert of his performance— these are the reflections that in no way diminish his stature but round off the pleasant shadow it cast.At the depot it was Rafferty’s merry voice: ”Well now, whose call is it?” which in inevitably prefaced spell of conviviality, for even, for in even these things he led the way. He was a temperate man, while never at a difficulty to accommodate himself to his company. He ”stood his corner” without throwing his money about; he was never short without being flush: he could always be relied upon for a bit on account without suggesting he made a habit of it . A very well balanced, picturesque figure of a man was Old Bill. It was characteristic of Old Bill that when leaving the Isle of Wight for France he should have wished to send a message to his pals in Birmingham, and it was equally characteristic of Old Bill to choose as a means of communication a sealed bottle thrown into the sea, which bottle with its hasty scrawl in due course turned up at Birmingham.”He always had plenty of ‘savvy,’ ” is the comment of his mates on this incident. ”Trust Old Bill to get round a difficulty.” As for the rest, it need only be said that the identification of Rafferty as Old Bill came through the publication of the photograph of Bairnsfather’s hero in the Weekly Dispatch. His friends saw it and immediately exclaimed ”That’s Pat Rafferty.” This was a month ago. Birmingham, which had a right to claim a wonderful character in the British Army, for three years never knew it. How often is this the way of greatness!

Note;——— the article included 2 head and shoulders photos of Rafferty.


”Old Bill” when he was plain Thomas Rafferty before the war.

”Old Bill” as he was photographed in the trenches by Captain Bairnsfather,