Bruce Bairnsfather

Captain Charles Bruce Bairnsfather (9 July 1887 – 29 September 1959) was a prominent British humorist and cartoonist. His best-known cartoon character is Old Bill. Bill and his pals Bert and Alf featured in Bairnsfather's weekly "Fragments from France" cartoons published weekly in The Bystander magazine during the First World War.

Photo of the author, 1918, by Pirie MacDonald

Early lifeEdit

Bairnsfather was born at Murree, British India (now Pakistan) to Major Thomas Henry Bairnsfather (1859–1944), of the Indian Staff Corps, and (Amelia) Jane Eliza, daughter of Edward Every-Clayton and granddaughter of Henry Every, 9th Baronet. His parents were second cousins, both being great-grandchildren of Edward Every, 8th Baronet.[1][2]

He spent his early life in India, but was brought to England in 1895 to be educated at the United Services College, Westward Ho!, then at Stratford-upon-Avon. Initially intending a military career, he failed entrance exams to Sandhurst and Woolwich Military Academies but joined the Cheshire Regiment.

He resigned in 1907 to become an artist, studying at the John Hassall School of Art. Unsuccessful at first, he worked as an electrical engineer. Working in this capacity for the Old Memorial Theatre, Stratford, brought him into acquaintance with Marie Corelli, who introduced him to Thomas Lipton, a connection that led to commissions to draw advertising sketches for Lipton tea, Player's cigarettes, Keen's Mustard, and Beecham's Pills.

World War I serviceEdit

"Well, if you knows of a better 'ole, go to it", Bairnsfather's best-known cartoon, 1915
"Old Bill", from Bullets & Billets: "First Discovered in the Alluvial Deposits of Southern Flanders. Feeds Almost Exclusively on Jam and Water Biscuits. Hobby: Filling Sandbags, on Dark and Rainy Nights".

In 1914, he joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment as a second lieutenant and served with a machine gun unit in France until 1915, when he was hospitalised with shellshock and hearing damage sustained during the Second Battle of Ypres. Posted to the 34th Division headquarters on Salisbury Plain, he developed his humorous series for the Bystander about life in the trenches, featuring "Old Bill", a curmudgeonly soldier with trademark walrus moustache and balaclava. The best remembered of these shows Bill with another trooper in a muddy shell hole with shells whizzing all around. The other trooper is grumbling and Bill advises:

Well, If you knows of a better 'ole, go to it.

Many of his cartoons from this period were collected in Fragments From France (1914) and the autobiographical Bullets & Billets (1916).[3]

Despite the immense popularity with the troops and massive sales increase for the Bystander, initially there were objections to the "vulgar caricature". Nevertheless, their success in raising morale led to Bairnsfather's promotion and receipt of a War Office appointment to draw similar cartoons for other Allies forces.


In 1921, Bairnsfather married Cecilia Agnes Scott (née Bruton). She was the divorced wife of eminent golfer Michael Scott.

"Old Bill" and Bairnsfather himself continued in popularity between the wars. Many police officers of the time had similar facial hair, and that may have led to British police being referred to as The Old Bill. "The Bill" was a British t.v. series which incorrectly shortened the original commonly-used phrase.[citation needed] Bairnsfather was the subject of one of the first British sound films in 1927, wrote and directed the 1928 Canadian film Carry On Sergeant,[citation needed] and took part in the early Alexandra Palace television transmissions in 1936. Old Bill appeared in numerous books, plays, musicals and films. Bairnsfather's autobiography, Wide Canvas, appeared in 1939.[4]

When the Second World War broke out, Bairnsfather continued Old Bill work, but was not asked to help with the British war effort. Instead, he became official cartoonist to the American forces in Europe, contributing to Stars and Stripes and Yank, whilst residing at Cresswell House in Clun, Shropshire. He also drew cartoons at American bases and nose art on aircraft. His works are considered to have influenced artists such as Bill Mauldin.

During later life, Bairnsfather had found himself typecast as the creator of Old Bill. His Times obituary, discussing his career, came to the conclusion that he was "fortunate in possessing a talent ... which suited almost to the point of genius one particular moment and one particular set of circumstances; and he was unfortunate in that he was never able to adapt, at all happily, his talent to new times and new circumstances".[5] He died in 1959 of complications from bladder cancer, in Worcester.

"The Growth of Democracy" by Bruce Bairnsfather (1917). "Colonel Sir Valtravers Plantagenet gladly accepts a light, during a slight lull in a barrage, from a private in the Benin Rifles".


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A commemorative blue plaque appears outside one of his old studios, 1 Sterling Street, Knightsbridge London (51°29′58″N 0°10′01″W / 51.4995°N 0.16686°W / 51.4995; -0.16686).[6] The blue plaque was initiated by Tonie and Valmai Holt who later wrote Bairnsfather's biography (In Search of the Better Ole – the Life, the Works and the Collectables of Bruce Bairnsfather) and also sponsored a memorial plaque to Bairnsfather on the cottage at St Yvon in Belgium at the edge of Plugstreet Wood where Bairnsfather drew his first 'trench' cartoons.

A plaque commemorating Bruce Bairnsfather was unveiled at his former home, Victoria Spa Lodge, Bishopton, Stratford upon Avon (52°12′18″N 1°43′52″W / 52.205018°N 1.731122°W / 52.205018; -1.731122) on 10 September 2005 by cartoonist Bill Tidy.[7] The plaque was instigated by Mark Warby, Editor of The Old Bill Newsletter, the official journal for Bairnsfather enthusiasts and collectors.

On 24 September 2011, a plaque commemorating Bruce Bairnsfather was unveiled on the wall of Colwall Royal British Legion Club in Crescent Road, Colwall, near Malvern in Worcestershire. The plaque was instigated by the Colwall Village Society and was unveiled by Mark Warby. Bairnsfather lived in Colwall from 1951 to 1954 and was well known at the British Legion Club in the village.

Bill & Alphie's, the Royal Military College of Canada's on-campus cadet pub in Kingston, Ontario is named after Bruce Bairnsfather's Great War cartoon characters. Yeo Hall at the College of Canada features sculptures of Bill and Alphie. There is a large mural drawn on the wall of the main staircase in the Royal British Legion Victory House Club in Ludlow, Shropshire.


  • Mark Bryant, "Bairnsfather, (Charles) Bruce (1887–1959)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online edn, May 2006 accessed 2 July 2007
  1. ^ Burke's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, 107th edition, vol. 1, ed. Charles Mosley, Burke's Peerage Ltd, 2003, p. 1360
  2. ^ The Biography of Bruce Bairnsfather: In Search of the Better 'Ole, Tonie and Valmai Holt, Pen and Sword Military, 2014, p. 12
  3. ^ Bullets & Billets at Project Gutenberg
  4. ^ Bairnsfather, Bruce (1939). Wide Canvas: An Autobiography. London: John Long. p. 252.
  5. ^ Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather: Creator Of "Old Bill", The Times, 30 Sep 1959
  6. ^ "Bruce Bairnsfather plaque in London". OpenPlaques. Retrieved 9 September 2011.
  7. ^ "Bishopton 2005 Reunion". Archived from the original on 2 April 2012. Retrieved 9 September 2011.
  • John Pimm Belcher "Thomas Henry Rafferty" The Original Old Bill of the Better Ole identified by Bruce Bairnsfather in Articles in the Weekly Despatch in August/September 1917 for the first time as Old Bill

Further readingEdit

  • Carter, Vivian. Bairnsfather, A Few Fragments from His Life. London: Pub. for 'The Bystander' by Hodder and Stoughton, 1917. OCLC 2314045
  • Holt, Tonie and Valmai. In Search of the Better 'Ole, A Biography of Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, including a listing of his Works and Collectables, Pen and Sword Books, 2001. ISBN 0 85052 764-3 OCLC 44534036


External linksEdit