The Man Who Drew ‘The Better ’Ole’

Mark Bryant examines the wartime work of Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, creator of the famous ‘Old Bill’ character.

The ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice is a timely moment to celebrate one of the greatest cartoonists of the First World War, whose drawings were immensely popular on both sides during the war itself. His most famous character, the ‘dim, dull and honest’, walrus-moustached Tommy, ‘Old Bill’ Busby, was created in 1915 and later appeared in books, plays, musicals and films (including one by Alexander Korda featuring John Mills as ‘Young Bill’). ‘Old Bill’ merchandise included china figurines, soft toys and car radiator mascots, and he was also reproduced on ceramics, playing-cards, jigsaw puzzles, ashtrays, cigarette cards and postcards. A waxwork model of him was displayed in Madame Tussaud’s in 1930 and a double-decker bus was even named after him (it now resides in the Imperial War Museum, London). His creator, who also produced the classic war cartoon ‘The Better ’Ole’, was Captain Bruce Bairnsfather.

Charles Bruce Bairnsfather was born in Murree, India (now in Pakistan), on July 9th, 1887, the eldest son of Lieutenant (later Major) Thomas Henry Bairnsfather, a Scottish officer in the Indian Army, and Amelia Jane Eliza Every, the daughter of a former Deputy Lieutenant of Derbyshire and herself a talented amateur painter. Both of his parents were descended from a common grandfather, Sir Edward Every, 8th Baronet.

As a boy Bairnsfather was brought to England in 1895. Here he attended the United Services College, Westward Ho!, Devon (1898–1904), and an army crammer in Stratford-upon-Avon while also taking evening classes in art at Stratford Technical College. He sold his first drawing (an advertisement for Player’s Navy Mixture) at the age of seventeen for two guineas.

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