Fringe Box



Old Bill And Friary Brewery Connection Solved

Published on: 5 Mar, 2012
Updated on: 5 Mar, 2012


The carved wooden sign that started an investigation into its history and origins.

by David Rose

The link between Guildford’s former Friary Brewery and the First World War cartoon character Old Bill has now been solved.

At the end of January I wrote a story for the St Catherine’s Village website  titled ‘Old Bill Liked A Drop Of Friary Ales too!’ Click here to read. It was in response to a photo that had been sent to me, via this website, by Teresa Carvallho of an unusual carved wooden sign or plaque advertising Friary Ales and with what looked like the Old Bill character supping a pint of beer.

News certainly travels fast, and it wasn’t long before I had an email from Mark Warby who knows a good deal about Old Bill and the cartoonist who drew him, Captain Bruce Bairnsfather.

Mark writes: “From 1940 to 1951 Bruce Bairnsfather and his wife lived at The Old Forge in Northchapel, west Sussex, also owning the adjacent property, known as Barn Close. The cartoonist was well known and liked in the village, and while living at The Old Forge drew cartoons for the Northchapel Home Guard, Youth Club and Working Mens’ Club.

“During his latter years in Northchapel he also drew a cartoon showing Old Bill sat outside the Half Moon Inn (which was directly opposite his home), which was a Friary Holroyd & Healy’s Breweries Ltd pub. The original drawing [featured in the wooden plaque] was perhaps done at the request of the brewery.

Landlord of the Half Moon, Northchapel, Eric Sinclair and his wife Norah. Picture from the St Clair Sinclair website.

“The new publican, Mr Sinclair, had a talent for wood carving, and the ‘plaque’ advertising Friary Ales featuring Old Bill, which the lady who contacted you has, was actually done by him.

“As you observed, the caption is obviously an adapted from Bairnsfather’s famous First World War cartoon ‘Well if you knows of a better ‘ole go to it.’

“As far as I am aware. the plaque would originally only have been made for and displayed at the Half Moon in Northchapel. I have visited the pub a number of times in recent years, and know for sure that in 2004 an identical plaque was still on display in the bar of the pub.

“Perhaps the landlord made one of the carvings while Bruce Bairnsfather was still living in the village, and when the brewery saw it they persuaded him to make further identical carvings, and had the Friary Ales logo put on them to advertise their beer. I believe some of the carvings may originally have been mounted somehow on to a wooden ashtray.

Variation on a theme. Another of Eric Sinclair's carvings based on Old Bill. Picture from the St Clair Sinclair website.

“Bruce Bairnsfather’s link with Sussex didn’t quite end when he left Northchapel in 1951. His parents had also lived in Northchapel from 1941 (his father died in 1944 and is buried in the village churchyard), and in the early 1950s Bairnsfather’s mother, then in her 90s, went into the Mount Alvernia Nursing Home in Godalming – where she died in December 1958, aged 98.

“By the time he moved to Northchapel, Bairnsfather was still very much in demand. In 1941 a new film was made about his famous character – Old Bill & Son (starring John Mills as Young Bill), and from 1942 to 1944 the cartoonist was attached to the US Forces based in Northern Ireland and England as an official cartoonist, with his work published in the US forces paper Stars & Stripes. His cartoons also appeared in English magazines such as IllustratedJohn Bull and The Bystander, at this time.

“After the war he spent much of his time painting landscapes, but also undertook three postwar lecture tours of America and Canada (prior to the war he lectured extensively throughout the 1930s).

“As an aside, you may be interested to know that after leaving Northchapel in 1951 Bairnsfather moved to the village of Colwall, on the Herefordshire border near Malvern. In September last year I unveiled a plaque commemorating the cartoonist on the wall of the Royal British Legion Club in Colwall, where he was well known (the plaque was instigated by the Colwall Village Society).”

Mark has spent the past 30 years researching the life and career of Bairnsfather (1887-1959), who became famous during the First World War for his ‘Fragments from France’ cartoons published in The Bystander magazine, and as creator of the character Old Bill, who went on to appear in plays, films, in books and magazines, and on all manner of merchandise, and made Bairnsfather world famous.

For 11 years, from 1999-2010, Mark edited and published a bi-monthly newsletter for fellow collectors and enthusiasts of Bairnsfather’s work worldwide, and also set up and maintain the official website at He is now the leading authority on Bairnsfather and is currently working on a major biography of the cartoonist.

Mark has also been in contact with descendants of Half Moon landlord Eric Sinclair. There is a family history website from which I borrowed some of the pictures seen here. It’s worth a look. Go to:

Here are some further images of Captain Bruce Bairnsfather and his creation Old Bill.

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Responses to Old Bill And Friary Brewery Connection Solved

  1. Peter Sinclair

    June 15, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    Hello Guildford Dragon! I was delighted to read your story about ‘Old Bill’ and Eric Sinclair, the landlord at the Half Moon at Northchapel.

    I grew up in that pub and watched my father carving ‘Old Bill’ ashtrays and the many others he made for friends and customers. When Mark contacted me, we had all but forgotten what Eric had done during those years he spent developing an old coaching inn with a feather mattressed four-poster bed and zinc bath tub into a busy and popular Friday and Saturday night destination.

    The upside was that we could afford a green Austin 1100 – which I damaged by pretending to be a boy racer when my father sent me to collect a barrel of beer from Friary’s. (It may not have been a barrel… maybe it was a firkin? But did I care?) The downside was that he smoked and drank himself to death in the process, dying before he reached 60.

    Still, we’re trying to do something about it now, and have been collecting photographs of his carvings for our website. We have yet to locate one of the big wooden spoons he carved, although many ended up in other pubs in Surrey and Sussex. If any of your readers have seen one – or indeed any carvings they think were done by him, I’d be very grateful to know (no, not that grateful!)…

    With many thanks, Peter.