Wally Barnes 1925-2013
The irrepressible 'Warrington' Wally Barnes
Prolific fundraiser and ghost story writer Wally, who sadly passed away on 31 March 2013 aged 88, often spoke of his immense pride at being part of a community he described as "the most caring and giving in the world." And if anyone was qualified to talk about the town's generosity it was Wally as over years the Warrington public helped him raise thousands of pounds for worthy causes.
In the late 1980s I worked for a short-lived local newspaper called 'Warrington Sport' where I got to know Wally first hand. Although he could be demanding and was prone to tell a yarn or two - if you ever had a conversation with Wally it was never a short one - his energy and enthusiasm were contagious and I found him a fascinating person to talk to.
NIGHT OF THE CHAMPIONS
Every week Wally would call me up to discuss his latest fundraising venture: "Hello me old mucker, I'm organising a special 'Night of the Champions' at the Railway Club next month*. Everybody from the local sporting world will be there, try-scoring sensation Phil Blake from the Wire is coming and so is Warrington's very-own Sunny Lowry, the first British lady to swim the English channel. Ex-boxer Johnny Barnes is also coming and I want you and your photographer there too. Only £2 a ticket and all proceeds will go to worthy causes. Meet me in the White Hart tomorrow afternoon and I'll tell you all about it."
I attended the night in question and although Wally spent more time chatting to old friends and acquaintances than he did compering the event, it was a resounding success with lots of worthy causes benefitting, from individual families going through tough times to large charitable organisations such as Help The Aged, The League of Friends and The Royal Society of St. George.
POPULAR LOCAL HISTORY AUTHOR
In addition to being a much-loved fundraiser, Wally was the author of a number of popular local history books including 'The Battle of Burtonwood' which recounted a famous Home Guard training exercise that took place at Bewsey Bridge in 1942, 'The Battle of Buttermilk Bridge' and 'The Battle of Arpley Meadows'.
His most enduring books however must be the four volumes he published under the title 'Ghosts, Mysteries and Legends of Old Warrington'. Few local history books have the ability to make people laugh out loud but Wally's ghost books are the exception, partly because they recall often dubious tales passed down from generation to generation but mostly because Wally's wit shines through at all times, both in his words and in the cartoons he produced to illustrate them.
Who can help but giggle at Wally's tale of local ladies man 'Dandy Dick Peabody' who in the late 19th century enjoyed a string of dalliances with a succession of local beauties? After years of 'playing the field' Dandy Dick, the 'Don Juan' of Warrington, refused to admit he was getting old and after a final, exhausting fling with a barmaid from the old Golden Grove pub in Lyme Street, he dropped dead in the Lower Angel. But according to Wally that wasn't the end of the story. Ever since ladies in the Barley Mow, Blue Bell and Lower Angel have reported having their bottoms pinched when nobody is around - perhaps the 'Phantom Bottom Pincher' is the ghost of Dandy Dick Peabody in disguise suggested Wally. Nobody knows for sure but thanks to Wally and his love of storytelling, interesting characters from the town's past - some real, some imagined - are here to stay.
Without Wally's books, people like Frank Norman, a man who played gramophone records on a pram he wheeled around the town centre in the 1940/50s (a real person) and 'Spring Heeled Jack', a legendary figure said to prowl the streets of Orford in 1927 (probably an urban myth although Wally believed he was a real person) could easily be lost in the midsts of time. We owe a great debt to Wally for keeping such memories alive.
LARGER THAN LIFE
Towards the end of Wally's life, he spent many hours recounting his tales to captivated audiences in schools, community centres and nursing homes where his personality never failed to shine through.
Like many of the people he wrote about, Wally was a larger than life character who will be missed by many. I, and most of Warrington, will remember him fondly. Life was never dull when Wally was around. Warrington will be a duller place without him.
Champion fundraiser 'Warrington' Wally Barnes, seen here wearing his treasured Lancashire Steel Corporation Home Guard helmet. I once interviewed him at his Whitecross home and he spent the entire hour wearing this helmet while his lovely wife Winnie dutifully supplied us with endless cups of tea.
The first of Wally's four books chronicling the spooks and myths of the town he loved so well.
Wally Barnes, seen here as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, in a 1989 painting by Warrington-born artist Frances Broomfield. You can see more of Frances' work at www.francesbroomfield.co.uk. The painting is part of Warrington Museum's collection and is reproduced here with Frances' kind permission.
Wally's 'champion' sportsmen and women at his 'Night of the Champions' included boxers Colin Pepperel, Ronnie Thurston, Ray Gilbody, Johnny Barnes and Jimmy Green plus Wally Ayres (rugby league player), Sunny Lowry MBE (English Channel swimmer) and John White (proprietor of Whites Sports on Warrington Market).
Ethel 'Sunny' Lowry, who lived in Warrington for much of her life was born in Longsight, Manchester and was the second cousin of renowned Salford artist L.S. Lowry. Sunny successful swam the channel on her third attempt on 29 August 1933. She was awarded the MBE in 2005 for services to swimming in the north west and died in Warrington Hospital, aged 97, in 2008.