Profile: Chadwell Heath’s John Barfoot on why he became a First World War historian

Chadwell Heath historian John Barfoot

Chadwell Heath historian John Barfoot - Credit: Archant

Inspiration can strike in the most unusual of circumstances. For historian John Barfoot, his curiosity about the First World War was born as a child on the streets of Ilford.

The sight of the broken veterans invoked a passion for the era that remains to this day.

The 84-year-old, of Ilfracombe Gardens, Chadwell Heath, said: “I always had an interest because I was born in 1930 – more or less between the end of the Great War and the beginning of the Second World War.

“As a small child I can remember distinctly all the shell-shocked people – these poor chaps wandering about talking to themselves.

“Then when the Second World War broke out my interest in World War One aircraft carried on, which I think stemmed from the early black and white films that we used to watch.”

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The historian’s passion for the conflict has seen him become involved in the centenary celebrations.

Last week, he led a discussion for the Ilford Historical Society on the town’s Home Front and this is to be followed next month by talks on a woman who served during the conflict.

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Grace Berry was a Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) driver, who worked with 44 Squadron at Hainault Farm aerodrome. Her diaries, kept at the RAF Museum in Hendon, portray the ups and downs of her career.

Mr Barfoot said: “Of all the characters I have come across that served at Hainault Farm, Grace Berry is one of the most interesting.

“It wasn’t until the First World War that there were more women driving. It was an expensive pastime.”

The historian’s career has also seen him write many articles for journals.

His first ever piece, published in Cross and Cockade International in the late 1980s, looked at Norwegian aviator Tryggve Gran.

The figure was a member of Captain Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole and he served with 39 Squadron during the Great War, who were based at Sutton’s Farm aerodrome, in Hornchurch, Havering.

But because of Norway’s neutrality, Gran disguised himself as a Canadian airman, Capt Teddy Grant, to get into the Royal Flying Corps.

Mr Barfoot revisited Gran’s story earlier this year for a centenary article for The ‘14-’18 Journal (published by the Australian Society of World War One Aero Historians).

The historian’s career as an author has also been a success.

His back catalogue includes Over Here and Over There, about Hainault Farm’s pilots, and Memoirs of a Little Blighter, which explored his childhood in wartime Britain.

A sequel on his teenage years is also soon to be written. He began his National Service in 1949, which ran for 18 months, and subsequently spent three and a half years in the Territorial Army.

Mr Barfoot said: “It will give me a reason to listen to a cassette recording of memories made in the 1970s, of my Army days.

“It will be a pleasure for me to write, as I will be going down memory lane, which is a nice place to be.”

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