Aroundtown Meets Tony Batty

He might call himself the Sweeny Todd of Barnsley. But barber Tony Batty is anything but demonic.

He’s shear saintlike, a breath of fresh hair who’s changing lives one haircut at a time.

Over the last few years, 58-year-old Tony has made it his mission to give back to the community. He’s Barnsley’s Father Christmas and Easter Bunny delivering gifts to children in hospital, has taken hundreds of knives off the streets, and gives free haircuts to people with dementia or terminal illnesses.

But it was a close shave with death that taught Tony the importance of kindness.

In the mid-2000s, Tony’s kidneys started failing. He had two young sons, Cameron and Jack, by this point and needed to carry on for their sake.

He was told he’d only have two years to live unless he had a kidney transplant. But everyone close to him failed the test to become a donor. He even went on national television to appeal for a donor. It took 18 months to find a match, and that person couldn’t have been closer to home.

“An old school mate of mine called Darren came in the shop one day. I’d not seen him in years but we were really close as kids growing up. He said he’d go for a test but I didn’t hold my breath as none of my family were compatible. Then I got a call from the hospital to say ‘you’ll never believe it but he’s a one to one match’. They said it was that close a match we could have been brothers.”

After four years on dialysis, during which he worked every day, Tony had the kidney transplant in 2006.

“The NHS gave me my life back. I knew I wanted to give something back in return,” he says. “I started doing free haircuts for terminally ill people after a man came in with his carer. He had cancer and had been bedbound for six months. But he said afterwards that the haircut made him feel like a better man. You can’t put a price on that.”

Tony has been making people feel good with a fresh cut for the last 40 years.

The son of a Barnsley Main miner, he grew up in Kingstone with his sister Cheryl and parents John and Dot Batty. After leaving Holgate School, he wasn’t sure which path to take, but started a welding course at college before working for his mum’s family’s scrap merchants in Cudworth.

A young Tony and with mum Dot in the 1980s

Then he saw an advert for an apprentice barber.

“I always liked messing about with my hair, trying to make myself look like George Michael, so I thought why not?”

Aged 18, Tony opened his first barber shop in Kexborough before relocating closer to home on Racecommon Road in 1984. And he’s still there 38 years later.

“Some customers have been coming since I first opened the doors, some families are onto the third or fourth generation, and there are loads that have become mates.”

Tony’s is an old school barber shop for the modern man. A place for beards, barnets and banter. He’s a master of his craft and has always got people queuing up waiting for him to open the doors at 6.30am – or 6am on a Saturday.

“Apparently I’m the only barber in the UK that opens that early. I once got to the shop on a Saturday morning and there was a man sat in a camping chair with a flask of tea. God knows how long he’d been there but he wanted to be first in my chair as he was going on holiday that day.”

Hair trends might have changed over the last four decades, mullets, curtains and faux hawks replaced with skin fades, crew cuts and man buns. But whatever style they’re in for, customers always get more than they bargained for with Tony.

“The shop is a bit like going to therapy or Andy’s Man Club. People seem to open up better when they’re sat in the chair. Customers tell me their problems and I try and give them advice without judgement.”

The shop has become a community hub in many ways. There’s a defibrillator on the outside wall, paid for by donations raised in the shop. And inside is a knife bank where people can voluntarily donate kitchen knives they no longer need that are then destroyed by the police.

“If a knife is thrown in a skip, someone might pick it up and put it in someone’s ribcage. I still can’t get my head round why someone getting ready to go out on a Saturday night would pick their wallet up, their keys up, and their knife up.”

He’s a one-man-band in the shop, working 12-hour days, five days a week, and often doesn’t sit down until he walks in the house at 6.45pm. But even on his days off, he’s going round care homes, hospices and BIADS dementia day care to give his free haircuts.

In 2020, while the shop was forced to close during the pandemic, Tony looked to extend his call of duty beyond the clippers.

He launched the Barnsley Christmas Toy Bank Appeal to collect new, unopened toys that would be redistributed to children aged between 18 months and 16 years. In its first year, the appeal received 5,000 donations from the public that were then delivered to places like children’s hospitals and domestic violence charities.

Tony also dressed up as Father Christmas to hand-deliver gifts to 20 poorly children who had been nominated for a special Santa visit.

The following year, Tony decided to follow it up with an Easter appeal.

“I didn’t expect it to be as big as the Christmas one, but we had 2,500 Easter eggs donated at collection points across Barnsley. I had to go to one shop twice as I couldn’t get them all in the back of my truck. This Easter I’m helping with Theo’s Egg Run delivering easter eggs to Sheffield Children’s Hospital with a local motorbike club. They want me to ride pillion but I’ve never been on a bike in my life!”

Last year was the third Christmas appeal – and the biggest one yet. Tony says he was humbled by the increasing number of generous people who have jumped on board, from a loyal team of volunteers who help orchestrate the appeal, to one local man who donated 550 selection boxes.

Tony also inadvertently helped save another charity’s Christmas appeal.

“We’d just finished our deliveries when a pub rang to say they’d got a cartload of toys they’d collected – 150 or so. The shop was full and I didn’t know what to do with them as all the referrals we’d had through had been sorted.

“Then the next day I had a message from Stairfoot Foodbank asking if I could help. Their roof had collapsed in the bad winds and destroyed all the donations for their Christmas appeal. Well, they were in luck as I had a shop full of toys.”

Tony couldn’t get everything in his own vehicle so asked a local taxi firm if they could transport the toys in one of their minibuses.

“Not only did they not charge me for the fare, the driver also donated £500 to the foodbank after finding out their food supplies had also been destroyed. Then after I put a post on Facebook, they had another anonymous donation of £500.”

For his philanthropy, Tony won the 2023 Proud of Barnsley Community Hero award after being nominated by Barnsley Hospital Charity, which was a great end to what Tony says was the worst year of his life.

He sadly lost both his parents within a few months of each other, both having had aneurysms.

Tony and wife Joanne with his parents Dot and John (right)

“My dad was a big 17-stone bloke, an ex-miner, but he went down to eight stone after Mum died. He gave up on life, stopped eating and went to the cemetery every day to sit at the side of the grave for three hours. I’ve never seen a man go from being the pillar of a family to the weakest. He had an aneurysm in his stomach that was inoperable because he was too weak for surgery. But he died of a broken heart.”

Losing his parents hit Tony hard. They’d dedicated their lives to Tony and his sister Cheryl. But none more so than when Tony tragically lost his first wife Debbie a few days after the birth of their son Cameron.

“You’re supposed to come out of hospital with a wife and a baby. I just left with a baby. My mum and dad helped me a lot so I could work; they practically brought Cameron up. I put my whole life into being a dad to my boys.

“Cameron is 25 now and still attached to me like an umbilical cord. My younger son Jack is 21 and he’ll do anything for me if I need it. I started him as a barber but he didn’t like touching people’s heads as he thought it was ‘minging’. I’ve tried my hardest and they’ve both turned out well. I know Cameron’s mum would be proud of us.”

With sons Cameron (left) and Jack (right)

Tony did find happiness again with wife Joanne and the couple are celebrating their tenth anniversary this year. She’s also got two grown-up children, Ben and Grace, from a previous relationship.

“I was on my own for 13 years before I met Jo. I never went out with the lads at the weekend. Those times were spent with my kids. I felt guilty to be out meeting other people and thought I’d be judged for moving on after Debbie died. But I always remember a funeral director came in for a hair cut and told me you’ve got to carry on as life is for the living.”

In May, Tony and Joanne will be heading down to Buckingham Palace, having been invited to attend the King’s garden party in recognition of his outstanding voluntary work.