MANY people in the WA agricultural industry know John Burridge best as a cattleman, but the story of how he came to be a Murray Grey breeder is not so widely known.
John is a militaria collector who began his collection at six years of age.
Little did he know then that his passion would lead to a career as a military antique collector and dealer, and his other love, cattle.
John grew up in Perth, with a father who had a history in fruit exports out of Donnybrook and a mother who was a Blythe – some of “the early pioneers” in the Kimberley from Mount House and Glenroy stations.
He went to Guildford Grammar School until the final two years when he “decided to go to the Harvey Ag school and got runner up for dux”.
“I didn’t know the difference between a Merino ram and a Hereford bull when I went there but loved it and really got into cattle,” John said.
After ag school he worked on a few dairy properties in the South West where his love of cattle increased, before taking up a role at Elders, “back in the day when it (your paper) was Elders Weekly, and I did three and a half years at the Midland Saleyards”.
Then the opportunity came up to go into National Service and he volunteered.
“Anything for a bit of a break,” he said seriously.
“I use to get up at 3.30 in the bloody morning and sometimes didn’t get home till 11 o’clock at night – they worked your arse off at Elders.”
After enlisting, John became part of 5RAR (5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment) and was deployed to Vietnam.
He was there for 13 months as an infantry soldier from 1969 to 1970 – serving as a section commander and machine gunner in 11 Platoon, Delta Company.
“I was proudest about doing more bush time than any other bugger in the company,” John said.
During the tour Delta Company suffered 10 fatalities with 70 more wounded, which could have been worse if not for modern medicine and the helicopter which was able to evacuate the wounded quickly.
John returned home with the Medal for Gallantry after being wounded twice, once by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) explosion and the other by a hand-grenade explosion.
While it sounds dramatic he shook it off as “only minor wounds”.
Serving in the military was also part of his heritage.
John had family that served in both world wars, but he was especially fond of “a great uncle who was in the first war”.
“He was a big collector,” John said.
“I think if anyone stood still long enough he would pinch their hat badge – and he brought so much stuff back from WW1.
“I found it more interesting talking to him about his collection than stamps or coins and it sort of took off from there.
“So it was in the early 1970s that I decided that I would go full-time in the dealing.”
While John started his dealership he continued collecting his own “Westraliana” – which is basically anything that relates to militaria from Western Australian units pre-Federation.
“I love anything Western Australian - all the early stuff – pre-Federation units.
“We are big Boer War collectors – it was really the only war we have ever fought in as Western Australians, every other war we were Australian, so it was the colony.”
And John’s collection is “fairly massive”.
“I got very lucky, particularly in the early 1970s, there wasn’t that much interest in State – it was more British,” he said.
“Or if you were interested in Australian, it was Australian in general, and I said ‘to hell with all that I’m going to specialise in Western Australian’.
“So some of the medals I’ve got are from blokes with just unbelievable stories.
“I don’t like to brag but I’d have the best State collection in Australia – no doubt about it.”
John’s collection consists of 250 medal groups, which means whatever the 250 troops were awarded when they served.
“We’ve got medals to enrolled pensioner guards that guarded the convicts out here – cause there were a lot of Crimea veterans, Indian Mutiny veterans and all that that went into the enrolled pensioner guard,” he said.
“You name it, we’ve bloody got it.
“It took me 40 years to get a Boer War, Western Australian nurse (medal), and I got that a couple of years ago.
“I knew where it was and I’d been working on it and I finally nailed it.”
While John loved collecting, he still loved cattle and it was around 1999 that he thought “I better get a farm or die wondering”.
Over the years he has bought and sold 11 Victoria Crosses (VC), which are rare and worth a small fortune.
“In fact, I had a pommie VC in my own collection for a number of years (which was won by Lieutenant-Colonel John Grimshaw during the Gallipoli campaign),” he said.
“I’d given up trying to get an Australian one, it was too hard, and also too expensive – I really didn’t have the money.
“I had to sell a lot of stuff out of my own collection to pay for it.
“One day I turned around and said ‘it’s a Pommie one’, and that’s what bought my farm at Beverley.
“I got a bit of money for it – a few hundred thousand.
“Four hundred and fifty acres I bought.”
On the farm was a “big 50 acre lake” which he named Lake Grimshaw after the VC winner.
“The Lancashire Fusiliers (which was Grimshaw’s unit) were over the moon about it that there’s this lake called Lake Grimshaw in Australia,” he said.
The VC was one of six awarded to British soldiers on the landing at Gallipoli – dubbed ‘six before breakfast’ by the British press at the time.
“So I bought up at Beverley and I also bought another farm at Brunswick, and then I was fortunate to get mixed up with who I consider to be one of the greatest cattlemen throughout the South West in Kevin Armstrong,” John said.
“We built the cow numbers up to 1500.”
John has since downsized his farming pursuits by selling the Brunswick farm, while he has “still got 1150 acres up at Beverley” where he runs 110 Murray Grey breeders.
Since 1983 he has operated John Burridge Military Antiques based in Swanbourne, Perth, and his son also helps in the business.
John said every item he traded had its own story and there were some things he loves more than others.
“I love my swords,” he said.
“One of the things is that I am very strong on is the WA medals – the badges to the Western Australians, and I am extremely keen on headdress.
“I go for more of the infantry shackos – in a perfect world I would like to get the different patterns of helmet that were worn in WA by the British regiments that were out here, but to get something like an 1829 bell-top shacko to the 63rd Regiment of Foot would be a lifetime achievement – if you were lucky enough to win Lotto and also come across it.”
In John’s case he has the Regency shacko which is from the 1820s.
He said if people were lucky they could get a good helmet that might have a connection with WA.
“I sold one the other day, an 1812 British Army Regency Period Officers Shako from the 17 Light Dragoons – a lovely shacko I would have liked to have kept it but I don’t collect cavalry – I sold that into America for $15,000 to a very wealthy collector over there.”
John said “when you are in the business you have to draw the line about what you put in the bottom draw for yourself”.
He said medal collectors always used the expression “we don’t collect medals, we collect the man behind the medals - the more interesting the man the better the medals are”.
John said every medal had paperwork and a photograph that went with it but they were rarely kept together, which made it more difficult to track down the details of the individuals.
“I’ve always said the Canberra War Memorial does a fantastic job but they can’t go it alone,” John said.
“The private collecting fraternity out there love their medals to pieces and as a result of collecting they’re responsible for an absolute proliferation of books.
“Of all the book categories in the world – military must rate way up there on the amount of military books that are written.
“That’s what makes the hobby really interesting.
“You scratch the surface of any meaningful things done in WA in those early times you find the military is behind it.”
John said collectors didn’t need to have “a big collection to have an interesting collection”.
“I’ve seen collectors that have gone almost over the top in the research - they basically know what the bloke had for dinner,” John said.
“They photograph the house he lived in, or the new one on that block, they photograph his grave and build a dossier on the man behind the medal.”
John’s colleague, Henry Fijolek, of Henry’s Military Collectables in Hamilton Hill, Perth, operates his business from home – selling to customers across Australia and internationally via the internet.
Henry’s approach to collecting and dealing is as passionate as John’s but different – with a broader focus on WWI and WWII British and Commonwealth antiques.
Henry said collecting militaria was “an addiction based on interest” which usually attracted the over 40s because of the expensive nature of the hobby.
“To be able to collect you have got to have a passion, not just a fleeting interest,” he said.
“And militaria is one of those niche markets where a passion is born from your social environment, and your parents social environment, and of course your interest in history as well.
“So you find that people who are interested in militaria come from a family with a military background or have been affected by a military type of conflict or something like that.”
Henry said there were different types of collectors, some who wanted something related to their ancestor’s involvement in a conflict or those who desired to collect from specific periods, or even just certain items.
“Some collectors just collect bayonets, or just collect medals,” he said.
“Medals are always fascinating because there is a story with a medal and you are actually not collecting the medal itself, you are collecting the story behind the medal.”
Henry said he was more of a general dealer.
“I cover the whole spectrum, so I don’t specialise in anything special, it’s just if it comes along and it’s a commercial product and it’s saleable I’ll buy it and I’ll sell it,” he said.
He recently sold a WW1 German Trench Armour, complete with helmet, for $10,000.
“While that is not common the average sale is between $500-$1500, so it’s not a cheap man’s game at all,” he said.
“But then again it’s born by the fact that the value is retained in the item.
“It is an investment too - and you do get people investing in militaria as a hedge against inflation.
“Militaria is based on fact of sales, and the desirability, and the more people desire stuff the more they will pay for it.”
Henry said whether we “like it or not German militaria is still popular” and “would tip the sales throughout the world of collectable items”.
“There is a lot of stuff out there,” Henry said.
“It’s a bottomless pit of items to buy because of the variety.
“However you have to narrow it down into saleability.
“We are in Australia – we are not in Europe – so some of the stuff that European’s buy and pay good prices for, we will never get the price here.
“My market is an Australian market with an international ability (via the website), so I have to target my buying for that.
“At times stuff is very hard to get but you have just got to persist and be very proactive and aggressive in your buying.
“The stuff sells itself.
“If you priced it right you just sit there and it’ll just sell.”
Henry said there was “one item that I’ll keep and won’t sell”, which was a WW1 German Officer’s Parade Helmet.
“It’s got the skull and crossbones from the Brunswick Regiment – within Europe it was a cavalry regiment – and in most countries there was always a skull and crossbones type of thing,” he said.
“I have been offered great money for it but I will not sell – it’s like my signature piece.”
Henry said the helmet was quite rare and worth about $5000.
While he didn’t have the full uniform to go with it, he said he had “the belt for the uniform”, which also had a skull and crossbones on the buckle.
“Anything else is just part of stock,” he said.
“My stock is my collection.”
And his collection covers the walls of his living room, the entire spare room as well as a storage shed.