The port city of Albany, which sits 418km (260mi) southeast of Perth has played an important part in Australia’s military heritage and the region has many related sites for visitors to explore, including Recollections of War, a private museum that should be on the itinerary of anybody with an interest in military history.
The museum, which is located about half an hour’s drive along the South Coast Highway outside of Albany on the way to Denmark, features the collection of Kathryn and John Shapland, whose hobby rapidly expanded into a custom built exhibition building featuring six display rooms with space also dedicated to a library, research area and theatre.
It continues to grow and there are also more extensions in the planning stage, the latest being a WWI aviation gallery to house a replica Fokker D VIII that has been donated to the museum by a pilot from nearby Manjimup. This will be complemented by items belonging to Sir Keith Smith and other early aviator artifacts and having viewed some of the Australian Flying Corps pieces that Kathryn and John have, I am eagerly awaiting its completion.
Visiting the museum, it is astonishing to realise that the Shaplands only started collecting militaria in 2009 after John, who is originally from Sussex, returned to England on a holiday with his eldest daughter. Whilst there, he visited an air-show at Duxford and returned home with some souvenirs including a limited edition aviator signed print by noted artist Robert Taylor.
Back in Albany, he recruited wife Kathryn, who had been a collector of stamps, coins and other items since she was young, to help him find more items on-line. One of the early pieces Kathryn found was a Corgi die-cast model signed by Billy Drake, a Battle of France pilot. The seller turned out to be an engineer restoring warbirds at North Weald airfield and mentioned that there was a Hurricane muster there in October and that John should return to the UK to attend. He did, meeting the veteran pilots and aircrew, examining the aircraft and museums.
The result was that their collection rapidly outgrew a couple of display cabinets and a few prints in the house. John, who in addition to running their cattle farm was a builder and cabinet maker converted his workshop into a custom made exhibition space for the WWII aviation collection. Kathryn recalls,
‘We started with the WWII aviation room and the first library as that was John’s main interest at the time. As visitors started to come, it became apparent that we were lacking in other areas and so we expanded to cover the main three military services and eventually the auxiliary services too. Similarly, John’s interest was WWII and we started getting veterans from more recent wars. In addition, we were coming up to the ANZAC centenary, so decided WWI artifacts and stories needed to be added. We now go from the Boer War to the present day.
I have a very broad focus and far too many things appeal to me. I suppose at the heart of it all there must be a story about the people that used or produced the items. John has a good general knowledge about military history and the hardware used (but) my interest is in social rather than military history. I love the research side of things.’
The collection now features thousands of meticulously researched items recording the war experiences of both the military personnel and civilian populations from the Anglo-Boer War onward. But rather than emphasise the battles or weapons, the focus is centered around the histories of ordinary people living through the war and the layout does not follow a chronological sequence. Items are grouped together to help broaden understanding and give additional context to individual pieces, which makes it all the more fascinating to explore. John describes the museum as a ‘treasure hunt’ which is an apt description.
Kathryn spends much of her time researching and scouring the internet for suitable items, but many pieces have also been donated by visitors and locals who recognise the important role that Recollections of War plays in maintaining our knowledge of conflicts.
In the aftermath of both world wars, the southern region of Western Australia became home for many ex-service personnel who took advantage of the Soldier Settlement and Group Settlement schemes which were respectively aimed at getting returned servicemen into some form of gainful work and aimed at both increasing the population of W.A. as well as increasing primary (especially dairy) production. In subsequent years the local veteran community has continued to grow and includes former service personnel from more recent wars and several nations.
As a result, the museum displays several donated items which would otherwise be unlikely to be shown to the public as they fit outside the curatorial focus of institutional collections or the RSL. One such display is the collection of over 300 toy soldiers that were scratch-built by Reg Copeman, an Englishman who had served with the Royal Artillery during the Korean War, then 22 Special Air Service Regiment in the Malayan Emergency and Aden prior to his discharge as a WO2 in 1968. Reg then worked for WatchGuard International the private military contracting company which had been formed by SAS founder Colonel David Stirling and John ‘Jock’ Woodhouse in 1965. This took Reg to Zambia and Sierra Leone before he moved to Australia in 1973 and finally settled in the nearby town of Denmark in the 1990’s.
Reg’s soldiers are all hand-made and each took around 50 days to complete. There was no set pattern to which soldier would be made next, sometimes basing his decisions on the book he was reading at the time. Reg was keen to keep the collection together and now in his 90’s he decided to donate the entire collection along with his reference material to Recollections of War where it is displayed in a custom made display cabinet.
John’s own family connection is also included in the displays. His father, private Alan James ‘Jim’ Shapland enlisted in the Sussex Regiment during World War II and later volunteered for the Airborne Forces, joining the 22nd Independent Parachute Company which acted as the pathfinders for 6th Airborne Division. However, Jim was injured in mid-May 1944 during a training jump for D-Day and was hospitalised. As a result, he did not return to the unit and subsequently served with the Seaforth Highlanders for the remainder of the war.
As can be expected from a collection that focuses on the personal histories of the participants and witnesses it also contains dozens of documents, letters, keepsakes and personal photograph albums reflecting the experiences of people from all sides, which can be viewed by visitors. One of the albums that I found particularly interesting belonged to a German sailor who served as a signaller on minesweeper’s during WWII. In addition to photographs and recording service details, the album also includes his Kriegsmarine and trade insignia plus the award certificate documentation which accompanied his Minesweeper War Badge. His group also includes an extensive hand annotated notebook, complete with diagrams but unfortunately, not being fluent in German, I could not make much sense of what I was viewing.
Many of these albums and documents are not immediately on display, but like all collectors, the Shapland’s are keen to share their collection with visitors, which is why they encourage visits by appointment only rather than having fixed visiting hours. It allows them to create a more intimate and personalised experience. When I spoke to Kathryn prior to my visit, she asked what my interests were and when I arrived, she had gathered some of their Australian Flying Corps pieces for me to view. As I wandered through the exhibition rooms, if I found something of interest John and Kathryn would answer my questions and were more than happy to pull things out of the cabinets to let me see specific details.
Whilst Recollections of War is listed as a museum, I would describe my experience as being more like visiting another collector, discussing the objects and comparing ‘notes’. Kathryn agrees and goes on to say
‘I would love for more authors, researchers and students to visit and make use of our libraries and other archives. I can’t see the point in having all this stuff if it can’t be shared with like-minded or interested people.’
As a result, if you’re a collector or somebody with specific interest areas, you may find that you spend more time at Recollections of War than you anticipate. My primary area of interest is airborne and special operations insignia and I had expected to be at the museum for two to three hours, but I ended up staying over four and then returned the following day for another couple of hours to examine more of their collection… and I still wonder what else I may have missed. So, my advice is to plan accordingly, when arranging a visit let Kathryn know what your interests may be and allow yourself time to take it all in.
Albany is great long-weekend destination being a pleasant four hour drive from Perth and home to several military related attractions for the interested visitor. The city of Albany is also home to the Princess Royal Fortress which opened in 1893 and was Australia’s first federal fortress. Later, during the First World War, the town was the last port of call for the ships carrying the ANZAC troops departing Australia. The fort’s gun batteries and port were also active during the Second World War, particularly at the point in time when the Japanese were on Australia’s doorstep and Albany, along with the port of Fremantle were seen as providing safe refuge, beyond the reach of Japanese aircraft. Albany then became home to three USN submarines along with tender craft and crews. The military history of the region is preserved and presented in a series of military museums and displays including the National Anzac Centre at the fortress site. These are all in close proximity, opening at 09:00 and can be adequately covered in a few hours allowing enough time to visit Recollections of War in the afternoon or following day.
Recollections of War
51253 South Coast Highway
Albany WA 6330
Phone: +61 (0)8 9845 2083 / 0447 765 511 / 0428 981 976
Opening hours: By appointment – Call to arrange a time.