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Johnston Burley (1873–1955)

by Wendy Birman and Rex Clark

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Johnston Burley (1873-1955), soldier, carpenter and engine driver, was born on 26 September 1873 at Aghavea near Lisnaskea, Ireland, son of William Burley, dairyman, and his wife Annie, née Trimble. The family came to Australia in the mid-1880s and settled in Melbourne where Joe, as he was known, helped his father run a dairy at Carlton; he was then apprenticed to a master carpenter and while learning his trade served as a soldier in a volunteer unit. In the early 1890s he went to New Zealand in search of work and later earned his passage home by looking after animals in a circus. Unable to find employment in Melbourne, he bought a steerage passage to Western Australia with £2 he had won in a bicycle race, and worked as a carpenter at Perth and Shark Bay until October 1899, when he enlisted for service in the South African War as a private in the 1st Western Australian (Mounted Infantry) Contingent.

The contingent was absorbed into the Australian Regiment and served with the Kimberley Relief Force. At Slingersfontein on 9 February 1900 Burley was in a party of about twenty-five Western Australians who defended a kopje against several hundred Boers, and for outstanding gallantry in this action was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He served in operations in the Transvaal, Orange Free State and Cape Colony before returning home in December, and was promoted lance corporal on 1 January 1901, two months before his unit was disbanded. He joined the Western Australian Government Railways, qualifying as a locomotive engine driver in March 1903, and on 24 February 1904 at Perth he married Alice Mahala Palmer. He became a member of the Salvation Army on his marriage but he later reverted to Methodism and brought up his six children in that faith.

In 1916 Burley, now a sergeant in the Australian Military Forces, was given a temporary appointment on the instructional staff as a warrant officer. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 19 January 1917 as a company sergeant major in the 5th Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company and embarked at Fremantle ten days later. He served in Belgium from June 1917 to April 1918 and in France, with the 6th B.G.R.O.C., until the Armistice. In June 1917 he was in charge of a train when a wagon containing explosives was set on fire by enemy shelling. Burley uncoupled the rest of the train and sent it along the line to a safe distance, then tried to put out the fire. The wagon exploded but his action saved the train. He was awarded a Bar to his D.C.M., and was the only Australian to win that medal in the South African War and be awarded a Bar for service with the A.I.F.

After demobilization Burley continued as an engine driver until 1934 when he lost the lower part of his right leg and part of his left foot in a railway accident. Until then he was active in the Federated Engine Drivers' & Firemen's Union. In retirement he divided his time between his farm at Bullsbrook (which he had worked with the help of his sons since 1926) and his home at Bayswater, Perth. Survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, he died at Mt Lawley on 21 June 1955 and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery with Methodist forms.

Burley was a handsome man with a fresh complexion, fair hair and grey eyes. Although quick-tempered, he was popular with workmates and acquaintances. All his life he was an avid reader, with a particular interest in war history. He studied elocution and often recited at church socials. He was a teetotaller.

Select Bibliography

  • Aust Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1912)
  • J. Burridge (ed), Western Australian Contingents to the South African War (Perth, 1972)
  • London Gazette, 27 Sept 1901, 16 Apr 1902, 26 Nov 1917
  • Listening Post (Perth), July 1955
  • West Australian, 24-25 June 1955
  • 5th Australian Broad Railway Operating Company—a Brief Record (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Wendy Birman and Rex Clark, 'Burley, Johnston (1873–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Johnston Burley, c1899

Johnston Burley, c1899

Australian War Memorial, ​P02506.001

Life Summary [details]


26 September, 1873
Aghavea, Fermanagh, Ireland


21 June, 1955 (aged 81)
Mount Lawley, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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