More about John Tunstill…

John Tunstill started collecting lead soldiers some sixty years ago, living in London during the Second World War. The long red boxes of Britain’s were anxiously awaited, with almost heart-stopping pleasure, for birthdays and Christmases. Just the feel of the weight and size of the boxes in their tinsel wrappings was enough, and when gently shaken, to hear the dull rattle of securely fixed soldiers was heaven indeed.

Growing up in the war, nights in garden shelters, bomber attacks, and early guided missiles, V1s and V2s, are now the stuff of history. Collecting shrapnel in the streets after a raid was always good sport, and, strangest of all finding many .22 rifle cartridges around the house, who had a small bore rifle, and who was taking pot shots at the raiders as they passed? He does remember seeing one aircraft, a bomber, caught in the searchlights and brought down by AA fire. The .22 cartridge cases served as artillery shell cases for many years.

John’s father, when he returned, seemed to be a giant, his skin was dark; after all, he’d been in the Western Desert for a couple of years; he smelled very strange, not bad, not good, but very different, he had a pistol that was so heavy that John could hardly lift it with two hands, and he could spin it around a finger, just like the cowboys. What a hero, and, what’s more, he had a huge box of caramels!

But back to soldiers, and these were hard to find during the war, and for years afterwards. About 1943 the GPO Film Unit, later called the Ministry of Information Film Unit, produced a wartime propaganda film called “Britain Can Take It” in which was depicted a toyshop and boxes and boxes of Britain’s figures. Oh joy!

Another of John’s sites is, a look at real locations used in British feature films 1920’s to 1980’s, many of those made after 1940 of course showing wartime Britain, and later, a war torn Britain.

By the age of nine, John was casting lead figures on the gas stove in aluminum molds, he bought them through adverts in the Exchange and Mart magazine, and painting and selling them at school and through local friendly shopkeepers started him off in the business. The exploits of Cary Grant in Gunga Din, Sabu in the Drum and Errol Flynn in The Charge of the Light Brigade added to John’s interest in soldiers. John’s soldiers were initially painted with a lacquer paint which gave them a bright, shiny, but transparent finish, Valspar proved to be the real paint of early choice. One of the early customers in one of the shops was a small girl who came in to buy some highlanders for her brother’s birthday, and who asked for ”Some soldiers in quilts please”. John constructed his own boxes and gave discounts on the boxed figures, a box of five costing less than five individual soldiers.

At this time there were no books available on uniforms, and colouring information was hard to come by, John’s desire to create some Russian Napoleonic regiments was frustrated by lack of pictorial detail. He found out that there were reference works in the major museums, but, still at school, and under eighteen he wasn’t allowed to apply for a reader’s ticket. Much badgering of school masters, school governors, parents and the staff of the British and the Victoria and Albert Museums resulted in entry to both and access to their treasures. Painstaking copying of uniforms, and texts, in Russian or German, allowed him to create a wargame army of 54mm figures for summertime wargames in the back gardens of parents and friends homes in North London. Two figures were found in the late 70’s, some twenty years later, when excavating for the foundations of a new garage, still in their bunker and still keeping guard. A Timpo US marine officer with binoculars and a radio operator, really steadfast toy soldiers.

He joined the British Model Soldier Society in about 1956, and served on the committee, founded the War Game Section, helped to draw up the early rules, became Secretary of the Wargame Rules section, and later co-author of the Rules for American Civil Wargames. He served with such legends as Len Richards, Bill Carmen, Bob Marrion, René North and the Fosten brothers. Committee meetings were held in the Mason’s Arms, in Hanover Square, London, BMSS meetings were held in Caxton Hall, Victoria, and later Committee meetings in the staff canteen of Hamleys toy shop in Regent Street. Hamleys at this time sold a limited range of unpainted Britains castings as well as loose arms. John organised the first known Wargame Convention held at the Rembrant Hotel, London and later the second one at the Piccadilly Hotel, also in central London, in the early 60’s.

John served in the RAF for five years, in England and Cyprus, in photo reconnaissance, in 13 Squadron.

John became General Manager of Tradition, the militaria shop in Piccadilly, London, advertising manager for the magazine Tradition, and advisor to the auctioneers Phillips, of London, regarding their early bulk soldier auctions.

He launched “Miniature Warfare”, the original wargame magazine, and spent many hours persuading reluctant shopkeepers to stock the monthly journal. See the magazine section for these and other magazines of military interest.

Later John opened the shop Soldiers, in Lambeth, London, near the Imperial War Museum and wrote “Discovering Wargames”. He organised the first “human” scale auctions for toy soldiers at the local pub, the Hercules Tavern, single sets instead of hundreds of figures in a lot. James Opie was one of his casual saturday morning boys and Norman Joplin, one of his customers. Marcus Hinton of Hinton Hunt Figures; Jim Johnson of MJ Mode; Roy Maitland, and Alex of Tradition; Russel Gamage of Rose Figures; Frank Hinchliffe of Hinchliffe Models; John Tassel of Lasset (the T and l reversed) Figures, and Pat and Olie Bird of Series 77, were some of his suppliers, colleagues and friends in England, and Nat Polk, Bill Imre and Clyde Risley were some friends in the business in the USA”.

The shop ran for some fifteen years, until about 1985, and during that time the range of Soldiers’ Soldiers was launched, quickly achieving world-wide acceptance. The 54mm range of lead alloy castings was invented as supplements to the, by then defunct, metal Britains figures, in fact they were the fathers of the modern old toy soldiers, and by now, they must be the Grandpas! John and his staff made and sold some 500 figures a week for about ten years! 500 x 52 x 10 seems a lot of metal. Recent auction results have shown that the value of these figures are rising all the time.

John was hauled into Court on one occasion for some motoring offence and when asked his occupation he replied “Alchemist”; it had already been accepted on his passport, the judge, as they do, peered over his glasses. “Alchemist?” he queried. Yes sir, I manufacture lead soldiers which I sell for the modern equivalent of gold, money. I therefore believe that I am turning base metal into gold, hence alchemist. The case continued…

John’s knowledge and experience was gathered together in the 1980’s to produce the book,the “World of Model Soldiers”, being serialised on this site.

Since 1983 he has been engaged in buying, selling and restoring medieval country properties in Umbria, central Italy; and rebuilding an 11th century monastic building, which by late 2004 should also contain a soldier museum, or collection or exhibition, depending on your definitions.

Tunstill started to visit Umbria some twenty years ago; and is sometimes known as “The Man Who Invented Umbria”; and, because of the requests for soldiers made by a local Italian nobleman, who had more ruined country houses than he knew what to do with, but really wanted more lead soldiers, Tunstill traded.

He, John Tunstill, still has a huge collection of soldier figures from the ’70’s, as well as some 10,000 Italian postcards, 1890’s – 1950’s. The nobleman has sadly departed to the great soldier collector in the sky, but some of his figures are becoming available………see the Soldier listing pages.

John has retired from Italy and now lives in the historic town of Rugby, Warwickshire, Shakespeare’s county.