Dan Billany was the eldest son of Harry Rusling Billany and Elsie Wilson. He was born in the Hessle district of Hull, Yorkshire, into an impoverished working-class family, one of seven children. They lived in a two-up-two-down terraced house with a front door opening into the living room, no electricity, no running water, and with an outside lavatory. Harry went to sea as an engineer with the Merchant Navy and was away for long periods.
Six months after Dan was born, the family moved into a house in a cul-de-sac in the area known as Dairycoates on the south side of Hessle Road, Hull. Their new home had no better facilities than their previous one, but the family lived there for the next seventeen years. Harry ended his career at sea to stay with his family but he had difficulty finding regular work until he became a carpenter and joiner. In 1922 Harry contracted tuberculosis and developed a heart condition. However, although a changed man, he was pronounced fit in 1923 and became a tram conductor for Hull Corporation.
Dan attended Selby Street West School in Hull, but was often absent from school with bronchitis and asthma. He left school in 1927 at the age of fourteen, and got a job as an errand boy. In 1929 he became an apprentice electrician. As part of the apprenticeship he had to attend evening classes at the Technical College. His apprenticeship was supposed to last for three years, but after two years he left, perhaps because of a clash of personalities with his manager. He briefly took up selling wireless sets door-to-door. In the autumn of 1931 he began full-time study at the Technical College. He was given a place free of fees on the basis of his previous good academic performance. His writing began at this time with short stories, poetry, and letters to the "Hull Daily Mail" on political topics.
Dan joined the Labour League of Youth with his friend Leo Peters. They took turns to stand on crates on street corners giving political speeches about such topics as unemployment, the benefits system, means tests, and nationalisation. Dan and Leo joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain but were expelled for infringements of the party rules. They later joined the National Unemployed Workers' Movement.
In 1932 the family moved to a council house on a recently built estate across Hessle Road in Gypsyville. This was a three-bedroom semi-detached, fully electric, with an indoor lavatory, and bathroom with hot and cold running water.
In 1933 Dan completed his matriculation with very good results. He then spent a year learning Latin which gave him a place at Hull University College, which was then an outpost of London University. He was awarded an adult scholarship, sufficient to live on while he stayed with his parents. In October 1934 he began his degree course in English with subsidiaries in French, Latin, and economics. He contributed poetry, short stories, critical articles, and book reviews to The Torch, a student magazine edited for a time by his friend Horace Mason.
Around 1936 or 1937 Dan was wrote his novel A Season of Calm Weather. The title is taken from Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality, and its theme is a celebration of childhood. The story is about a young school teacher, Philip, falling in love with a twelve-year-old boy, Dickie Bryant. Philip steals a tender kiss but it all turns sour with the police being brought in. Dan sent the manuscript to several publishers in 1937 but it was rejected and was never published.
In June 1937 Dan completed his course and was awarded an upper second class honours degree. He stayed at the college for a further year for Teacher Training. During his training he read widely about education and visited schools. He visited the Summerhill school in his summer holidays and met A. S. Neill. Dan wrote up his thoughts on education in Paul: Aspects of the struggle between children and grown-ups, a set of essays that was never published.
In June 1938 he became a qualified teacher and was appointed by the local Education Committee. He began to teach at Chiltern Street School. He adopted a very relaxed and informal style which was popular with the children but not with the staff. He told stories to make lessons interesting, and these became the basis of The Magic Door: A Story for Boys, which was published in 1943. His experiences in the classroom also were the basis of his third novel Living Amongst Boys, which he finished in 1939 and sent around publishers, but once again it was rejected and never published. The book includes a heterosexual affair, but the main sexual interest is provided by Alan, a twelve-year-old schoolboy who develops a crush on Paul, the teacher.
Because of the war, in the summer of 1939 the children and teachers were evacuated to several small villages in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and Dan was initially billeted with eight schoolboys in Pockthorpe Hall, four miles from the village of Nafferton. Dan taught the boys there in his relaxed way, and it reminded him of Summerhill. While there he started a new novel The Opera House Murders, a detective story which begins in Granby House, a country mansion. However, after a few weeks the children were billeted in Nafferton. By Christmas the children were recalled back to Hull as there was very little bombing and the parents wanted their children back. Dan started a new job at Hall Road Senior Mixed School.
The Opera House Murders was published in Britain in 1940 and then in the USA in 1941 under the title It Takes a Thief. It looked as if a series of books involving the handsome hero Robbie Duncan would be possible.
Dan joined the army in October 1940 and he was stationed with the Royal Army Service Corps in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottingshire. While there he wrote a new Robbie Duncan story, A Bell Shall Ring, but when he submitted it to Faber & Faber he received detailed criticism from T. S. Eliot, and the story was never published. In March 1941 Dan was accepted for a commission and was transferred to No. 163 Officer Cadet Training Unit in North Wales.
In April 1941 the family home was bombed and Dan's relatives suffered injuries. This was a traumatic time from which the family did not recover. In July 1941 Dan completed his training and was appointed to an Emergency Commission as Second Lieutenant in the East Yorkshire Regiment. For a time he was stationed at the Regimental Headquarters in Beverley, but he was then transferred to Helston, Cornwall with the 7th. Holding Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment. In September 1941 he was appointed Battalion Education Officer.
At the end of 1941 Dan applied for overseas service and in February 1942, after spending his embarkation leave in Bourne, he left Britain on the Mauretania, a Cunard cruise liner that had been turned into a troopship. On board ship he started a new Robbie Duncan novel to be called either Whispering or The Young Lady's Hand. After six weeks the ship reached Suez and they disembarked at Port Tewfik. They first travelled to Infantry Base Depot at Quassassin and then on into Libya. Dan joined the 4th. Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment in April 1942 where he took command of a platoon under the temporary supervision of a sergent.
On 1st. June 1942 while trying to defend the 150 Brigade Box at Gazala near Tobruk, they were over-run by Rommel's tanks. After capture the officers were taken by truck to the village of Tmimi and handed over to Italian army. They were then taken to a prisoner-of-war camp at Syrte, and by the end of June in 1942 Dan had been transported by air to Italy. He was initially held at Camp 66, a prisoner-of-war camp at Capua, 20 miles north of Naples. The men formed syndicates of five to share Red Cross parcels.
In Dan's syndicate was David Dowie and George Mathieson. During this time Dan was writing The Trap which was a re-telling of his life. He was also a contributor the the camp newspaper Clickety-Click. At the end of November 1942 Dan and his comrades were moved to Camp 17 at Rezzanello in the mountains above Piacenza. The prison was a cold gothic castle. He completed The Trap at Rezzanello, and then revised it and neatly transcribed it over five months into nine Italian exercise books and hid it in a Red Cross cardboard box.
During this time Dan's friendship with David Dowie intensified, and Dan decided that David should marry his sister, Joan, and wrote about David in letters to Joan. David shunned Dan after he told him of his love for him. However, their friendship resumed after Dan wrote David a poem to explain his feelings. At the beginning of April 1943 they were moved a short distance to Camp 49 which was an orphanage in Fontanellato, a village ten miles north west of Parma. In May 1943 Dan and David began collaborating on a novel based on their prison life.
George Mathieson also contributed to it. They called it For You the War is Over, but is was eventually published under the title The Cage. David and Dan appear in the book under their own names but Dan's own persona is clearly split between two characters in the book, the mature and wise Dan and the insecure introvert Alan Matsen. In the book Alan tells David of his love for him, and the the way they try to resolve this is recounted.
In July 1943 the prisoners heard about the fall of Mussolini and they expected to be going home soon. Dan wrote in his notebook that he did not want to become a male spinster and that he would have to marry when he returned to Britain. On 8th. September 1943 news was received of the armistice, and on 9th. September the prisoners left Camp 49 with the help of the Italian guards. The prisoners were told to disperse into the Italian countryside in groups of four. Local Italians helped them to escape the Germans who had moved into Italy.
Dan and David stayed together and they were first helped by the Meletti family in a farm on the outskirts of Soragna, five miles north of Fontanellato. They stayed there in hiding for a few weeks finishing off the final chapter of The Cage. They left this and the exercise books containing The Trap with Dino Meletti who promised to post them to Britain after the war.
Early in October 1943 Dan, David, John Fleming, and Alec Harding began to make their way over the Apennines towards the Allied forces. They disappeared and no news was heard about them until the publication of The Cage in 1949 when T. W. Spencer saw Dan and David's photographs. He had also been a POW wandering the Italian countryside and he claimed that Dan and David had been involved in killing a sergent-major who had turned informer.
However, even if elements of the story are true, Dan and David do not seem to have been the ones involved. Hard information arose from the chits left by POWs with locals who helped them. The chits were meant to allow the locals to claim compensation after the war. Chits stored in the National Archives in Washington show that Dan, David, and Alec Harding stayed at Sasso Marconi, S. Benedetto Val di Sambro, Tornimparte, and Capistrello. They all signed the chit left at Capistrello on 20th. November, 1943. They presumably died in the Apennines shortly after this when they were only a few days away from the Allied forces.
In March 1946 Dan's thirteen exercise books arrived at the Billany home in Yeovil, Somerset (where they had moved to in April 1942). His books went high on the best seller lists and were translated into many languages.
The story of Dan Billany might have been forgotten if it were not for the dedicated research by Valerie Reeves and Valerie Showan who were determined to find out what happened to the author of the stories about Mr Rocket in The Magic Door that they had enjoyed so much as children. The history they discovered was revealed in their biography of Dan Billany.