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Alan John Villiers (1903–1982)

by Tony Marshall

This article was published:

Alan John Villiers (1903-1982), author, adventurer and master mariner, was born on 23 September 1903 in North Melbourne, second of six children of Victorian-born parents Leon Joseph Villiers, tram employee, and his wife Anastasia Edith, neé Hayes. His father was also a trade-union organiser and poet, whose work appeared in the Bulletin and in The Changing Year (1918).

Jack, as his family called him, attended Essendon High School, and then in 1919 a sailing school conducted by the Melbourne Ancient Mariners’ Club. Five ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, with fair hair and complexion and grey eyes, he had a tattoo of an eagle and flower on his left forearm.

Following an injury during maritime service, Villiers settled in Hobart in 1923, learning typing and shorthand at Zercho’s Business College and working for the Mercury. In 1923-24 he sailed to the Antarctic in the Norwegian whaler Sir James Clark Ross; his book, Whaling in the Frozen South (1925), was based on his articles for the Mercury. For a few years he continued as a journalist, representing Tasmania on the federal council of the Australian Journalists’ Association; he also wrote a historical account of the port of Hobart, as well as novels (many of which remain unpublished). On 6 December 1924 at All Saints Church, Hobart, he married with Anglican rites Daphne Kay Harris, a feeder; they divorced in 1936. He married Nancie Wills, a shorthand typist in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, on 24 December 1940 in the office of the registrar, Fort William, Scotland.

In 1928 and 1929 Villiers had sailed in the annual ‘grain race’ from South Australia to England, resulting in the books Falmouth for Orders (1928) and By Way of Cape Horn (1930), and the film Windjammer (1930). There followed many projects requiring his formidable skills of seamanship, command and organisation: sailing with the Parma in the 1932 and 1933 grain races; as proprietor of the sail-training vessel, Joseph Conrad, in 1934-36; training as a pilot, 1937-38; sailing with Arab dhows in the Persian Gulf, 1938-39; and captaining a replica of the Mayflower in its Atlantic crossing in 1957.

Every venture resulted in at least one book. Villiers published over forty, not only recording his own experiences but also studies of maritime history and biography. A new edition of Whalers of the Midnight Sun (first published in 1934) won the Australian Children’s Book of the Year award in 1950. In lectures about his experiences ‘he was sui generis. He had a remarkable, if eccentric, delivery, and never failed to grip his audience’.

On 30 May 1940 Villiers was appointed as a probationary lieutenant, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He served mostly ashore at Fort William until mid-1943. Holding the acting temporary ranks of lieutenant commander then commander, he commanded successive squadrons of landing craft, infantry (large), in the Mediterranean, in the invasion of Normandy—winning the Distinguished Service Cross for his part in this action—and in the occupation of Burma (Myanmar), Singapore and the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia). In 1946, on his demobilisation, he was described as ‘a sea captain in the true sense of the word and an outstanding personality’.

Settling in England, Villiers served in several maritime heritage organisations, including the National Maritime Museum (trustee 1948-74), and was an expert adviser for films on nautical themes. He last visited Australia in 1967, but in 1981 was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters by the University of Melbourne. Survived by his wife and their daughter and two sons, Alan Villiers died on 3 March 1982 at Oxford, England.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Lance, Alan Villiers (2009)
  • Times (London), 5 March 1982, p 14
  • Contemporary Authors Online (, accessed 31 January 2011, copy held on ADB file
  • National Library of Australia. Villiers papers

Citation details

Tony Marshall, 'Villiers, Alan John (1903–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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