THE official notice from the front informed the parents of Private Billy Risbey that he was missing, presumed dead.

The dog tag which he wore around his neck, with his name and number on it, had been found out on the killing fields of northern France, but there was no sign of him or his body – he was probably one of the tens of thousands that were simply lost forever to the mud.

So certain were the Risbeys that they would never set eyes on him again that they commemorated his short life with a funeral service at a Methodist chapel in north Darlington.

A year later came the armistice, and a few months after that, the door of the family’s terraced house in Cumberland Street rattled open.

“He walked in and said ‘hello mum, I’m back’,” says his son, Derek. “Well, you can imagine the emotion.”

Billy was indeed back – back from the dead.

After his parents had recovered from the shock, Billy told them how one day in the trenches the bullets had jammed in his rifle during an assault, and he must have become preoccupied trying to free them.

“When he looked up there was a German shouting at him and pointing his gun at him,” says Derek. “He didn’t understand, although he knew it wasn’t friendly, and he was taken prisoner.”

He was incarcerated for a year, probably more – although his parents, George and Grace, were informed of his death and held his funeral in the Harrowgate Hill Primitive Methodist Chapel which used to stand on the corner of North Road and Thompson Street.

They lived only a couple of hundred yards south of the chapel at 18, Cumberland Street, where they were surrounded by death. Cumberland Street lost 13 of its young men during the First World War – no street in Darlington suffered more losses – and their near neighbours in numbers 1, 6 and 36 were all killed. Against such a backdrop, they would not have been surprised to learn that their son had also paid the ultimate price.

The armistice was agreed on November 11, 1918, and the PoWs were then gradually released. George and Grace in Cumberland Street got a printed postcard from the Red Cross saying that their brave boy would soon be coming back, but George ripped it up and threw it on the fire, muttering about the blooming Red Cross not being able to distinguish an elbow from a backside. After all, everyone knew Billy was dead – they’d all been to his funeral.

But Billy was slowly making his way home. He seems to have been sent to Ireland for several weeks before reaching London, where he was deloused, given a fresh uniform and a good feed, and pointed in the direction of home.

“He caught the train to Bank Top station and then took the bus to Cumberland Street,” says Derek. “He always said that he remembered riding home up North Road and he saw someone he knew out of the window and they looked back at him as if they had seen a ghost.”

Naturally, once the family had come to terms with the realisation that the reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated, his parents and two sisters were overjoyed to see him again – so overjoyed that they held a second service in his honour in the Harrowgate Hill Methodist Chapel. The Risbeys still have a small hymn book which was presented to him by the church “on the occasion of the welcome home after the great European war, 1914-1918”. Beside this handwritten messageis the date: November 29, 1919.

Back in the world of the living, Billy, now 21, needed a job. Before the war, he had worked first as a Saturday boy and then as an assistant at Richardson’s photographic studio in Ivy House, Bondgate, and he decided this was a line of work he wished to return to.

He got a job working for Snaps in Bridlington, which, as the good times slowly returned, was pioneering “walking pictures”. The photographer – known as Mr Snaps – roamed the promenade, taking photographs of holidaymakers strolling along. His pictures were developed overnight as postcard-sized prints and displayed the next day in the Snaps’ window for the holidaymakers to see and, hopefully, buy.

Snaps’ snappy slogan was “go home on a postcard”.

Billy did a second season at Bridlington working for himself and then moved to Ebbw Vale in Wales as a studio manager. He had, though, left his girl, Minnie, in Darlington, and she sent him word that Thirlwell’s photographic studio in Skinnergate had a job going, and this allowed him to come home.

Thirlwell’s was a well known North-East photographer, based in Stockton but with “five go-ahead studios” in other towns. The name “Thirlwell’s” continued to trade as a camera shop in Stockton until 1981, but it put its Skinnergate store on the market in 1929. Billy offered £50, but this was rejected, so his father, who worked for the Pru, cashed in a £100 insurance policy and Thirlwell’s accepted the revised bid – in fact, the photographers probably snapped the Risbeys’ hands off when they offered £150.

So in 1929, the name W Risbey was placed on the studio which was to the right of the Court Kinema. The studio seems to have been built at the same time as the cinema in 1913 and it had a glass ceiling, which was a hangover from the pre-electric light days when all photographers worked in “daylight studios”.

The studio was in the firing line on August 13, 1947, when the Court Kinema caught fire. The blaze killed an elderly woman who returned to her nearby home to collect a pair of shoes.

“My father was furious that the fire brigade didn’t call him out that night because all of his cameras were in there,” says Derek.

It was considered a mystery blaze until Memories 301 when a policeman who had been on duty on the night in question, Ron Willis of Hurworth, broke his silence to reveal that although it was never proved, the fire was arson, set by thieves who successfully covered their tracks.

Having survived death in the First World War, Billy Risbey lived until 1968. His business was taken on by his sons, Derek and David, and now his grandson, Andrew, is in charge. Billy is a man, therefore, who founded a Darlington dynasty from beyond the grave.