Bevin Boy

This England - - News - Max Pud­ney

Aweek be­fore my 18th birth­day a small buff of­fi­cial en­ve­lope ar­rived. This is it, I thought. I had pre­vi­ously regis­tered for mil­i­tary ser­vice and had passed my med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion. I un­folded the cy­clostyled let­ter and quickly read the con­tents — I was un­able to be­lieve what it said. In a few sen­tences it told me that I had been se­lected, by bal­lot, to be called up for work in the coal mines! I had to re­port to the Creswell Col­liery Train­ing Cen­tre at Work­sop, Not­ting­hamshire, on 20th Novem­ber 1944. If I wished to ap­peal against the or­der I had to do so within so many days. I was due for Na­tional Ser­vice, I was med­i­cally fit and there was no ques­tion of con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tion. It looked very much as though I was stuck with it.

I knew this coal min­ing scheme was op­er­at­ing; it was the brain­child of Ernest Bevin, then Min­is­ter of Labour, and the un­for­tu­nate bal­lo­tees were nick­named “Bevin Boys”. It seemed too many coal min­ers had joined the Forces and there were not enough hands to run the coal mines. None of my friends had been un­lucky enough to win such a bal­lot: it made me stand out like a sore thumb.

In 1967 Alan Bullock wrote: “Bevin’s scheme, although fair enough in its pro­ce­dure, was highly un­pop­u­lar. Most of the young men drafted into the mines dis­liked the work and the con­di­tions in which they had to live, there was more op­po­si­tion than to any other form of con­scrip­tion and a num­ber pre­ferred im­pris­on­ment to ac­cept­ing di­rec­tion. Up to the end of Oc­to­ber 1944 out of 16,000 youths picked by bal­lot, 500 had been pros­e­cuted for re­fusal to obey the Na­tional Ser­vices Of­fi­cer’s or­der or for leav­ing their em­ploy­ment in the coal mines. Of this total 143 had been sen­tenced to im­pris­on­ment.”

I ar­rived at Work­sop af­ter a day’s travel, took a bus to the vil­lage of Creswell and in no time I was set­tled in at the hos­tel, spe­cially built close to the pit, no doubt to pro­vide us with the suit­able at­mos­phere.

On the first day there were about 100 of us, from all parts of the coun­try and from all walks of life. I knew no one, but it was easy to talk to the oth­ers, we were all in the same boat. Di­vided into dif­fer­ent groups we were given timeta­bles for lec­tures, PT and un­der­ground and sur­face train­ing. Then there was the is­sue of per­sonal equip­ment: pit boots (great heavy things with studs and steel toe­caps), pit hel­mets, PT shorts and vests, tow­els and over­alls.

Creswell Col­liery was an old es­tab­lished coal mine, part of which was worked out, and had been taken over by the Train­ing Cen­tre, self-con­tained with class­rooms, sur­face fa­cil­i­ties and a large un­der­ground area.

We started train­ing at some un­godly hour like 6am: all dressed in hel­mets, over­alls and pit boots, trudg­ing through the muddy yard, across the wooden bridge which spanned the rail­way lines, in­hal­ing diesel fumes and the long for­got­ten smell of steam en­gines.

The in­struc­tors were from the older age group of min­ing deputies and fore­men. They had to tread a gen­tle line with us — we were not a will­ing au­di­ence, none of us wanted to be there and, un­like the Army, they could not in­flict pun­ish­ment to keep us in or­der.

The lec­tures were al­ways car­ried out in a re­laxed and of­ten amus­ing way de­spite the fact that some of the as­pects were some­what bor­ing. Phys­i­cal Train­ing was fairly en­er­getic. Un­der the com­mand of a Para­chute Reg­i­ment PT In­struc­tor, it in­cluded long walks, then later runs in our new pit boots. Many of us suf­fered painful blis­ters on heels and toes. The peo­ple of Creswell be­came ac­cus­tomed to see­ing the tor­tured looks on our faces as we ran painfully around their streets, but slowly we, and they, got used to it.

Then, it was our turn to make our first visit into the bow­els of the earth. I’m sure we all felt a lit­tle un­easy as we waited for the gates to be fit­ted to the cages. We

filed on, try­ing not to look each other in the eye, heard the bell “ting, ting, ting”, and we shot away into the dark­ness with a burst of neg­a­tive G. The cage gath­ered speed and the air rushed past as we plunged what seemed like thou­sands of feet, and when it fi­nally slowed down grad­u­ally the scene be­came lighter as we ar­rived in the pit bot­tom, white painted and with per­ma­nent elec­tric light­ing.

A co­me­dian among us called out “Base­ment, Ladies’ Un­der­wear” as we filed out and fol­lowed the in­struc­tor to the train­ing coal­face. All was dark there, our cap lamps pro­vid­ing the only il­lu­mi­na­tion. The at­mos­phere was warm with a musty smell and above we could see bits of jagged rock pok­ing be­tween the steel arches that formed the sides and roof of the road­way.

At the end of the road we came to the coal­face proper. It was nearly six feet thick but the in­struc­tor told of many cases where the coal was only three feet six inches thick. He sug­gested we all sit down, turn off our lights and re­main silent. In­stantly we were in total dark­ness. No one spoke, we heard the clicks and cracks of the roof be­ing slowly com­pressed by the earth above. It was a sober­ing ex­per­i­ment. Some­one asked “Is the roof com­ing in?” He as­sured us it was not and af­ter about 10 min­utes we put on our lights again.

I fi­nally found out where I was be­ing sent: Ram­croft Col­liery in Der­byshire, a rea­son­ably mod­ern pit work­ing just one seam of coal about 300 feet be­low the sur­face. Down be­low, the coal was trans­ported on con­veyor belts from one belt to another un­til it reached the pit bot­tom where the coal went through a loader into wheeled tubs, then up the shaft to the screens where it was sorted, washed and fi­nally sent to the mar­ket.

Some­one was of the opin­ion Bevin Boys needed fur­ther train­ing and I was sent to Wil­liamthorpe Col­liery for a month to work on tubs near the pit bot­tom. Not by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion could it be called train­ing. I had to work with a young lad, who told me he liked work­ing there be­cause it was safe. He didn’t want to go near the coal­face. The job was to mar­shal a group of empty tubs which ar­rived down a slight in­cline and send them away into the work­ings to be re­filled.

I re­turned to Ram­croft, sup­pos­edly as a trained coal miner. On my first day the deputy led me away for a long walk and a big sur­prise. We had half a mile to go start­ing with a one-in-four gra­di­ent which made us puff some­what. We ar­rived at the gear-head of a con­veyor belt which the deputy stopped, telling me to “hop over” while the min­ers along the coal­face were wav­ing their lamps and shout­ing “Let the belt go!”

I fol­lowed him on my hands and knees. Ev­ery time I lifted my head to see where I was go­ing my lamp caught the roof and knocked my hat off. I was be­gin­ning to feel a bit des­per­ate. We fi­nally ar­rived at another gear-head, right in the mid­dle of the face with a tiny re­cess be­hind: just enough room for two.

Some­one called “Fir­ing! Fir­ing!” The deputy called “Get down. They’re shot fir­ing.” I was flat on my stom­ach with fingers in my ears. I heard “Woomph” and then again “Woomph” and tiny bits of coal came fly­ing over the gear-head. At that mo­ment I wished I could have gone into the Air Force.

Lodg­ings had been ar­ranged for me by the Min­istry of Labour with the Link fam­ily. Mrs. Link, aged about 50 and with­out any teeth, al­ways dressed in a pinafore; Mr. Link was a quiet, hen­pecked miner. She would never have won awards for va­ri­ety in cook­ing and my lunches were al­ways cheese sand­wiches. I later went to live in a Bevin Boys hos­tel, which was a great im­prove­ment.

I was work­ing alone one day in an un­lit main road, keep­ing an eye on the con­veyor belt which was trans­port­ing the coal to the pit bot­tom, when I sud­denly no­ticed a flash­ing light on the belt. The light sig­nal was to stop the belt, and as it looked a bit ur­gent I went to the main switch box and pulled the lever.

Rid­ing on the belts was not al­lowed, but ev­ery­one did it, and when the belt stopped be­side me I saw the Over­man was on it. I asked what was the trou­ble and he said his boot was caught in the joint in the belt. He climbed off, said “Thank you”, and walked off. It oc­curred to me, and I’m sure it did to him too, that just a few feet fur­ther the belt went down be­tween hefty rollers. It doesn’t bear think­ing about what would have hap­pened to the Over­man had I not been there!

My usual place of work was at the gear­head, where I sent pit props and bars and other re­quire­ments to the col­liers and kept the ma­chin­ery clear of coal dust. Gen­er­ally, ev­ery­thing went well but one day I no­ticed tiny bits of rock drop­ping on my hel­met. I stepped back and looked up and saw big­ger bits were falling, then two of the re­cently in­stalled iron arches moved out of place.

I rushed to the gear-head and stopped the belt. A voice called out “What’s the mat­ter?” I told him what was hap­pen­ing and the min­ers started tap­ping the roof and told me to go back and op­er­ate the gear-head from the switch box fur­ther down the road. Two ex­pe­ri­enced col­liers came off the face and looked around. They de­cided it had set­tled down and that we could carry on.

Next morn­ing I found a com­pletely dif­fer­ent scene. It looked rather like the in­side of a cathe­dral: tons and tons had come down dur­ing the night shift. They were ex­pect­ing it, so no harm was done.

I was re­leased in Jan­uary 1948 af­ter three years and two months of pur­ga­tory, with only a rail­way war­rant to get me home and a let­ter from the mine man­ager stat­ing “I can of­fer no finer ex­am­ple of a young man who served his coun­try in time of cri­sis.”

Above: The Bevin Boys Medal is avail­able to all those bal­lo­tees and vol­un­teers who were called up be­tween 1942 and 1948; lessons in the class­room were also part of the rou­tine.

Bevin Boys re­ceiv­ing train­ing in 1945.


The Bevin Boys As­so­ci­a­tion ban­ner.

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