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.
Creswell Colliery, Derbyshire. MARTIN JENKINSON IMAGE LIBRARY/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
The Bevin Boys Association banner.