This story was submitted to the People’s War site by John Hughes from Three Counties Action on behalf of Ivor Brudenell. It was collected at the Bedfordshire Country Show in July 2005 and has been added to the BBC site with his permission. The author fully understands the sites terms and conditions.
People in story: Ivor Brudenell
Location of story: Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire
Background to story: Civilian
Article ID: A5544722
A BEVIN BOY’S STORY
I came from a small Northamptonshire village of about 700 people. From childhood, I worked on a farm, as we all did. I remember steam threshing machines and horses, which were used everywhere where work had to be done or things moved. As boys, one of our jobs was to lead the big horses to and from their place of work. Later, I worked as a coal deliveryman before taking a job maintaining runways at the nearby USAAF base. When my wartime call up papers came in 1944, I volunteered for the RAF. But because the government needed to keep up coal production, some of us were sent down the mines instead of joining the armed services. It all depended on the last digit of the service number you were given. Two digits were chosen at random each month, so it was pure chance that decided where you went. Nothing to do with my previous work experience. We miners were called Bevin Boys, after Ernest Bevin, the then Minister of Labour. We heard that many miners had volunteered for the services to escape from the mines.
I was sent for a month’s training at Cresswell in Staffordshire, with other Bevin Boys from all walks of life. Most of this training was in a classroom. The regular miners were friendly towards us and didn’t seem to resent our working alongside them as newcomers. Pits generally had two shafts, No.1 and No.2. These provided the ventilation system for the underground workings. No.1 was an air intake and was open. No.2 was fitted with an exhaust fan and was closed. It was always very cold in No.1 and very hot in No.2. There were three shifts, 6-2, 2-10 and 10-6. Production was kept going round the clock. There were no facilities underground. You’d to take your own water and food — usually cheese sandwiches.
We were given no special favours. Quite the opposite, in fact. Whereas service personnel were provided with uniforms and were given travel warrants for journeys home on leave, we had none of that. We had to pay for and obtain our own clothes and coalmining was very hard on clothing, especially boots and kneepads. Pit clothes were taken home for a weekly wash. But it was so hot sometimes that you worked in very little clothing where possible. The most important items were boots, leather knee pads and the pressed cardboard helmets we all had to have. The one benefit we did have was three half ton deliveries of coal a year. This was very welcome at a time when coal was hard to get and heating, cooking and hot water depended on having it.
After training, I’d been sent to Gedling pit, near Nottingham. I lodged with a local family whose son was away in India. Their other son had become a mate of mine during training. It was possible to get weekend or leave passes on application.
My job was maintenance of the electric coal cutting equipment and the conveyor belts that took the coal and waste rock away to be lifted to the surface in rail tubs. One of the toughest jobs was to bring the electric transformer along as the coal cutter moved forward through the coal seam. This involved manhandling the heavy equipment from its niche in the tunnel side on to rails so that the pit pony could pull it towards its new position, where it had to be manhandled into place and a new cable connected to it. The coiled cable had to be straightened out. It was thick as a man’s arm and covered with tarry grease and chalky powder and it was hard to clean up after that job. We had pit head showers. You’d have put your ordinary clothes on a rack and hoisted them up to the ceiling to await your return.
Conditions underground were not comfortable. We had headroom in the main roads made of arched steel beams, but elsewhere, working space was very cramped. There was electric light at important junctions, but much of the time, we depended on our helmet lamps or hand held safety lamps. I’ve got a lamp as a memento. I’ve still got my numbered disc. This was an important item because these discs were kept in the lamp room on the surface while we were underground. So the mine always knew who was underground and who was not, if there was an accident. When on the surface, you kept your disc with you at all times. My number was 976. Because of my job, I also had an electric maintenance lamp. We would sometimes travel along the coal face on the conveyor belts or ride between the coal tubs on their way to the foot of the main shaft.. This was against the rules and is still forbidden now. Rules against smoking underground were also very strict as there was a high risk of gas explosion. Mining was always dangerous work and wartime was no exception. I knew of a lad who was killed on his very first day down the pit.
We had a roof fall one day. I was inspecting the machines with a new lad and it became hotter than usual. When I went back to see why, I saw that the canvas pipe that brought fresh air had gone flat. We were cut off by fallen rock, but the disc system meant that our mates knew where we were. We dug with our screwdrivers and spanners and they were digging with shovels from the other side, but it was five hours before we met and we were free. The new lad panicked a bit but we got through.
I was demobilised on 30 July 1948, long after the end of the war Again, unlike the services, we were given no gratuity, no demob suit, no rail warrant for the journey home, nothing. As my wife was from Lancashire, I went to work in a cotton mill in Bury. I only recently got to hear of the Bevin Boys’ Association and was glad that we were being given some recognition at last. We had done a valuable job for the country but had no campaign medal to mark that fact. Only recently were National Service and General Service medals awarded. Nor was compensation available for those whose health was permanently affected by coal dust as the national scheme did not come into effect until 1949, after the Bevin Boys had been disbanded.