This story was submitted to the People’s War site and has been added to the site with the author’s permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
People in story: Jim Bates
Location of story: Trentham, Stoke on Trent
Background to story: Civilian
Article ID: A4261565
Contributed by JoChallacombe2
Jim's identification disc
BEVIN BOY WORLD WAR II
JIM BATES: BEVIN BOY January 1944- July 1947
Hem Heath Colliery, Trentham, Stoke -on –Trent, Staffs.
I was called up in 1943 and registered as a Conscientious Objector since I felt unable to come under a discipline which included orders to take human life in military service. I was given the option of working in the mines as a Bevin Boy, and so I came to be at Hem Heath Colliery in January 1944.
The Bevin Boy scheme was devised by Earnest Bevin, then Minister of Labour and National Service, who had authority to call up all young people to the forces or to war work of some kind. The shortage of miners, because many had opted for the forces, had created a coal shortage, and in those days coal was a basic necessity, so Bevin offered the chance for young men to offer for the mines instead of the services. Almost no-one volunteered and so a lottery scheme was devised (was it every 10th name? – we never knew) and people were sent down the mine.
Like many others I came straight from school and it was something of a shock to find oneself in the rough and tumble of a heavy industry, doing physical and manual work instead of intellectual, though one had at all times to keep one’s wits about one. Miners taught us another kind of intelligence, the art of survival in difficult and dangerous circumstances. They summed us up beautifully as ‘Thintelligentia’, our language and thinking having been derived from books rather than from life itself!
Actually the going down the pit and working underground (we were over half a mile down) was not the shock I expected. The mine is a world of its own, rather like the London Underground, spacious and well lit at the pit bottom, though as one travels to the remoter parts of the pit the roof closes in and, of course, one is entirely dependent on one’s lamp. A pit is, of course, designed to extract coal in vast quantities and so has to provide room for its transport. So where coal is ‘drawn’ roads are well maintained with room for wagons, each holding about a ton of coal, to be ‘drawn’ to the pit bottom, and so up the shaft.
My first job, however, was not in the extraction of coal, that was where expertise and the big money lay, nor even in its transport. I was a ‘Dustman’- not to collect refuse, but to scatter dust. Coal mines are dusty places as anyone will remember if they have had a coal house, and coal dust, if ignited is more dangerous even than coal gas, so limestone dust is scattered, which, in the case of being heated, gives off carbon-dioxide which is the main ingredient of most fire extinguishers. So we received from above large paper sacks of limestone dust, about the size of cement bags, and we had to scatter this in every part of the pit.
On main roads we had to do this at night because during the day coal was being drawn, but the really hard work was getting it to the back air roads where there was no transport but ‘shank’s pony’ (we had no pit-ponies in our pit) and that was a matter of ‘snigging’. Miners had a language of their own, some unrepeatable in polite society, but wonderfully expressive, and snigging was getting something from ‘A’ to ‘B’, no matter how and whatever stood in the way. Sweat and toil, wriggling though narrow passages, dragging the bag after you, which inevitably being of paper, tore and scattered its contents in the wrong place. The, having got it where you wanted you scattered what was left on roof and sides, whitening and lightening the roadway as well as making it safer. The other miners cursed us because the dust got into their machinery and clogged the rails. We were a necessary evil! While they came out black, we came out white, but the dust was just a filthy, caked with sweat on clothing and any bare part of the body. I wore glasses then, as now, and the manager thought this would be dangerous on the coal face, (he said he would get me some safety, non- splinter glasses. Three and half years later I was still waiting for them), so maybe he thought I would come to less harm scattering dust.
We had pit-head baths of a sort, an old Nissen hut with showers and each of us had two lockers, a dirty and a clean. Being in digs I wore my pit clothes until they dropped off me, getting more dirty and torn until they were indecent in every way. I used to mend them, with a needle and thread at first, until the banksman (at the pit-top, pit-bank, seeing us down) frisked me for matches and thrust his hand into my pocket with my needle in it. I learnt a lot of ‘King’s English’ in a very short time! From then on I used shot wire to hold my ragged togs together. The joy, however, of discarding them at the end of the shift, going through the showers and putting on clean clothes was a daily delight. Then a mug of tea in the canteen, after, however, handing in our lamp at the lamp-house.
There lies a story. They did not give us a medal when we left, but one when we went, a brass disc with the name of the Company (Stafford Coal & Iron Company, Stoke-on-Trent) and a number on it, our number (mine being 146). Each day we handed in our lamp check to get our lamp which at the end of the shift we returned, claiming our lamp-check back. The check served two purposes. It was a check on the lamp which had to be re-charged each day or night, but also on us. While that check was in the lamp-house the Colliery was responsible for our safety and welfare. If a check remained unclaimed, enquiries had to be made, ringing down below to see if we were safe. Those enquiries would go on and action taken if necessary until the Colliery was satisfied that no harm had come to the owner of the lamp-check.
I had a friend who was a true Bevin Boy. He wanted to go into the Air Force and the sent him down the mine. He did everything he could to get out, writing to M.P.’s and other authorities, to no avail. He hated every minute down below and one day, when he was working with me he downed tools and walked out. But you can’t walk out of a pit, so he waited for the end of the shift in a manhole near the pit-bottom. The end of the shift came, his lamp-check remained unclaimed. Enquiries were made, but by then we had gone home, so search parties were sent out and every road in the pit scrutinized, to no effect, until in one party, coming back to the pit bottom, a miner shone his lamp into a manhole and there, under a piece of sheeting lay my good friend, fast asleep. He got into the Air Force, jet-propelled!
They say in the Forces that it takes ten men to keep one man at the front, and so with coal-mining. The coal face is where the extraction is done, but one has to get it away to the pit-bottom and up the shaft. Transport is a major activity and this, in our pit, was done with rope-haulages, either with endless ropes drawn through stationary engines, or ‘main and tail’ ropes which were attached to the front and rear of a run of wagons, again with stationary engines , the return rope running on pulleys alongside the roadway. We neither had locomotives, as in some large pits with clear roadways, nor pit-ponies, and most of our engines were powered by compressed air piped down from a compressor above ground.
For six months I was an engine-driver, hitching and unhitching wagons to main & tail system and with a ringing of bells, sending them on their way. I was in a little world of my own, untroubled but by runs of wagons sent to me which I had to deal with every so often. I found that with a cap-lamp I could read and I read, Tolstoy and Hardy, two of my favourites, and also, since I was studying to become a lay preacher, theology and the Bible.
I had a pressure gauge on my engine and people were constantly ringing up to know the pressure if they weren’t getting what they needed, asking what it was reading. One day the manager passed by and asked what it was reading, and mis-hearing him I thought he said,”What are you reading, Jimmy?” and I said, “ The New Testament.” His reaction was understandable, and all around the pit it went that jimmy, instead of getting on with his work was reading the ‘b –‘ Bible!
I also worked on gravity jigs. Here, if the coal mine is lucky, the coal face is higher than the pit bottom and so with full wagons attached to an endless rope they can lower them down, pulling up empties at no cost (as on the Lynmouth-Lynton Cliff Railway, though it is coal, not water that provides the motive power by its weight). brakesman controls movement, and tubs are attached to the endless rope with lashing chains. These have a ring at one end, which is hooked on to the wagon and a hook at the other which is knotted around the rope. One chain pulls the wagons along and one at the rear controls the decent down the jig. My job was attaching lashing chains and as the wagons went over the lip of the jig the rear chain would snap tight holding six loaded wagons from rushing away, and steadily they did their work of pulling up the empties. Once my knotted chain slipped! There was a mighty roar as full wagons broke free, and then a crash as they met those coming up. Then silence, and a cloud of dust, and we knew we had a ‘mess’. The first reaction was verbal, and how miners could express their feelings! But then, together we started sorting it out, at 45 degrees, a tangled mass of tubs and rings, hitching wagons back and refilling them. Such accidents often meant stopping drawing for the shift and an interview in the manager’s office. Thankfully it only happened to me once, but that was enough.
As I said, miners had a language of their own. The mid-shift break was ‘snapping’, sandwiches, or whatever carried in a snapping tin, twenty minutes when you sat wherever you were, in and on the dirt, and without ceremony, fed. Your drink, water in a can, and how thirsty one could get! (but it was water, work, beer, play).’Loose-it’ was the end of the shift (7 ½ hours, plus half-an-hour for ‘travelling’ down below) and it speaks for itself. Shifts, however, were often determined by how quickly the coal could be cleared from the coal face, and so there was ‘late-drawing’ for everyone. There were three shifts a day, one drawing coal and the other two moving all the extracting equipment (conveyor belts in our case) forward into the newly cleared space and then undercutting the new face and drilling it to bring the coal down for the drawing shift the next day. These latter were usually afternoon and night shifts, quieter, but not popular.
One word remains with me: ‘purging’. As a good Methodist I wasn’t going to indulge in bad language, but one day I must have been annoyed with something and shouted out, “Oh bother!” An old miner heard me, came up and said, “’Ave a good cuss and purge thysen, Jimmy.” How expressing that word ‘purging, could be, both intransitively through getting it off one’s chest, and transitively in saying what you thought of someone. I knew what purging was when the jig wagons ran away, but having purged, the air was cleared and good relations restored.
They were a happy lot, miners. The morning greeting was inevitably, “Are you happy, Jimmy?” and a positive response was expected. They were used to coping with impossible circumstances (and, at times, impossible people) and good humour, mixed with expletives saw them through. In a delightful way they put you in your place, and I learnt more from them about myself than I did from all my schooling, and college days after. It was a very good training for a parson!
One day a miner said to me, “Jimmy, you know what a miner is? – a bit of cotton waste, wipe your hands on it when you want it, chuck it away when you don’t.” He had known that, since during the depression of the 1930’s he, like many miners would turn up to work, kitted out at the pit-bottom, ready for a day’s work, only to be confronted by the over-man with, ”I’ll take thee and thee and thee, the rest, gin off whoam (home)!”
In war-time, of course they were in demand, essential to the economy, and this obtained for years after, but gradually oil has taken over, along with nuclear power and other sources, such as North Sea gas and mines everywhere have been closed. No longer do we get ‘coals from Newcastle’, Ellington the last mine in Northumberland, closed in 2004, and even the high-tech Selby in the same year. After the troubles of 1984 mining villages became ghost towns and now there are just about 5,000 moners, whereas in 1945 there were 700,000 or more, and the N.U.M. one of the strongest unions.
Bevin devised the scheme of Bevin Boys to meet the needs of the war effort, but also to introduce a section of the middle classes to what the life of the working classes was like. In that he succeeded in one case at least.