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Bevin Boys - Ernest Bevin 1881 - 1951
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Jim Bates - This was my National Service as a conscription BEVIN BOY
Dennis Fisher - The roadways were unlit, and had a railway line on sleepers in the centre

Contributed by:

Jim Bates
24 June 2005
Bevin Boy World War II

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


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.


Contributed by:

Dennis Fisher
02 October 2004
Coal Colliery

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: Dennis Fisher. Ernest Bevin, Bevin Boys.
Contributed by heartlessallfulcher
Location of story: County Durham
Background to story: Civilian
Article ID: A3078317

Coal Colliery

Now in my matured mellowed years I was doing a bit reminiscing of the days when my valley wasn't so green when you could not walk two miles in any direction without coming upon a Coal Mine, Drift, Black Slag Waste Heaps along with seeing worked out Colliery Derelict buildings from a past glorious era.

I never thought I'd live to see the day when there would no longer be any pits left in our County, as Durham was built upon coal.

Now days it's all this natural North Sea Gas with Gas Central Heating installed in our homes, but give me a good coal burning fire any day. You just can't beat them for warmth during cold wintery nights and toasting slices of bread in fron of the fire's dancing flames.

The toast just doesn't taste the same these days jumping out a blinking electric toaster. When we first got ours I overheard my wife bragging to the next door neighbour one day saying, "We've got a pop up one' that'll do four slices at a time".

How things have changed as I look back to my days of living in the old Coal Mining Community Village named Gurney Valley and starting my fist working day in the coal industry as a Bevin Boy back in 1943 recruited along with 50,000 others to help produce much needed coal for the War effort.
Recruitment by conscription to do National Service in the Coal Mines was the Brain child of the Rt. Hon. Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour and National Service.

The system of balloting was done by more of an act of fate numbers draw. The digit's running from 0 to 9. If the end number from your National Service Registration Certificate was drawn from the cap that week then you were in: or should say,” Down" regardless of how much you wanted to go into the Armed Forces. You could protest as much and loud as you wanted against going into the Coal Mines but you still had to go, the next alternative being jail.

The dreamed up name of boy's by Bevin wasn't in my opinion a fair choice as we were doing a mans job and by the time demob day came around for us in 1948 we really were men in facing the future- nothing could be as bad as what we had endured.

I was lucky to be working in what the miner called "A happy Pit", we all worked and pulled together to help reach the collieries allotted production target by tonnage set against the number of men working.

Each Friday on ending our shift we didn't know how fast to come up the shaft and out of the pit, but the first thing everyone did was to look up at the Pit Head Pulley Wheels to see if the Union Jack flag was flying as then we knew the Pit had reached it's target. We all stuck our chests out with pride when it was; in fact the pit reached it's target every week in those days and they never bothered to take it down untill it was flying in tatters, Then we got a new NCB flag when the pits were nationalised on January 1st 1947, at last we were the Pits new owners.

Most of the Colliery's in our County had very little mechanised coal cutting machinery, then most of the coal was hard won by the hewers using wind compressed air hand held picks and all the wagons ( Tubs ) were filled by hand with large pan shovel's who's size would make any ordinary man weep.
The empty tubs were taken to the coal face by ponies and their handlers were called putters they were paid by piece work and paid by the score conveyed each time from the coal face by the ponies. All the coal seams didn't run straight and level but went up steep high sides and steep dips which would really task a pony’s strength. A lot of the workings were wet terrible conditions. They were breathing in shot smoke fumes from the explosives used by the coal hewers which hung about the workings for hours , or sometimes working through Black Damp gas which floated just above the floor with the air and oxygen content being so low that the oil lamps flame were almost nil. Then after a hard physical worked shift they would all come out with the coal hewers with thumping headaches.

The ponies never complained or maybe there was no one to hear them, after all they had no choice. At the pit where I worked they had 200 of these little animals stabled underground for all of their lives and never seeing the daylight, so without the ponies the pit targets would never have been reached. A commemorative Statue should be erected to these thousands of Gallant little animals and the Bevin Boys as without them the fight for coal for the War Effort would never have been won.
With every working shift the Old Death Reaper was never far away and if he swept forward his scythe he never pushed aside any favourites as all were cut down, face workers, Bevin Boys and pit ponies alike. My pit also had it's many fatal casualties, all good workers, some were my friends from which I still remember them all as who could forget!

After Nationalisation things did start to improve though slowly at first until we had Pit Head Baths with hot water showers, a luxury. We no longer had to go home black in our dirty working clothes. The pits also had their own Medical Centres just like miniature hospitals with their own Medical Attendants and a nursing Sister in charge.

What joy it was in being able to go home washed and fully dressed ready to go straight out with your mates or girlfriends. No longer having to wait your turn for the hot water to boil for the tin bath in front of the coal fire, then having to go behind the pantry door to wash your dangling bits if the girl next door had been sat waiting to look at the male anatomy free show.

One of my most memorable days was when the names were picked out of a cap by the Union men for who would carry the pits Banner at the Durham Miners Gala held every year at Durham City on a Saturday.

We younger ones were all excited as we rushed through the showers to look at the chosen few on the list hanging on a wall next to the medical centre. On reaching there myself was to see a bunch of my mates ( Marrars ) all crowded around and climbing up on each others backs to grab a look at the lucky chosen names. Being tall I had no trouble in seeing over their heads to receive a very surprised shock on seeing my name at the top of the list and underneath is the name of my close friend Roy who was a gentle giant of a man who I'd always looked up to in more ways than one.

He also had a great singing voice which I loved to hear when he was singing down the pit as the sound echo rebounded through the workings of the mine. I thought he was wasted working at the pit with his God given talent.

It was a great honour to be chosen to parade the pit Banner high through the streets of Durham City and what a grand pair of bearers we made carrying the poles of the Banner all day; even inside Durham Cathedral.

This would be my first time in attending a Miners Gala and it nearly always rained on Gala day in July and I'm a fine weather man myself. Came the day and it was one of the proudest days of my life, only another pitman would fully understand. We marched behind a brass band, first through the colliery village, then again through the streets of Durham City.

There we marched proudly passed the Royal County Hotel where on the balcony stood VIPs, Politicians such as Clement Attlee M.P. and Secretary of State for war Manny Shinwell plus Hugh Gaitskell who would attend a number of these Gala's in the years to come. Lined on both sides of the road were crowds of people clapping and cheering along with the many brass bands playing. I'd never seen so many folk gathered at any one time in all my life and it made me feel good.
Yes I helped display our pit banner with pride, my once and only time - do you know what it never rained that day.

After serving 20 years in the coal industry I reckoned that I'd done my bit and done old Bevin well, more than he'd given in return to the Bevin Boys after the war ended for Service to King and Country as they became known as "The Forgotten Army of Conscripts".
This left a bitter taste in our mouth which is still there today 60 years later. If you are wondering about this injustice of equal rights for all; then find an ex Bevin Boy and ask him.

If I had to do my bit all over again and at the end of it to receive no recognition for services rendered then the Government would have to import peat from Ireland to keep the 'Home Fires Burning'.

To the readers of this story I ask that you remember that this Country of ours was built on coal and now that most of our mines have been closed we now import coal all the way from places like Columbia, Poland, Austria and who knows maybe Russia.
No wonder the old miners feel bitter as right through the ages the only rewards he ever received for doing his best was a 'Kick-in-the-teeth' and now a way of life and an industry has been killed off which will never return.

Ironic that at Newcastle there is a depot that stores all this foreign imported coal which also makes an old saying of "Taking coals to Newcastle finally to become reality".

Bevin Boys.

No Hats, No Plumes,
No Uniforms
No Badge for them to wear,
No Regiment
No choice
No recognition.

No Light, No sight,
No chance to fight,
No Medal for defence,
No Honours Roll, No bugle call,
No acknowledgement.

The cage, the hole,
The dreaded drop,
The deepest trench, Foxhole,
In seams of eighteen inches high
They dug the precious coal.

Story Written by Mr J.D. Fisher.
Newton Aycliffe.
County Durham.

Pit Terminology - Glossary