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 Faulkner
Location of story: Mountain Ash S Wales
Background to story: Civilian
Article ID: A7026905
Contributed by LeedsDFaulkner
The Reluctant Bevin Boy’s Story 1945
By Dennis Faulkner
CHAPTER 1. ARRIVAL AND TRAINING.
In 1944 I was employed by the BBC as an engineer at their Oversees Engineering & Information Department Receiving Station near Tatsfield in Surrey, and as such my ‘call-up’ for military service was deferred until my 19th birthday, which was the 20th February 1945.
Imagine my alarm and shock when, early in November I received my ‘call-up papers’ to report on the 8th January 1945 to a hostel at Rhydfelin near Pontypridd in South Wales, for training as a coal miner.
The BBC suggested that I appeal against this, as I would be better suited, with my knowledge and experience, in one of the armed forces.
I attended a tribunal in Croydon. My appeal was dismissed. I enquired from the chairman, why? And was told, “We never uphold an appeal”! My next question, “In which case what is the point of holding a tribunal”, the answer came “We live in a democracy”!!
I left Croydon by train for Cardiff, (without the opportunity to go to my home in Gloucester) A bus transported me to the hostel, together with a motley selection of other poor unfortunates that had fallen victim to the irrational Wartime Order issued by Ernest Bevin, a Labour Politician and himself a Welshman, serving as Minister of Labour in Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition Government.
This was to redress the acute shortage of coalminers, as those of Military Age, had been called up into the armed forces! The effect of the Order was that one in every ten on the ‘call-up lists’ was to be diverted to coal mining irrespective of their trade or profession. Hence we were known as ‘Bevin Boys’.
The procedure was a lottery. Ten slips of paper, each bearing a number from 0 to 9, were put in a hat, and one drawn. Every youth of 17½, or over, whose National Service registration number ended with the number drawn HAD to go into the mines. From 1943 to when the scheme ended in 1948, some 45,000 had been drafted this way. Many had never experienced heavy manual work, and to be drafted into the toughest industry of any was simply ridiculous.
‘Bevin Boys’ had no privileges and received a pay rate as a Trainee of about £3.10s per week gross. From this was taken National Insurance, Union dues (we all had to join the mineworkers union), and even Income Tax! This rate of pay was far less than the miner they were working alongside. We also had to pay for our ‘lodgings’ @£1.5s. Per week.
Some misinformed people openly abused us as ‘Shirkers’ or ‘Draft Dodgers’. This hurt, as we had no control over it, and in most cases would have been happy in the armed forces.
The following day we had an introductory talk, and told the routine etc. We were then bussed to Oakdale near Blackwood in the Ebbw Valley, to the Training Centre.
Here was a disused pit that was now a training school for Bevin Boys. We saw our first sight of Winding Wheels, Engine Rooms, Shaft Heads and all the other paraphernalia that made up a coalmine. We were each kitted out with overalls, a belt from which to hang your safety lamp, safety boots with steel toecaps and a safety helmet. Each morning on arrival we went through the ‘Bathhouse Procedure’. Here we entered the ‘Clean Area’ where we stripped off completely, placed all our clean cloths into a designated locker, collected our soap, scrubbing brush and towel and whatever else was required, and then processed naked, along the corridor round the shower room to the ‘Dirty Area’. Here was another locker from which you dressed in your working cloths and boots, left your shower goods, and proceeded to work.
There were classroom sessions, Ministry of Labour films, tours of the surface areas, and underground operations with all the many dangers being pointed out. The operation of the ‘Roads’ was explained and the need to keep all ‘air doors’ closed in order to maintain the correct flow of air through the workings. We were shown the operation of the winding house, the cage and the multifarious surface machinery. None of this was in actual use so there was little dust and dirt about.
We had to do PT in order to ‘strengthen us up and get us fit’!
This was not a deep pit, the journey to the bottom of the shaft being quite short and not fast. The ‘roads’ along which we were taken were not at all dirty; so that when we returned to the surface we were all quite clean! This was not to last when we started at our designated pits later on! On one occasion a small group of us were taken into the pit yard where there were large piles of small coal. Given shovels, we were told to move it all from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, a shovel throw away. This took an hour or so. When completed, were told to shovel it all back again! A few blistered hands ensued.
Training completed I had to report to the Labour Exchange in Pontypridd, on Monday 19th February, I was assigned to, and ‘signed-on’, to work underground at ‘Deep Duffryn’ pit in the small mining town of Mountain Ash, which lies about half way up the Aberdare valley. Just a short distance over a hill to the east of Mountain Ash is Aberfan, in the Merthyr valley, where, in 1966, that awful disaster took place when a whole mountainside of slag slid down and overwhelmed a school and houses. Of the 144 dead, 116 were children.
I was assigned to lodgings with an Irish family. So there I was, an Englishman, lodging with an Irish family in South Wales! They were very kind and understanding.
CHAPTER 2. AT THE SHARP END.
Tuesday 20th February, my 19th birthday, was my induction to ‘Deep Duffryn’! At 6.0am, I had breakfast, given a tin ‘snap box’ with my sandwiches and a two-pint water bottle, a bag containing a large towel, some soap, a scrubbing brush and a comb. Procedures. On arrival I followed the others and changed into my working clothes and headed for the lamp room. Collect a ‘tag’, and then pass through the lamp room where you exchange your ‘tag’ for a hand lamp. This is a heavy metal safety lamp about sixteen inches high with the actual lamp chamber at the top. It weighed about eleven pounds and had a large metal carrying handle. It was switched on when it was given to you. All of this took place before 7.0am, the time allocated for decent to begin.
I followed the others to the pithead cages. There were two of these, side by side; as one lowered, the other raised. Some twenty men were squeezed in.
The journey started slowly at first and gradually increased speed until it was moving down at about sixty miles per hour! The air rushed past, almost taking your breath away. On arrival at the bottom of this 1000+ feet deep shaft you were in a very large well-lit area, with white- washed walls. I was introduced to the pit ‘Deputy’, who was the boss down here in the bowels of the earth. He introduced me to a smallish chap with whom I was to work at the coalface.
(NOTE: In later years, when a member of The Bevin Boys Association, I learned that only some 13.4% Bevin Boys were employed directly on the coal-face.)
Fortunately we were assigned to a six-foot seam, so we could at least walk normally and stand up when at the coalface. Others were not so fortunate; working in seams only three feet high, on their hands and knees! How they did not go mad I do not know. I think I would have done. It was bad enough as it was for me.
I then followed my ‘Butty’ (Welsh for mate) to the roadway along which we were to walk to the face. We passed the stables, which were also large, whitewashed, and well lit. I was surprised to see the size of these ‘ponies’. They were the size of carthorses! I was warned that these beasts would not stop once in motion along a roadway. If you were in one and heard them coming, you quickly found a safety chamber in the wall of the roadway, and waited for them to pass.
The roadways were unlit, and had a railway line on sleepers in the centre. In between there were hollows where the ponies laid their great feet. These often contained water, or horse deposits! One attempted to walk on the sleepers, however the spacing was not conducive to a comfortable pace and took some getting used to, especially as the distance to be covered by us was over one mile from the pit bottom. As we approached the face the roadway split several times. Different pairs of men proceeded along each one and we were no exception. At the end, and adjacent to the six-foot seam face was an empty coal wagon awaiting its load. Here my companion had a small pickaxe (called a mandrel), one or two shovels and a crowbar. For me there was a large scoop of about twenty inches square, with a hand hole on each side at the rim.
My mate took off his coat and standing his lamp on the ground near his working area, then proceeded to return the coal, cut and dropped by the nightshift, to me. My job was to fill the scoop with coal and lift the thing up and over the edge of the wagon and dump the coal in. It was quite heavy, and this was hard hot dirty work. The dust showered all over me as I did this. As the fill came to about a foot from the rim of the wagon, I then had to select very large chunks of coal, and build a wall around the edge of the truck, up and over the rim. This done, I then piled in more coal with the scoop. As the wagon filled, this became more difficult, due to the height of the lift required, and he wanted large coal on the top. He would then chalk his mark on the wagon and call for it to be taken off and an empty one brought up. We then started all over again until the end of the shift. He expected me to load at least 12 tons each shift in order to earn a large bonus. A little of which he would sometimes give to me.
The face was a long one and there were other pairs of men working close by each with their own wagon and short roadway leading back to the main one.
At break time everyone stopped work and gathered together in small groups, sat on the ground, with their snap (sandwich) tin and water bottle. One told me to take out a sandwich and then close the tin immediately. This was to prevent the rats pinching the food! I asked if this were true, that there were rats all the way down here. He told everyone to switch off their lamps. This done, he placed his lamp a yard or so away and told me to watch. He then threw a piece of bread at the foot of the lamp and within seconds several large rats descended upon it! I was horrified to think they were all around us and in such numbers. I learned my lesson! Another was, that if, at this time, one experienced ‘the call of nature’ it was off into a dark corner and do it there!
At some time during each shift the ‘Deputy’ came round to check on roof and other safety factors. He also tested for gas with his safety lamp. He must have walked miles during his shift.
2.30pm marked the end of the shift. Tools were stowed safely out of the way of the afternoon and night shifts. We returned to the surface where we handed in our lamp, collected our token and went to the bathhouse. When I looked in a mirror I was alarmed to find that I had two ‘black eyes’. The coal dust had penetrated so much into the soft tissue surrounding the eye that it could not be washed away. When, at last, I was released from the mines it took several weeks before my eyes were clean.
On reaching the digs Mrs. Kelleher had a good wholesome hot meal waiting for me. I was exhausted, and was in bed early that evening.
I can honestly say that that first day was the most awful, dirty, backbreaking experience I had ever had, then or since.
Some few weeks later I was not feeling too well, with stomach pains, and decided to take a day off to visit a local doctor who diagnosed ‘Gastritis’ and signed me on the ‘sick list’. I was prescribed medicine that was a mixture of kaolin and morphine. (This was to be repeated many many times during the next forty five years until a correct diagnosis of H Pylori was eventually found in 1989 and treated!)
I resumed work in the pit a few days later. However after a few days the stomach pains returned together with vomiting and I felt quite ill, and again had to consult the doctor. He signed me off work again, this time for two weeks.
I had to register this absence with the pit and the Labour Exchange in order to avoid prosecution for prolonged, unreasonable absence. Some Bevin Boys were actually fined and/or imprisoned for absence. There was a lot of absenteeism, and some desertion. Who can blame them?
RIGHTS OR WRONGS?
A Bevin Boy had no rights. He was a civilian. He was issued with no uniform or insignia from which he could be identified, and as I mentioned earlier, this often led to unkind remarks. The only leave he was entitled to was one week per year, plus Christmas Day and Boxing Day! He was not allowed to use NAAFI canteens or any of the Volunteer canteens set up for the armed forces. No other facilities were made available to him at all. It all made for very bad feelings on the part of these unfortunate conscripts. This was to continue through to the end of the scheme. When it ended and ‘demobilisation’ came, most took their leave from the agony of working in the pits, in spite of a letter from the newly formed National Coal Board (1st January 1947), appealing to them ‘to consider favourably remaining in the industry’.
For over forty years the Bevin Boy received no recognition at all. Even the humble Air Raid Warden was presented with a National Service Medal! Not so the Bevin Boy. The British Legion prevented the Bevin Boys Association, when it was formed, from taking part in the Annual Service of Remembrance in London for nearly fifty years. This was in spite of many high profile attempts to gain recognition of the Bevin Boy in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, by such as Lord Rix, CBE, DL, and Sir Jimmy Saville Kt., OBE. KCSG. LLD who were both Bevin Boys.
Years later, Arthur Scargill, the then President of the NUM, speaking on a TV programme ‘Bevin Boys — Flukes of Fate’ called it ‘A Monumental Blunder’.
CHAPTER 3. MY LAST DAYS AS A ‘BEVIN BOY’
For me there were periods of work, followed inevitably by periods of quite severe stomach pain and biliousness. This continued into April when after another serious case of nausea at the shaft bottom I was taken up by a first-aider. He was also a union representative. He checked my records and decided that this routine could not continue and that he would make representations to the Ministry of Labour for my case to be reviewed, with the object of my being released from the mining industry. In the meantime I was to be on sick leave again, to wait to be examined by a medical tribunal in Pontypridd. This took place and I was certified as “medically unfit for work in the coal mines”. I was sent home by the Labour Exchange to await the outcome of their review.
On the 7th May I was released from the mines and was required to return to Deep Duffryn in Mountain Ash to hand in my bits and bobs, hand in my clearance papers and collect my Employment Card. This I did with great relief. I then said my goodbyes to the Keheller family and returned to my home in Gloucester, signed on at the Labour Exchange and requested my BBC job back. And so ended the most traumatic event in my life thus far, and ever since.
THE NEXT DAY, MAY THE 8th 1945 WAS ‘VE’ DAY. THE END OF THE WAR IN EUROPE.
There was much rejoicing, street parties and huge bon-fires in the streets. King George VI broadcast on the wireless. I went on a Church Parade with the 12th Gloucester Scouts to St Paul’s church in the evening, where there was a service of Thanksgiving.
For me the thanksgiving was a double-edged event.
I did not get my job with the BBC back.
On the 5thJune 1945 I arrived in Carlisle to report to Hadrian’s Camp en route to Omagh, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland to begin three and a half years in the Army with the Royal Signals!
DF Leeds November 2005