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.
My name is Neal Wreford and I am the People's War Outreach Officer for the East of England.
Throughout 2004 and 2005 I will be working to extend the project around the region in partnership with various local agencies. Some of their details, and the activities they are undertaking can be found here.
People in story: Ray Leafe
Location of story: Derbyshire
Background to story: Civilian Force
Article ID: A3911023
Contributed by Neal Wreford
A Bevin Boy Remembers
I grew up it the small market town of Baldock in Hertfordshire and registered for military service at seventeen and a half, received the customary medical in St. Albans, and, having been in the Army Cadet Force for nearly two years, opted for the Army. I was interviewed by their recruiting officer and recommended for a posting to REME (The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.)
Soon after my 18th birthday the brown manila envelope containing the expected call up papers arrived and I was amazed to see that I was to report not to Catterick or some other army camp, but to Creswell Colliery in Derbyshire for training as an underground coal miner. On a cold winters day I made my way to Cresswell where I was issued with a miners helmet and a pair of pit boots, for which incidentally they deducted the appropriate number of coupons from my allowance!
Our day started with an hours Physical Training followed by a lecture on some largely irrelevant aspect of mining. Next came a period of practical training; we were taught how to harness a pit pony, how to test for gas, how to operate various haulage systems, how to give the correct signals to the engineman etc after which there was a spell on the assault course or a route march, and then the rest of the day was spent in what was loosely described as work experience. In reality this was just an excuse to toughen us up as it consisted of emptying railway wagons of sand and the shovelling it back in again, or moving stacks of pit props from A to b and then back from B to A.
And of course, we were taken down the pit itself. The cage really is just that, a cage constructed from angle iron with pierced metal sheets for sides, roof and floor and three bars at the front and back to stop you falling out. To drop vertically in this at around 40 mph in semi darkness is quite an experience and well worthy of the rides at Alton Towers or Blackpool Pleasure Beach.
After four weeks we were considered trained and I was allocated to the Woodside pit near Ilkeston on the Notts / Derbys border now incidentally the site of the American Adventure theme park.
We were billeted in a purpose built hostel at nearby Eastwood, about ten miles away, renowned as being the home town of D. H. Lawrence of literary fame, and the setting for many of his novels. The hostel consisted of Nisan huts linked together in rows by a covered corridor which also housed showers and toilet accommodation whilst another block provided kitchens, a dining hall and administration.
After two weeks of working under direct supervision at Woodside I was transferred to another pit in the same group, Shipley coppice on the Derby side of Heanor, an oldish pit which had been sunk in 1870.
We were not subject to any discipline, no guard duties, etc, but failing to report for work resulted in an automatic fine of two pounds per day with longer periods punishable by imprisonment.
I was on the morning shift 7am to 2.30pm worked right through without a break which didn’t seem too bad at first until we realised that the starting time was at the point of work; so not only was there the travelling time to the pit itself but also the mile or so walk from the pit bottom to your workplace underground. We were awake about 4am and would have breakfast, usually of porridge, re-constituted scrambled egg, tea and toast, catch a trolley bus to Heanor, walk across the market square and transfer to a special bus which ran to the pit.
If you were on schedule there was probably time for a steaming mug of hot sweet tea in the canteen and a slice of Dip, a slice of bread dipped in hot bacon fat, not very good for the cholesterol but very satisfying.
Then it was time to go below. You first collected your lamp, were quickly frisked for contraband such as cigarettes and matches, you handed over your numbered tally, were loaded twelve on each deck and down you went rattling and clanking to the pit bottom. The tally system was the way of knowing who was below, both for payment purposes and of course in case of an accident or explosion when they could identify who was trapped underground. You collected it again at the end of the day when you handed in your lamp, ready for use the next day.
My first job was in the pit bottom, not such a daunting place actually as it had a good working height and was properly bricked like a railway tunnel. The job was called “dogging on” and consisted of coupling together the empty tubs as they came from the cage into units of twelve o so, clamping them onto an endless rope haulage system and sending them into the pit to be filled. When in full flow there were about 250 per hour and these were delivered to you down an inclined plane by gravity so you had to be careful not to be caught between them when another empty crashed into the rear or otherwise you would end up with a cracked rib. In fact I discovered that I was replacing a man who had lost two fingers in such a manner a few days earlier.
But we survived, and after about twelve months I was transferred into the pit. From the pit bottom there is what is called a main road; a tunnel wide enough to take two sets of rails, one carrying empties in and the other full tubs out. At right angles to this main road are the “gates” to the faces, smaller tunnels about 6ft wide leading to the face. Often a mile or more long these house the belt conveyor which transports the coal from the face to the main road where it is filled into the empty tubs.
It was my job to patrol this gate, keeping the belt clear of spillages or roof falls etc, as the friction of the rubber belt rubbing against anything for too long was likely to cause a fire or explosion.
It was a lonely existence, apart from the mice, friendly creatures with short bodies and very long tails, you saw very few people, the under-manager and also the deputy would make their rounds but you could usually see them coming by their lamp and make sure that you were working hard as they passed by.
With the war now over and men being demobbed from the services we were very concerned that no arrangements were being made for our own discharge. Our requests for clarification were stonewalled by the relative departments who merely replied that no arrangements had yet been made and it took many representations to our M.Ps to arrange for the matter to be raised in Parliament. Our champion was Flight Lt. Teeling the conservative MP for Brighton who put our case very fairly in what subsequently turned out to be quite a hostile atmosphere.
The government admitted that they could not see the possibility of release for quite a time as there was still a desperate need for coal and many of the ex miners now returning home from the services were refusing to re-enter the industry and finding other jobs. Many of the labour members argued that it was an honour to work in such an industry and to earn ones living by the sweat of ones brow and in any case now that the mines were being nationalised all would be well in the future! Others of course agreed that you could not rely on forced labour in peace time and at the end of a three hour debate the government conceded that Bevin Boys would be released in the same groupings as if they had served in the Army, - but without any of the recognition given to members of the armed forces...... ..no gratuities demob suits or medals, no free travel warrants to return home, no re-training facilities, no automatic re-instatement to previous employment, and no claims for disablement or disability pensions to be considered.
In 1947 the mines were nationalised, the pit top was tidied up, flower beds were created, a ceremony was held on the Sunday to celebrate, bands played, speeches were made, banners unfurled, and a plaque unveiled on the pit top proclaiming that "This colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people" so imagine after all this rejoicing the dismay of the miners to find on the Monday morning that things were unchanged, - management and conditions were as before.
But things did begin to improve, money became available for pit props, proper steel archways for the roads and gates, first aid facilities were introduced, and even eventually a five day week.
In due course I was allocated a demob number and should have been released towards the end of 1947 but fate again intervened, for owing to the terrible weather earlier in the year the government were frightened of a re-occurrence of the chaos that had reigned, and suspended all releases until the spring.
It was a sober occasion, I said farewell to my mining workmates, I think they were genuinely sorry to see us go as we gradually departed from their midst, - after some initial hostility they soon realised that we did not want to be there, were not after their jobs, and were making the best of a difficult situation, and in fact they came to appreciate the views of an outside world to what had previously been a fairly tight, closed community.
I finished work on the Friday, handed in my lamp for the last time, and then on the Monday collected my cards and final wages from the pit office, checked out of the hostel, caught the train home and a week later started work at my old job.
Although we hated every minute of it we made many friends and experienced a way of life quite alien to our own experiences......... without doubt by taking over the more mundane jobs in the pit we released more skilled men to concentrate on winning the coal the Country so desperately needed.
We were lucky, we were not shot at, torpedoed, or made to suffer in a prison camp, but what did rancour was the lack of recognition ....... we were not conscientious objectors as many people still think today, we had no say in the matter and at times suffered humiliation because we had no uniform or badge to prove that we were not avoiding the armed services.
In 1989 the Chatterley Whitfield Mining Museum offered free admission on a certain date to ex Bevin Boys as a publicity promotion and to their surprise about 50 attended and from this reunion a National Association has developed which has campaigned to obtain some recognition for the part we played in the war. This resulted in Bevin Boys being officially recognised in speeches made by the Queen, the Prime Minister, and the speaker of the House of Commons in their addresses to mark the 50th. Anniversary of VE day, and within the last few years we have been allowed to be represented at the cenotaph on remembrance Sunday, - a source of great pride to us all.