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Bevin Boys - Ernest Bevin 1881 - 1951
Bevin Boy's Association
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Neal Wreford
18 April 2005
A Bevin Boy Remembers

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.



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threecountiesaction
18 August 2005
Kathleen Peacock My War 1939 to 1946

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: Kathleen Peacock (Nee Slade) Joan Silk (Nee Cooper) Ron Peacock (Deceased) Alfred Slade (Deceased)
Location of story: Willesdon, London
Article ID: A5183750


I was 13 when the war broke out. On the Sunday morning after the announcement I was taking a neighbour’s baby out for a walk pushing a pram. All of a sudden a siren went off, the neighbours came rushing around to find me, in a car. We took the baby and left the pram. Everyone was scared but it was a false alarm. 1939 was an anti-climax, everyone called it the phoney war. The first thing I remember was being issued with a gas mask, which we had to carry everywhere. All the windows had to have blackout material so that lights could not be seen outside. There was the home guard that had to check at night that no light was showing anywhere. Air raid wardens were introduced and my father volunteered, although we did have a corner shop that he worked in during the day and was on duty at night. They had a specially equipped shed in different areas around; they had all the amenities. The air raid wardens were at first resented because nothing had yet happened. If it was very quiet they were called ‘wasters’ and ‘slackers’. Everybody did what they were told and go on with their lives. A lot of men were put on building shelters in parks and streets. Street lamps were off; thick white lines were painted on kerbs and lampposts to help people see at night, it was very scary as there were quite a lot of accidents. Then started the evacuation of children to the country. Some children went to Canada. I didn’t go, as my parents wanted me to stay with them. I was happy to stay. Some of the children were unhappy and came home, as they were not treated well.

1940

The war really started, my school was bombed so we could not go to school. The swimming pool near where I lived was bombed. I was 14 in the April of that year, although there wasn’t any schooling so I could not leave officially for three months as Easter term came early. I did have a job to go to. I finally went to work in an office and did rationing for the 39 Bishops stores. Their rations had to be carefully checked with the food office. As my father owned a shop, after work I used to sort out all the coupons and keep a check on all that came in and went out. It was tedious job and not helped by the sirens going all night. We did not have a shelter so we slept under the table or piano. Friday night seemed to be our target night, some people had shelters in their gardens or a Morrison shelter indoors, and eventually we used our neighbours shelter outdoors. That was an Anderson shelter. There were not many buses where I worked as I had to walk, then my mother bought me a utility bicycle and so I was able to ride to work. Unfortunately as the bombing got worse during the day, I was often blown off my bike. Luckily I missed the traffic going by. There wasn’t a lot to do in those days as everything was closed down. Coventry was the first bad bombing November 14th 1940. Christmas Boxing Day 1940 we had a real Blitz. Two land mines fell on our road, one each side and I lost a lot of friends. It was really terrifying. Also it was a very cold winter, everything was frozen, we had to get water from pumps outside. All the windows were blown out and boards, also brown paper, were soon put up. Our upstairs collapsed and we lost everything.

I was very upset, as at 7 years old I was learning Ballet, getting trained for the future. I also did other dancing and did concerts and at that time after years of training we were going to Pantomime. I had passed exams and was so happy doing something I loved, but that Boxing Day I lost all my lovely costumes and of course everything was cancelled, which I still regret to this day, 2003. After the mine episode I collected all the children to clear things up. I will never forget the terrible winter of 1940.

Anyway, my social life didn’t stop as the bombing quietened down and people tried to get as back to normal as they could. A dancing club started up and my cousin came with me one evening a week to learn to Waltz, Foxtrot, Quickstep etc. On Sunday afternoons they held a dance to try out our steps, for which we paid 2/6. We always used to go together as we still had the blackout to contend with and I had a very dark churchyard to walk through which was a bit frightening at times. There were quite a lot of teenagers going to the club called ‘The Relver’ and very friendly. I met my future husband there but didn’t know it at the time. When I was 16 things in the country were very bad, food was scarce so everywhere there was land it was all put down to growing vegetables, girls were being called up for the land army and conscription came in for the men, I was in a safe job at this time.

I remember going to a dance on November 11th. It was in aid of the war effort. Ron was there with his mates; I was with my cousin Joan. It was a lovely evening and I danced with Ron. He asked me out to the cinema and we went to see ‘Gone with the Wind’ and from then we started going out together.

One tried to look nice but 66 coupons a year did not go far, all the clothes were utility and not very good, stocking were awful I think this is why amongst other things that women began wearing trousers, especially in the Winter. I had always been a knitter so I managed to knit jumpers etc but wool needed coupons also but we managed the best we could. Soap was rationed so we had to be very economical and to bath only a small amount of water was allowed. Ron was a sheet metal worker making bomb doors, so we saw a lot of each other as each day counted. He had to do fire watching at the factory some nights. We had Incendiary Bombs at night, Buzz Bombs, Molotov Baskets and Rockets. In those times there were not any sirens, they came out silently. One could see them, but wondered where they would drop. My mother and I lied in our bed and saw the first one go over. It fell near where I used to work in Neasden; two of my friends escaped it. The rocket would shake the ground as you were walking in the street. It was an awful feeling, as one wondered where it had fallen.

When the Americans entered the war it caused a lot of trouble, they thought every women fell for their charms, other men out fighting the war, were worried about their girlfriends and wives because the yanks had plenty of money and could get anything one wanted. Silk stockings were a good bribe.

Ron and I were walking arm in arm in London and I felt myself being pulled away. One of the yanks was trying to get me away from Ron. I told him what I thought of him and pushed him away. I stayed clear of them after that, it just wasn’t right, they were here to help in the war not pinch other men’s property.

We got on with our lives; Ron brought his friends to my house we could play cards or darts; my Mum always gave us supper. When Ron was 18 he was called up under the Bevin Scheme to go down with the mines so off he went to a hostel in Ramsill. He wasn’t at all happy in the pits, 3,000 feet down; the mine was in a village called Bircotes near Doncaster. They were not treated very well. The pay wasn’t like the army. They didn’t get leave, had to buy all their own pit gear and were only allowed to come home in the month’s fortnight, which they had every summer. We got engaged and because Ron’s mother was worried about him, she wanted us to get married and me to go up to Bircotes to look after him; but we had to get permission because we were under age. My father wasn’t happy at first but he like Ron like a son. After a month of thought, he gave his consent. I felt sorry for him as being his only one of going away.

The German’s had surrendered so we got married June 3rd 1945, it was a Sunday. On the Saturday there were street celebrations and everyone was excited. Because of rationing it was hard, but friends and neighbours helped out with the food. My mother was a good cook and did everything for herself. She hired a hall; people gave clothing, coupons to help with dresses for bridesmaids. We had three very plain materials but someone made them, I wore my friends wedding dress, her husband Eric was best man. We were married at St. Mary’s Church, Willesden, which wasn’t far from where we lived. Someone got a car as petrol was rationed but the chauffeur gave me a ride around the streets. Then I had to walk through the churchyard to the church. Being underage we had a sermon from the vicar but a lovely service (as I attended St.Mary’s school from the age of 5 until 11). We had a lovely meal and a party; it was a very hot day. Ron had broken his arm a few weeks before and the plaster came of the week before the wedding. We didn’t have a honeymoon, we went straight up to Bircotes as Ron had to report back and we had a room in the village. I liked the village life; the only thing was that the miners were not very nice to us. They showed their dislike of the Bevin Boys. I got friendly with a family. They came from Nottingham and were very kind to us. Molly their eldest daughter used to go out with me and we became good friends. We celebrated VJ night with them. We had to come home on our first anniversary as Ron was taken ill, they thought he had TB but luckily it wasn’t. He had to have a medical but Bevin Boys after the mines had to do two years national service. Anyway, he didn’t pass the medical and they said he should never have gone in the mines because of his ears. It took 6 months before he was fit again. We stayed with my Mum; we had no money; not like the army, it never gave compensations. Even wives never got an allowance, which I think was unfair.

This is only a glimpse of my war. Such a lot of things happened that one could just not talk about, the horror of losing friends so young. This year 2003, I was glad to see the land girls get their medals and be recognised for all their hard work. I would have been one of them, but got married instead. It is about time the Bevin Boys got their rewards and recognition of what they went through. They didn’t get a uniform or badge and got insulted by people asking why they were not in the forces.

RATIONS AVERAGE 1941

  • Bacon and ham 4oz
  • Cooking fats,
  • Cheese 1oz
  • Sugar 8oz
  • Meat (rationed by points)
  • Butter 2oz

Plus 16 points a month for other rationed foods subject to availability


Pit Terminology - Glossary