Sixty years ago, with the world at war, when young men like me came of age they expected to serve King and Country in the armed services — not to end up down a coal mine.
During 1943 there was a worsening crisis in the coal mines. Demand for coal was rising and production falling. Many miners had left the industry to join the armed forces earlier in the war, and few were prepared to return. Various schemes were introduced to increase manpower, without much success, until, at the end of 1943, the Government decided to divert conscripts into the mines. 10% (initially 20%) of all conscripts would go into the mines. 22,000 men in all were eventually chosen by selection of those whose registration numbers ended in zero. They became known as ‘Bevin Boys’ after the then Minister of Labour and National Service, Ernest Bevin.
On 11 November 1943, just before my 18th birthday, I had my medical and interview for the armed forces. At the conscription office on City Road, Newcastle, I opted for the Royal Navy and was issued with a registration number: 10550. I was told I would most likely be off to war, or at least training for it, by Christmas - my mother cried, I will always remember that. I was waiting for my papers when the Ministry of Labour announced the scheme. Within a few days, I received the dreaded news that I had been among the first to be ‘balloted’. I appealed, as did so many others, but I don’t know anyone who was successful. I tried everything, even arguing that, at over 6 ft, I was too tall to go underground, but to no avail. I either went down the mines or I went to jail. I thought it was the end of the world.
After four weeks’ training at Annfield Plain, I was sent to Houghton le Spring Colliery, where I started on 6 June 1944, D-Day. After working on the surface for two weeks, I went underground to work on a large haulage landing about a mile from the pit bottom, about 600ft below ground. No prospect of medals, not even a sight of the enemy, for me.
It was a tremendous shock, both physically and mentally. I at least lived in a mining area but I found myself alongside a farm hand from Cumbria and Peter French, a commercial artist from Essex. Although it broke my heart at the time, looking back I feel on balance it did me more good than service in the Navy. It made me realise what hard work was all about and let me see ‘the other side of the coin’. More importantly, it made me focus on what I was going to do in life and, towards the latter part of my service, I got down to my accountancy studies. I worked five or six 7½hr shifts plus 10 minutes ‘winding time’ and was studying for a minimum of 20hrs a week. How I managed such a burden and still, I recall, seemed to lead a normal life, I cannot now understand.
As Houghton le Spring was my home town, hostel accommodation was, very fortunately, not required but conditions underground were not pleasant. There was a minimum of clothing and a lot of sweating; I can clearly remember, on two or three occasions, sweat got into my eyes and my mouth. But I gradually adapted to the surroundings and the various work tasks. I learned to live with a black face and in a foul atmosphere, with the constant smell of ‘powder reek’. I recall, for the first few weeks, I suffered severely from cramp in my legs, but I don’t know the reason for this. There were some compensating factors too - constant temperatures (winter and summer) and, surprisingly, a lot of humour and general bon homie. The humour of the men I worked with then can still crease me up with laughter now.
While I was in the mines, a guaranteed minimum wage was awarded which was £5 per week for those 21 and over, with lower rates, understandably, for those younger. About that time there was an outcry when MPs gave themselves a rise to £500 per year. Our Under Manager, surprisingly, told me his salary - it was £600 per year. Face workers were paid a piecework rate — so much per score of tubs. However, a score was not 20 but 21. The extra tub was said to cover the cost of free coal to the miners and their rent allowance/free house. By local agreement, the piecework rate was one shilling (5p) per 8cwt of coal filled. A full tub weighed 13 cwt altogether, including 8 cwt of coal.
There was a throughput of 600-700 full (13 cwt) tubs of coal on each of three shifts and an equal number of empty (5 cwt) tubs going the other way. All of these had to be either coupled or uncoupled. Safety rules were often not practical for quick working and were ignored. You gradually got to know, often the hard way, where real caution was required.
I remember the ever-present dangers. Bruisings and scrapes were commonplace but during my 3½yr service there were three fatalities, as well as many serious accidents amongst the 1,000 or so employees. Just before my release, I almost became the fourth. I was riding into the mine in an empty tub and the part of the 72-tub set that I was in overturned sideways (into guide rails, rollers and props). I couldn’t get out of the tub in the few seconds that I had. By almost superhuman endeavour, pressing hard with my feet, I was able miraculously to keep within the tub. Otherwise, I would have been torn to shreds. Fortunately, 50-100 yds round the curve, one of the tubs bounced upwards and caught a girder. That gave an indication to the main and tail haulage engineman ½ a mile away that something was wrong, and he stopped the set. After I got out of the tub, I realised how unbelievably lucky I had been to survive. I was extremely shaken. The back of my right hand was lacerated, so off I went home. Riding in a tub was strictly forbidden and ironically that was the first (and understandably the last) time I ever did it.
If I had gone into the Navy, I would have been demobbed after about two years, but our release date was linked to the Army, so my service was actually 3½yrs. By then, I just accepted it. I thought about a work colleague who had volunteered for the Air Force as air crew. He lost his life on his fifth trip, just a little after his 20th birthday.
It was in October 1947 that I was released and returned to my previous employment in a chartered accountants’ office. Shortly after, I obtained my qualifications and eventually became a partner in the small Newcastle office. The firm, RMT, is still there in Newcastle but at least 60 times larger than when I joined.
The Bevin Boys Association was formed about ten years ago and I attend the twice-yearly reunions with great pleasure. It was through the Association that I made contact again with Peter French and other conscripts briefly located at the same colliery. I walked with them past the Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Day with enormous pride in our shared experience.