14 January 2006
Working At Hemsworth Colliery As A Bevin Boy
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by
Stan Tate. This user did not write any autobiographical information about him/herself while the site was active.
The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
Contributed by Michael Short
People in story: Michael Short
Location of story: HEMSWORTH YORKSHIRE
Background to story: Civilian
Article ID: A8528286
When I finished my training at Askern Colliery, I was instructed to report to Hemsworth Colliery the following Monday to start work there. I was given a travel pass and told to get a bus to Castleford, a distance of about ten miles, where the Miner’s Hostel was situated, and where I was going to be my home for the future. The hostel was much the same pattern of the one at Bentley, Nissan huts all linked together with corridors.
The first two weeks working at Hemsworth colliery were spent on the surface. Being January, it was bitterly cold, with snow and ice everywhere. I was helping in the sawmill where the pit props were cut to the correct length. My job was to bring them from the yard into the sawmill on a trolley. The props were frozen solid and stuck together. It was difficult to prize them apart, and it was extremely uncomfortable and heavy work moving them and carrying them on to the trolley. For those two weeks, I was working the afternoon shift, from 2.00 pm until 10.00 pm. It was dark long before the shift was finished and even colder. Inside the sawmill it was quite warm as there was a wood-burning stove there, so I could thaw out from time to time. The sawyer was very kindly and realised that I was unused to heavy work so he wasn’t too hard on me. I was able to sit inside and chat to him when he was having a breather. Although I was not sorry to get underground, where at least, it was warmer.
When I started to work underground, I worked on the morning shift starting at 6.00 am. The night watchman came to each dormitory at 4.15 am to wake up the early shift workers. On the top of the locker by your bed, you wrote in chalk the time that you needed to be woken up. Then into the dining hall for breakfast and then on to the special bus waiting outside at 5.00 am to take us all to work.
When I arrived at the pit at about 5.30 am, I first went to the locker room in the pit-head baths, to take off my outdoor clothes, put them in the locker and then walk around with a towel round my waist, through the baths to the other side where my work clothes were in another locker. These I put on and then went to the lamp house, with a tally with my registered number on it, I handed in the tally and collected a lamp. The idea being that the tally keepers always knew who was in the mine. The lamps were a battery type, and were very heavy. Only the Deputy carried a safety lamp.
Having collected my lamp, I went towards the pit shaft and queued up awaiting a space in the next cage. I was frisked to make sure that I was not carrying any matches or other inflammable material. You crowded into the next available cage, and it was usually quite a crush Without warning the floor beneath you suddenly dropped and down you went with it, leaving your stomach behind!
At the end of each shift, the procedure was reversed, reaching the surface; I handed in my lamp and collected my tally, which was always kept in the locker until they next day. The next thing to do when arriving on the surface was to have a shower to get off the grim from the pit. I came up completely black from head to foot. The showers were extremely efficient. The water was very hot and it took a bit of time to adjust it to the right temperature. The cubicles of the showers were open and the only way to get your back clean was to ask the chap in the next cubicle to wash it for you. Likewise he would ask you to do his back. Shower gel was unheard of, so you just used old-fashioned soap and flannel.
The mine was about half a mile below ground, but you were down in a very short while. Towards the pit bottom the cage slowed up and with a bit of a bump you hit the ground. The pit bottom was rather like a cathedral, extremely high and arched. That was the best bit of the mine. It was also well lit with electric lamps around the walls.
When I got to the pit bottom I reported to the Deputy of the district where I was allocated to work. The stables, where the ponies were housed, were at the pit bottom and as my job was that of a pony driver, I collected my pony, named Albert, and we set off to the district to start work. Albert was highly strung and had a bad reputation of being awkward. I always thought that the difficult ponies were allocated to the Bevin Boys and the local lads had the more controllable ponies. The district of the mine was extremely hot. I only wore a pair of shorts, my miner’s helmet, socks and my safety boots. The shorts I took off from time to time to squeeze the perspiration out of them.
Nobody was allowed to walk down the main haulage road, as it was too dangerous, because tubs of coal were always likely to speed past you, and there was very little room to get out of their way. You had to walk around the back away from the haulage road in some of the old workings of the pit. When you left the pit bottom there was no more light so you had to rely on your own lamp to see anything.
The pony driver’s job entailed taking empty tubs pulled by the pony to the coal seam. These were filled up with coal by the miners working there and when full were brought out from the seam to the haulage road. From there the tubs were connected to the moving wire hawser, which took them to the pit bottom. Part of the job was to connect the tubs to the hawser, which was not always very easy and could be quite dangerous.
If you were lucky, the pony could be persuaded to pull four full ones. Sometimes it was a battle of wills and the ponies could be very stubborn. From time to time the tubs came off the rails so it was the driver’s job to get them back on. That could be quite difficult, as they were very heavy, but there were ways and means. Usually it meant locking the rear wheels and with a great deal of effort, lifting up the other end on to the rails. Bear in mind that there was practically no space alongside the tub, so things could be extremely difficult. No wonder you had to do all those press ups in the PE training!
All the coal was cut by hand; there were no machines in Hemsworth Colliery as the roof was too unsafe. The height of the coal seam was only 3 feet. Occasionally a bit of the roof would fall in. You knew it was about to happen because you could hear the pit props creaking when extra pressure from above was put on them. I had several scars on my shoulders where pieces of rock fell on them. I always wore my pit helmet, so that was one precaution I always took. Away from the seam the height was about 5 feet, so it was impossible to stand upright anywhere.
You were allowed 20 minutes in the day to have your ‘snap’ as the sandwiches were called. These were given to you before you left the hostel and usually were of cheese.
They were kept in a ‘snap’ tin in the hope that they would keep fresh. It was usual to sit together on the ground, with the other miners at the edge of the seam to have your break. You always had a tin water bottle containing two pints of water, which was filled before you left the surface. By the end of the shift, the water was quite warm and not very appetising, but it was better than nothing. By the end of the shift the bottle was always empty.
In spite of the difficult start with Albert, the pony, I gradually got his confidence and we became very friendly. He would do more for me than he had done for any of the previous pony drivers. The other were quite amazed that I got so much work done with him. Probably something to do with a bit of kindness, which was usually lacking with the local lads who were drivers. They tended to treat the ponies rather cruelly.
The miners on the whole didn’t think much of the Bevin Boys. Not surprising really as most of us had never done any manual work before. We were there because we were conscripted and a lot of us were not very suitable. The local lads left school at 14 and went straight into the pits, because their fathers and grandfathers had done, and there was no other work in the area. They were more acclimatised to the way of life. The Deputy who was in charge of my district and I certainly didn’t get on at first. One occasion, he let off steam and his language was certainly ‘blue’, and he carried on for many minutes, telling me how useless I was. I was very annoyed with this, to say the least, so I ‘let rip’ and answered him back in much the same way as he spoke to me. After that he hardly ever told me off again. I suppose I got his respect.
The war in Europe finished on 8th May 1945 and I heard the announcement on the wireless at 9.00 pm the previous evening. It was also announced that the next two days would be public holidays. I decided that being in Yorkshire was not the place to be, so I decided to make for London and home. I hurriedly packed my small case and made for the bus stop to take me to the train and back to London.
What a journey that was! I got the bus to Sheffield to catch the midnight train. That didn’t arrive until an hour later. When it came it was completely full. I managed to struggle in and sat on my small case. I think the train stopped at every halt and station on the way. At each stop, more and more people got in, very often through the windows! I have never known such a crush! I had a bit of fortune as we approached London. The train was held up at a signal at Cricklewood station, near to where I lived. I called out that I wanted to get out and was carried high above the heads of the crush and out through a window and I was home very shortly afterwards. I was very fortunate to be able to join the celebrations in central London on VE night and walked home at about 4.00am.
After the two days holiday, or I may have made it a couple of extras, I went back to Yorkshire to resume my mining career. A lot of the boys had disappeared to their homes and never returned to the hostel. I went back to work, but like most of us, we were not very enthusiastic in working in the mine. I carried on until one day in late July 1945. It must have been a Saturday. I was at the end of the shift, which on a Saturday finished at 12.00 noon and I had just taken the last run of empty tubs into the coalface. All the miners had gone, so I was on my own. Suddenly I heard a terrible rumble and the cracking of pit props. I knew the tell-tell signs and without much more warning, a huge amount of the roof collapsed very close to me. Albert, the pony, also heard the noise and he was gone. I tried to hang on to him, but he was too strong to hold. I started running as fast as I could, being very careful not to hit my head on the low roof. Suddenly my lamp went out. So there I was in the pitch black. I caught up with Albert at one of the fire doors and we went through. I still found that he was to quick for me and he went off. I couldn’t get the lamp alight, so I had to scramble on my hands and knees all the way to the pit bottom in the dark, a distance of about two miles. Not a very pleasant experience. I found Albert again waiting to get into the stables at pit bottom, so I let him in. That experience was enough for me. I decided to do all I could to be released from the coal mining industry, which I did and was medically discharged in November 1945.
07 August 2005
Memories of Pit Props and Ponies
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.
Contributed by Jackie Ashman
People in story: George Frederick Heard
Location of story: Bristol, Blackwood in Monmouthshire
Background to story: Civilian Force
Article ID: A4857663
I joined the Port Bristol Authority as a junior clerk during 1943. I dreamed of joining the Royal Air Force at 18, so I joined the Air Training Corps (ATC) in Bristol at the age of seventeen and a half. At this time I applied to the RAF Air/Sea Rescue service, but while waiting for the call-up it was discovered that my eyesight was not good enough.
It was then, on 24th July 1944, that I received my call-up papers for ‘Ministry of Labour — National Service Emergency Powers’ document for one month’s training at Blackwood in Monmouthshire. This was for coal mining. It was instant, I was now an Ernest Bevin Boy; you were chosen by a ballot, which was done in a monthly draw and was decided on the last digit on your National Registration number.
The Emergency Powers had come in during December 1943, when it had been realised that only three weeks’ supply of coal remained, and they had to bring in these ‘Desperate Measures’. There were no exclusions: in fact, there were 500 prosecutions for refusal to comply, and of these 147 were imprisoned. In two years of the scheme, 22,000 were called to the mines.
At first I went to Oakdale Government Training Centre in Monmouthshire for four weeks. This was ‘playing at coal mines’; we learned the physical side, the safety side, the classroom side. That seemed OK to me; I thought: ‘it could be worse’. And it was!
From this training we went directly to Penallta Colliery on 29th August 1944. I was on the
Two to ten shift, ‘thrown into the hole’, so to speak. It was absolute hell, and I wondered how long it was going to be for. I worked with experienced miners, but as they were on a bonus system, they were not too happy with me along.
The first 50 of you got into a cage to go down (about the height of a suspension bridge). It went down about the rate of 33 ft per second. The bottom was bright and well lit, but then there was a one mile walk through dark tunnels carrying a lamp, our ‘snap’ tin (food), and four pints of water, dressed in very old clothes and wearing a helmet. I was ready for a sit down, but we had seven hours of work ahead of us, and it started right away. I thought: ‘Will I last til 10 o’clock?’ and then, ‘and this, five days a week!’.
At the Coal Face
The system for conveying the coal from the coal face was called the Heading and Stall system, as opposed to the Conveyor Belt system. The miners broke coal down from the coal face while I was behind filling 10 cwt tubs by shovel and even by hand. Large lumps were preferred because there was most profit in them. The atmosphere was warm and dusty — we didn’t have masks. The pit ponies ran two to four trucks to the main Hallway, which was not far, and then the coal went by mechanical haulage to the pit bottom.
I didn’t see any other Bevin Boys at this pit face; they were scattered over eight miles of tunnels. Miners were paid on output, so there was little time for rest, and our lunch was eaten on the spot. You had to look out for rodents, and even pit ponies took your food if you were careless! There were no set toilet facilities, these were just ‘whenever, wherever’. The pit ponies were the miners’ best friend; if the lights failed, you just followed the ponies.
At the end of the shift you had to walk a mile back to the pit bottom. I was grateful that my coal seam was 6’7” high; some were much smaller. We went back up in the cage, and there was the bonus of pithead baths (built in 1938). Modesty had to be forgotten in the midst of 250 washing miners! We put on clean clothes after the bath to go home, but our dirty clothes were left in a locker, and washed infrequently.
We returned to the miners’ hostel — Nissen huts. Occasionally we went to the local Picture House; I remember seeing The Great Dictator. I went home every weekend by bus to Newport, by train to Ashley Hill station, and then walked to my parents’ home in Horfield. There was also a reluctance to go back on Sunday night (or Monday morning if I was on the two to ten shift). Although conscripted, I was still a civilian, earning a wage. Absenteeism was very high, including myself on occasion, though usually with a doctor’s note.
This was my life for 13 months from July 1944 to August 1945. At this time I was dismissed from the mines out of the blue. I assume this was on medical grounds, as I had given in a number of sick notes for colds, coughs, sore backs and so on.
A new Call-up
I was on the dole for two weeks, and reported to the Bristol Labour Exchange. Within two weeks I was called for a medical, which I passed A1! This was followed by a second call-up, this time for the army. No complaints here; I had got out of the mines, that was the main thing. Even the perk of extra soap and clothing coupons did not improve working in the coal mines.
I then served in the R.A.S.C., training at Colchester for six weeks, and then sent to India, Ceylon ( Sri Lanka), and Singapore, the eventual destination. The war was over by then, the Japanese had surrendered. This was from 1945 to November 1947, when I was demobbed when my de-mob number came up.
The Irony of Peacetime
The government had guaranteed all servicemen and women would be eligible to have their civilian jobs back after their Service. In my case this meant a guaranteed job back in the South Wales coalfield. This was not popular, as I had been only too pleased to get out of there in 1945!
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Stan Tate. This user did not write any autobiographical information about him/herself while the site was active. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
Contributed by Action Desk, BBC Radio Suffolk
People in story: Frederick Charles Page, Alfred Larkins (the late) and Eric Morecombe
Location of story: Notts Coal Fields
Background to story: Civilian
Article ID: A4485495
I will never forget the day my mum gave me the letter telling me I had been directed to work in the coal mines by the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin in February 1944. I said 'I'm not going down there' but when my Dad came home from work and read the letter he said 'you have got to go or the alternative is prison!'
Fifty-thousand of us had to go on a month's training in Creswell Colliery, in order to get you use to the cage, my colliery was Huchnell. No pit had showers, I went home filthy dirty on the bus. I was billeted at a place called Sutton in Ashfield. My job was uncoupling 15 to 20 tubs, then pushing them up to the loader end to be filled with coal. I distinctly remember saying to myself 'I'm not doing this anymore' and went home at about 3pm.
The very next day before going underground, the Deputy, with the overman said 'you don't go home until the coal face is clear', I told him that 'I am not doing this job anymore!'
I remember very well, walking away from the pit bottom and then sitting along side the Canaries. Not long after, the Deputy came up and shouted at me 'GET THESE ON !' and then threw me a pair of kneepads and a shovel and told me to come with him.
The roof was getting lower and I was soon on my knees, coal face three foot six.
I was very proud to be working alongside these very brave men, the miners.
One day, when 15 to 20 tubs had been filled with coal, the cable broke and brought the roof down, we could not get out.
When they made contact with the surface to tell them what had happened, the Deputy was told to get us out through the new workings.
We managed to get out okay but we had to swim most of the way out, there was so much water which was very frightening as the water came up to our face.
I was promoted to work on the loader end, but I was soon injured because of a faulty belt, and it was impossible to stop the coal falling on top of me.
I was taken into the miners wing at Mansfield Hospital and from there I was discharged from the mines aproximately January 1945.
I met Eric Morecombe, (then Eric Bartolomew), who was also working in the mines, in the miners club, he was working in another pit which I believe was Gelding.
I met him again when he was entertaining, and I kept in touch with his widow after his death. I am still in touch with Alfie Larkins, a colleague who lives in Norwich.
Approximately three months after my discharge from the mines I was conserifted into the army.
Thereby hangs another story which BBC television are already working on.