By late 1943 it had become clear to the War Cabinet that there was a problem in the Mining Industry. The Minister of Labour, Mr Ernest Bevin, was directed by Winston Churchill to find a solution - urgently.
Mr Bevin’s Secretary. He’d made a mistake, that’s for sure. Up all night they were debating and arguing. “I certainly wouldn’t like to be in their boots” I remarked to my daughter. “All those important decisions.” It’s bad enough having to type them up and pretend I haven’t noticed what they are. “Type this up Mrs C – now if you please.” he’d say, and I’d say “Very good, Mr. Bevin”, and move one of yesterdays top priority documents to the medium priority tray, making room for the latest top priority one. It was like that in the war - changing all the time. But this one beat them all.
I knew something was going on after I’d heard him talking on the telephone to a junior minister. “Never gave it a thought” he said, brushing cigar ash from off of his waistcoat. “Well, they were all so keen to get a bit of the action, weren’t they?” As if that was an excuse. I mean, did he think the coal was going to mine itself? He just simply hadn’t thought it through at the start. No miners. No coal. It isn’t that he hadn’t tried to fix it before, but nobody wanted to do the job. And who could blame them? National Emergency he called it and locked himself away with Winston and sons all night.
The next morning he met me at the door as I was taking off my hat and coat. “Ethel” he said. He had that voice on him that meant he wanted something. Usually it was a little “white lie” to get him out of a luncheon with some minor Peer or other. He wasn’t a tolerant man – no time for the silver-spoon-fed as he called them. “Ethel, my dear,” he repeated, unctuous as you please, “May I borrow your hat?” And, without waiting for my response he simply took it out of my hands. “Ah yes, that will do very well” he said, turning it upside down and dropping a little ball of paper into it. “Very well indeed.” I said nothing, but inside I was thinking “Well really! That’s my best hat and you’re treating it like a waste paper basket.” But I smiled and said, “Of course, Mr Bevin.” He was a most persuasive gentleman. “Do you mind me asking for what purpose….?” I called after him as he manoeuvred his bulk through the doorway, carrying my hat in his hands as if it held the crown jewels. “You’ll see” he said cheerily. And there it was on my desk. “Mining Problem. Solved.”
The letter was on the table at breakfast. Mother had already opened it, and was looking a little wet around the eyes. My heart was beating faster than usual as I unfolded the letter. I wondered whether it would be the Army or the Navy, and hoped against hope it wouldn’t be the mines. It was in all the papers and on the radio. “ Bevin Saves The Day.” “New Conscripts To Man The Mines.” And there it was in front of me. My worst fears realised. “Mum,” I said, “I’m going to be a Bevin Boy.” “I know,” she said and burst into tears.
“You’ll go down in history, Mrs C,” he said. “But I can’t.” I said, thinking of all those poor young men, and I thanked the good Lord my George was safely away with the Marines..
Training was a bit of a joke. 3 weeks of physical jerks to build your muscles up, a couple of hours on safety in the mines and off we all went to our respective Collieries. I was sent to Hazelrig Colliery, just outside Newcastle. Well at least I got to stay at home, but that was only because it cost the Government less!
He cajoled me into doing his dirty work with the promise of a modest pay rise. 10 digits – 0-9 - in a hat (mine!) with muggins choosing the numbers. Mr Bevin’s brilliant solution to the mining problem - decided no doubt over a few too many ports with Mr Churchill and boys. It was this. All men whose national service number ended in 1 of the 2 numbers chosen by me, had to go down the mines whether he liked it or not. There were to be no exceptions. From public schoolboy – and this bit filled him with glee - to the poorest labourer, It was down the mines or go to prison. It all seemed so unfair. And I told him so in no uncertain terms!.
My job was on Haulage – the equipment that moved the tubs around in the mine. I stood at the bottom of the cage-shaft pushing the tubs into the cage. The cage, which was a one up one down affair, had two decks. You also had to go down in it to work. I preferred the top deck. It was much more comfortable. At least you could stand up, whereas those in the bottom deck had to crouch.
And so it went on - every month for nigh on 2 years. Out of my hat! “I’ll buy you another” he said. “But I like this one” I said, pulling out September’s digits as if it were a lucky dip. 5, and - I swished the paper around a bit - 8. I sighed. “There go another 1000 young men - doomed to the dark.” Some lucky dip, I muttered, turning back to my desk.
There were 2 shifts – 2 to 9 and 9 to 5 – like office hours really, but even though you were underground your mental clock always knew the time. It was pretty grim, and many of us were coughing up coal dust all weekend. But I made the most of my free time. I joined the Colliery Band for a while. First I had a go at the trumpet and then on the euphonium. I also enjoyed going to dances, because an 18 year old likes to meet the girls. But it wasn’t easy to get a girl interested in you because we had no badges, no uniform – nothing to show them who we were. No heroic tales of daring deeds. Nothing. They thought we were conscientious objectors, so they wouldn’t have anything to do with us. I got used to being a wallflower. But I enjoyed my dancing lessons!
Then to crown it all he said their jobs would not be kept open for them at the end of the war! Ooh, it made me so cross! But by this time I’d learnt to button my mouth. He’d made it quite clear that there’d be no job for me if I didn’t tow the line, so, after that, I kept my opinions well and truly to myself
I missed my job. I’d been a Radio technician, working for Rediffusion. I was really passionate about radio and loved my job. In the war years radios weren’t regularly available, so Rediffusion invented a way to give more people a chance to hear it by arranging cables between houses and a sub-station It was so exciting being part of the latest invention.
At last it was over. “You can have your hat back now Mrs C” he said, and he handed me back my once beautiful hat – now shabby and dusty from its spate of war-work. “No thankyou, Mr. Bevin” I said frostily, as I dropped it into the waste paper basket. “It’s no longer the fashion.”
At the end of the war I went to get my old job back, but they had no vacancies, so I wrote round to all the radio manufacturers, but it was Murphy’s in Welwyn Garden City who offered me a position, which I held for many years. I was one of the lucky ones.
I used to hope no-one would ask what I did in the war, because there was a stigma attached to being just a Bevin Boy. We were simply of no consequence. Not until 1998 were we allowed to march with the others on Remembrance Day. But we’d had no choice. From the beginning of 1944 to the end of the war 47,859 young men were conscripted to the mines. We are known as “The Forgotten Army.”