The Bevin Boys who became men
After 65 years the contribution of the Bevin Boys, who were conscripted into Britain s coalmines during the Second World War, has been recognised as part of the war effort. The boys are now in their 80s but are to receive a badge of honour. ANGELA SINGE
After 65 years the contribution of the Bevin Boys, who were conscripted into Britain's coalmines during the Second World War, has been recognised as part of the war effort. The 'boys' are now in their 80s but are to receive a badge of honour. ANGELA SINGER spoke to Jeff Wilson who was enlisted into the mines at 17.
JEFF Wilson said he was totally shattered and disgusted when the letter arrived in 1943 telling him that he was to become a Bevin Boy.
"I was disheartened. I was hoping to go in the RAF. I had had four years as a cadet in the Air Training Corps and I had set my heart on it. I went to the registration office and pleaded my case but they wouldn't listen. My hopes of joining the RAF went down the pan."
Mr Wilson, now 82 and living in Glatton Hall Residential Home, Glatton, said it also broke his mother's heart. "I had always suffered with a weak chest and she had looked after me. The coal dust went on my chest and made me ill. It broke her heart that did."
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Like the rest of his fellow miners, Mr Wilson said he was glad that the Bevin Boys were finally to receive some recognition and he would be happy to have the badge.
Ironically, many of the general public thought that the Bevin Boys were conscientious objectors to the war or dodging armed service, when they were conscripted like everyone else.
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The programme of sending some conscripts into the mines instead of into the armed forces was named after Ernest Bevin, the Labour Minister for Labour and National Service.
The essential service carried out by career miners had been unappreciated at the beginning of the war and miners were called up for military service, like other working men. By mid 1943, the coal mines had lost an estimated 36,000 workers.
As Britain became desperate for coal, the conscription scheme was launched by Bevin and the Bevin Boys name was created.
Bevin said: "We need 720,000 men continuously employed in this industry. This is where you boys come in. Our fighting men will not be able to achieve their purpose unless we get an adequate supply of coal."
The young Mr Wilson was sent from Huntingdonshire to the Ollerton pit in Nottinghamshire.
In theory, the conscripts were given training but all Mr Wilson can remember of it was being given a shovel and told to move coal from one pile to another.
"That's all it was." He added: "I wasn't frightened or scared, but it wasn't a very nice job. I had a specific job to clear the tracks of fallen coal so the tubs could roll along the rails. One day a huge lump of coal fell down and narrowly missed me. It would have hit me square on but a loader further along the track saw it and shouted at me to move and it just missed me. If it hadn't have been for him, I would have been knocked flat on my back."
He added: "It was a long, long walk underground to the coal face - two and a half miles - and this was on top of your eight-hour shift. We used to ride on the wagons. You weren't allowed to do that - you would get fined 2d if you were caught but we did it anyway."
After five months underground, he was conscripted into the Army, serving in Egypt in the Royal Army Ordinance Corps.
Having survived the pit unscathed, he was injured in Egypt climbing out of a ration wagon. His signet ring got caught on a tarpaulin hook and he slipped and lost a finger.
After the war, Mr Wilson, who grew up in Great Stukeley, returned home to work for the then Huntingdon Borough Council as a mechanic in the depot
He met his wife Vera, the daughter of the town's mace-bearer, John Hurst, ballroom dancing in Huntingdon Town Hall. They married in 1956. Vera died in 1998.
Mr Wilson's application for the Bevin Boy Badge has been sent off by his friend, Frank Lunn who also lives in Glatton Hall.
Frank, originally from Eber Vale, was a German teacher at Huntingdon Grammar School from 1950 to 1980. His wife, Lorraine taught biology there.
Frank said: "Working in a mine is not an enviable job and it is high time that the Bevin Boys received some recognition.