BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 March 2008, 17:32 GMT
'Rough, tough' life of a Bevin Boy
By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has paid tribute to the Bevin Boys, who were conscripted as miners during the war. Warwick Taylor may have been a Bevin Boy, but at the time he certainly was not happy about it

Warwick Taylor
Warwick Taylor was called up as a Bevin Boy by ballot

"I went to register for National Service and expected to join the RAF, but the man said 'No you're not chum - you've been balloted'".

What that meant was that Mr Taylor's registration number had been literally pulled out of a bowler hat, and his life had changed forever.

By 1943 and with World War II raging on, the British government had conscripted some 36,000 of its coalminers into the armed forces, leaving the industry short of experience and manpower.

We all appealed, but it was no good, it just fell on deaf ears
Warwick Taylor

As a result, Labour politician Ernest Bevin, Minister for Labour and National Service, devised a plan that saw 48,000 so-called Bevin Boys conscripted to work down the nation's mines, with more than 20,000 of those selected randomly by the bowler-hatted ballot.

Mr Taylor, now 81, is vice-president of the Bevin Boys Association, which has 2,700 members. Like most of the other mining conscripts back in 1943, he was not happy with his lot.

He had signed up for the Air Training Corps as a schoolboy and served there for three-and-a-half years, in anticipation of joining the RAF.

"I was devastated. I said 'This is not on, I'm going to appeal'. We all appealed, but it was no good, it just fell on deaf ears."

Serious illness

There were 13 government centre collieries where the reluctant miners were trained, and Mr Taylor, then 18, was sent to Oakdale in South Wales.

His start to life as a Bevin Boy was quite eventful. The training, which was supposed to last four weeks, was extended to seven because of heavy snowfall.

But in the sixth week Mr Taylor contracted double pneumonia and was hospitalised.

"It made your hair fall out and I lost my girlfriend as a result, but it does grow back.

"I was taken to hospital by taxi, and on the way he picked up a lady who was about to give birth. There she was, in labour, and with me drifting in and out of consciousness. We must have made a right pair."

The horror of the war being fought in foreign lands was brought home to Mr Taylor as he lay on his sickbed, alongside five men who had been critically wounded in the fighting.

"That could have been me, I thought," as he reflected on how eager he was to join the RAF and see active service.

Bevin Boys running in uniform and helmets
These Bevin Boys were from Chisley Colliery, near Canterbury

There has been a suggestion that the ranks of the Bevin Boys were swelled by conscientious objectors, but according to Mr Taylor there were only 41 among the 48,000 who were of that mindset.

However, the realities of working underground in a 1940s mine were providing their own challenges for Bevin's Boys. After his recovery - and having had to repeat all his training - Mr Taylor finally made it underground, back at Oakdale.

"The descent into the lift that takes you into the mine is known as the initiation drop. You go into the cage with trepidation.

"It's supposed to descend at 30ft per second, but they let it go at 70ft per second. It's horrendous, the pressure on the eardrums was enormous.

"The mine was nearly 3,000ft deep, and some of the lads got nosebleeds on the way down."

Difficult conditions

Once underground, the conditions were "pretty bleak" and the work to be done was a "rough, tough job".

Most Bevin Boys worked on conveyor belts or in haulage, the former being Mr Taylor's role.

He had to keep an eye on the conveyor belts bringing coal to the surface, making sure chunks of the fuel did not fall off and build up in the narrow walkways carved through the earth.

"The worst part was the noise and the dust. You didn't have the health and safety measures that you have today. You'd be on your own, maybe you'd see another workman some 50 yards down the tunnel."

Mr Taylor eventually made it into the RAF in 1946, where he worked as a radio operator for two years before being demobbed. He did not return to the pits.

"The camaraderie between the Bevin Boys was second to none. But none of us wanted to be there, we just had to be resigned to it."

Former Bevin Boy finally honoured
07 Jan 08 |  Nottinghamshire
Special honour for 'Bevin Boys'
20 Jun 07 |  UK Politics
Bevin Boys go back underground
14 Feb 03 |  England

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific