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15 October 2014
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The War Years and The Coal Mines

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Peter Gordon Kemp
Location of story: 
Horden, West Hartlepool and Houghton- le- Spring, Durham
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
21 November 2005

At the beginning of 1944 I received my calling up papers. Opening them and expecting to go into the Navy I found myself conscripted into the coalmines. I was to become a 'Bevin Boy'. Selection for the mines was based on a ballot, where you were chosen if your registration ended in a ‘0’ or a ‘9’. My number ended in nine. Stranger still, my registration number ‘26989’, was the same as my mother's Co- op number!

My departure for the mines was in mid- January, and my destination was West Hartlepool. I arrived in the late afternoon. Everything was in a state of chaos, trying to sort out who had to go where, and where one was to be lodged. The old lady who was to be our landlady was Russian, and had come to England at the time of revolution in 1917. While we stayed there she was always listening to the Russian news to find out what happened. She reminded me of a witch, but for all that she treated us reasonably well. Her charges were high. Thirty shillings per week and extras for laundry. On top of this the fares to the mine Horden Colliery had to be found, plus the cost of our main meal which we had in the canteen. All this had to come out of a wage of thirty-five shillings, and as you may guess I had to ask for help from my parents. This was not something just affecting me, it was one relating to all the 'Bevin Boys'. Wages in the mines were still low compared with the other industries, and eventually there was a strike, in which both the miners and the 'Bevin Boys' joined. However the strike was of short duration. An increase was obtained, as to how much I cannot remember, but it did enable me to support myself.

Work at the mines started on the day following our arrival at West Hartlepool. The mine was at Horden, just outside West Hartlepool. On arrival we were all presented with a pair of heavy boots with metal studs on the soles and metal toe caps. I had never worn anything like them before, and for the next few weeks they were sheer murder. The rest of out kit consisted of a boiler suit and a hard hat. After a short talk about life in the mines we were taken around and shown the workings, followed up by a brief visit underground, consisting of a tour around the pit bottom. After we came up, they told us working in the pits was heavy and dangerous work, and safety in the mines depended on everybody working together as a team. The community of miners underground is very close, and has not existed to the same extent in any other place where I have worked since. To prepare us for work underground we were taken on a cross country run where they made us wear our boots. By the time we had finished everybody was shattered. Whether it done any of us any good I don't know, but it was a painful experience.

The first few days were spent in finding out about the various tasks taking place on the pit top. Afterwards we went down below and were shown how work went on down there; the miners cutting the coal by hand, as there were no coal-cutters (in fact I do not believe they came into general use until after the War when the mines were nationalised), and how the coal was loaded into tubs and hauled to pit bottom by ponies. They showed us the stables where the ponies lived and how well they were treated, in many cases better than the men! When the day was finished we returned to the surface, where we changed our clothes and showered. The training lasted for a month and afterwards we were sent to various pits throughout the country. We were supposed to be given a preference for one's choice, which did not work out in practise. I was sent to a pit at Houghton- le- Spring in Durham. Houghton was to be a real eye- opener, as this was no modern pit such as where our training had taken place. There were no pit-head baths, so we had to walk home through the streets, a distance of about two-miles, in all our dirt. Arriving back at the lodgings we had to wait our turn to have a bath. There was myself and another 'Bevin Boy', and the landlord. There was no bathroom, only a galvanised bath in the scullery in which a small amount of hot water was placed. Just enough to get you clean, and that was all. The landlady and landlord treated us very well, the food was good and we had no complaints.

Life in the mine was another thing altogether. For the first few days we worked on the surface. The work was terrible, it involved us in separating stone from the coal as it passed along a moving belt. The work appeared to be carried out by young boys, and old or injured men who could no longer work underground. I am afraid I took badly to this kind of work, refusing or pretending to be doing something. As you can guess the miners’ opinion of me was low. Although I was not alone in this behaviour. Miners as a whole had little respect for the 'Bevin Boys'. You had to be born to be a miner! In later years they did see us playing a useful part in the mine, although whether I was included among them is very doubtful as my opposition to doing the work got me a bad name among some of the men. Work was over six days. The Saturday morning shift was the worst, as it involved getting up at two-thirty in the morning, walking to work as there were no buses, and while I was there it snowed, which made life harder still. I remember being very tired those mornings not being used to getting up at such an early hour. I remained at Houghton colliery for about four weeks, when I managed to obtain a transfer to a mine in Kent. My reason for requesting the transfer was to make it possible to get home occasionally. However unlike the Forces, we did not receive any free passes.

My destination in Kent was Snowdon Colliery, which lay halfway between Canterbury and Dover. On arrival I found nobody was expecting me. It was soon sorted out and lodgings were found for me in Aylesham about a mile away. Aylesham was a mining village, all the houses belonging to the colliery. In the village there were one or two shops, a public house, a village hall and a park where there were facilities for playing tennis, football and cricket. Finally there was a cinema. I do not believe the miners had much regard for the establishment. One of its main features was the film being shown was always breaking down, quite often more than once, and resulting in shouts of anger, hissing and booing from the audience. The lady I was lodging with was a widow with a young daughter aged about twelve years. When I arrived there were already four 'Bevin Boys' staying with her. Four of us slept in one room on camp beds. The beds, linen, and blankets being provided by the government. The landlady charged us thirty-five shillings a week, going up to two pounds a week by the time I left in September 1947. The accommodation, food, and the way we were treated left very little to complain about. The chaps in digs with me came from all walks of life. Two had worked in offices, one was serving an apprenticeship as a compositor. The fourth, I cannot remember his occupation, but he was a Cockney and easy to get on with. He was the first person I was to meet who was almost illiterate, it came as a shock to me, believing everybody could read and write, and he generally asked one of us to read his letters for him.

Snowdon Colliery had a bad reputation, I had learned this from discussions I had with miners at Houghton le Spring. The colliery was comparatively modern if compared with the mine at Houghton, as I believe it came into production just after the First World War. At the time of the miners’ strike in the early twenties, and during the general strike of 1926, there was an influx of miners looking for work from other parts of the country, especially Wales. The mine was deep, about one thousand feet, and was supposed to have been the deepest on what they described as a single wind, in the country. The depth of the pit led to considerable changes of temperature. At pit bottom it could be very cold, and in winter one could find icicles. Once one moved away from pit bottom things began to change, and the nearer one got to the pit face the warmer it became. The hottest place was where new seams' were being opened and the circulation of air was poor. Here the men worked wearing nothing other than their boots, a belt around their waist to hold their pit lamp, and a hard hat. Even in such skimpy attire they perspired freely, and to make up for the loss of fluid in the body they drank plenty of water. They brought down a gallon of water with them, which was all gone by half-way through the shift. A tank of water was brought round, from which they could refill their cans. The water was not very pleasant to drink as it soon became warm as there was no means of keeping it cool, but that was all there was. I worked in this section of the pit for a few weeks, but could not bring myself to strip down as the rest of the men, and always wore at least a pair of trousers. My task there was the removal of coal dust from around a motor driving a belt carrying the coal away. A very dirty and unpleasant task, and one was glad when the shift was over to get back on the surface where one could have a shower and get into some clean and dry clothes. Other sections of the mine had considerably better working conditions. How bad the pit was before, I can only describe from hearsay. It must have been horrendous though, as I was told that men were being carried out of the pit daily because of heat exhaustion prior to the War.

One thing which always comes up when I mention to people that I had worked in the mines is people’s fear of the lifts. Yes, it was horrible but you got used to it. The first time you went down in a lift, or more accurately a ‘cage’, it was scary, but as time went by the fear disappeared. At Snowdon there are two shafts, as there are in most pits, one where fresh air was drawn in and the second where the stale air was removed. There was a winding gear at both shafts. In the former it was worked by electricity, and gave one a fast but smooth ride to pit bottom. On the way down your ears would pop due to change in the air pressure. The latter ride was more uncomfortable, as being run by steam the journey was less smooth. In fact it felt like you was on the end of a yo-yo. Whilst in some areas there was plenty of lighting so one could see what one was doing, in other areas light was dependant upon the lamp you carried on your belt. The light was an important part of life underground, especially when one was working on ones own, which I was most of the time. Some areas of the mine could be bad in different ways. For example in one place, an embankment had to be climbed to get to the coal face. The embankment was continually wet from running water, and cold. This made one feel miserable before you ever started work. Other places would find water dripping down on you from the roof above, one grimaced but got on with the work in hand. Many people have said, “Oh well, you had it considerably easier than the soldier in the front line. You weren't under continuous threat of being killed by the enemy." True, yet death or serious injury were never very far away for the miner. Men were killed in all the mines at which I worked, not many compared with the armed services, but enough to make one think.

This story was entered on The People's War Website by Stuart Ross on behalf of Peter Gordon Kemp, who fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

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