IN the Second World War, Ronald Griffin of Cookley, near Kidderminster, was one of nearly 48,000 young men conscripted to work in the coalmines. For many years the Bevin Boys, as they were known, fought for recognition for their contribution to the war effort. It was a very hard and dangerous life, with a greater statistical chance of death or injury than a soldier, and while those conscripted to the armed forces could conscientiously object, there was no such option for those sent down the mines.
Among the Bevin Boys were many who went on to become famous, such as comedian Eric Morecambe, actor and president of Mencap Brian Rix, actor John Comer, dramatist Peter Shaffer, local Labour politician Lord Archer of Sandwell, and footballers Alf Sherwood and Nat Lofthouse.
Ronald writes about the Bevin Boys Association’s first parade in 1995, their last this year, and his memories of being a Bevin Boy ...
“On November 11th, 2012, after 18 years, the Bevin Boys were to take part in Remembrance Sunday in London for the last time before they were disbanded.
“Our first march was the VJ Service of Remembrance and Commitment on Saturday, 19th August, 1995, in the presence of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and other members of the royal family. We gathered with other veterans along Birdcage Walk, adjoining St James’s Park. Two red-coated guards took charge of our modest ensemble, then we marched up the Mall, where we were greeted with waves and cheers and clapping, everyone was caught up in an atmosphere of jollity and goodwill. As we passed the royal dais Prince Philip was heard to say, ‘Here come the coal boys.’ We all laughed and the Queen stepped forward and greeted us like lost friends. It was a magical moment and well worth waiting all those years for. It was the march of a lifetime and I for one wished the royal mile could have been ten.
“We broke up outside the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, where we were to register and receive a bag of goodies, including a ration card and a special bottle of Bass 1945 Strong Ale – proof of attention to detail and meticulous organisation.
“Here was a chance to meet up with other veterans and recover from the parade. It was also an opportunity to see the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh for a second time as celebrations continued on the Sunday evening with the Beating the Retreat on Horse Guards Parade.
“On a stage flanking Whitehall Palace were assembled choirs, orchestras and actors from stage and television. Displays of military bands and a gun salute by the Royal Artillery took place on the forecourt, and tributes from all over the world flashed from a huge television screen.
“Finally, the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Edward appeared on the rostrum amid a procession of children singing and carrying lighted candles, which was quite a stirring sight.
“During her speech to the nation I was pleased to hear the Queen mention the miners; at last recognition and honour to be counted among the others, not only for us Bevin Boys but for the wartime mining community as a whole.
“The nickname Bevin Boys came from the wartime Minister of Labour and National Service Ernest Bevin.
“By September 1943 the coalmining industry was at its lowest ebb and was in great danger of causing a rift in the wartime effort. By 1943 stocks of coal were down to only a month, this was mostly due to young miners leaving the industry in favour of the armed forces. An appeal was broadcast and a letter sent to public and secondary schools emphasising to those about to leave the importance of coalmining in winning the war. The plea fell on deaf ears. This resulted in a statement to the House of Commons by Ernest Bevin that men between the ages of 18 and 25 were to be compulsorily called by a ballot selection into the coalmining industry. That meant automatic conscription into the mines. There was no question of choice; it was either the coalmine or imprisonment.
“Training centres were set up around the country and Bevin Boys accommodated in hostels, mainly Nissen Huts used by the army.
“I was trained at Oakdale in South Wales and after training sent to a slant mine at Aberbaiden, part of which went under the sea. In 1943 the mine was so old that we had to use a pick and shovel; the heat on the coalface was almost unbearable.
“I eventually managed to get a transfer to a more modern mine, Baggeridge Colliery near Wolverhampton, and nearer home. I remained there working underground until October 1948, when I received my demob number and was released.
“One of our more flamboyant members was Peter Evanson. He also trained at Oakdale Mining Centre and he lived, until his call-up, in an opulent six-bedroom house in Kensington. It was quite a come-down to a two-roomed miner’s cottage in Neath, where he shared three-inbed, each being on shifts, when one got in the other got out.
“He eventually found more suitable accommodation, ‘with a nice lady’, nearer the town. His experiences were to remain in my mind and led me to write a semi-biographical novel, The Forgotten Army.
“After his demob from the mine Peter returned to London and worked as a film extra, appearing in over 100 films, his last directed by Clint Eastwood. He died on 21st May, 2012.
“I was eventually to find work as a civil servant with the Royal Army Pay Corps in Wolverley and remained with them for the 18 years until disbanded in 1988. Then I was transferred to the RAF Maintenance Unit, Hartlebury, until its closure four years later.
“It was not until 1989 that the Bevin Boys Association was formed and in November 1993 it celebrated the 50th anniversary of the compulsory ballot for recruitment. After half a century the Bevin Boys were recognised by the government and the Royal British Legion and allowed with other wartime veterans to take part in the annual Festival of Remembrance and Remembrance Sunday parade.
“Sadly, our assembly in Whitehall in 2012 was to be our last and we were to be disbanded, after our marching strength which began with fifty or more ‘Boys’ gradually dwindled on 11th November, 2012, to a complement of eight. Thankfully, we were supported by carers and others who had helped with the organization over the years, including two young men from the Ernest Bevin Boys College, London, who came specially to join us in the parade, bringing their own tribute and wreath of poppies on behalf of the college.
“Final farewells took place at the Transport for London St James’s Park canteen, where for the past 17 years the company acted as hosts to us Bevin Boys, providing a sumptuous lunch, for which, after many hours of standing, we were extremely grateful.
“The Bevin Boys Association has been a great experience in our lives and we are indebted to the tireless organisation and patronage of our president, the Lady Finsberg, and vice-president Warwick H. Taylor MBE, and others who have worked behind the scenes bringing that ‘forgotten army’ to final recognition.”