“At first, going underground didn’t bother me,” says Phil Robinson, one of the 48,000 men conscripted into Britain’s collieries during the Second World War. “But it began to bother me when the seams were 2ft wide. Terrible, it was wet, for a start, and the work was hard. I was underground for eight hours at a stretch, a scrap of toast and marmalade in my pocket to keep me going. I hated it.”
Robinson, now 91, was one of the Bevin Boys, as they are known, men who, whatever their qualifications, training and ambitions, were forced to spend their war on the so-called “underground front”, bolstering coal production. Without a uniform or being formally acknowledged as servicemen, many were assumed to be draft shirkers or conscientious objectors, and taunted horribly.
After a lengthy campaign, the Bevin Boys – named after Ernest Bevin, then Minister for Labour – were finally acknowledged as servicemen in 2008, but today they are largely forgotten. Next week, though, their wartime experiences will be vividly commemorated, in an exhibition of paintings and drawings by four of the Bevin Boy miners at the Mining Art Gallery in County Durham.
David McCLure, Ted Holloway, John Tipton and Tom McGuinness – all deceased – are four of around 10 Bevin Boys known to have been artists, although curators hope the exhibition will prompt others to come to light.
Their pictures, often made at the end of a long shift, in the early dawn or late at night, even at the pit bottom, record a way of life that has all but vanished. Here, a knot of weary miners heading to work in the dark, or hunched in clusters underground; there, pit head machinery leaning grimly over the scowling landscape, tiny rows of cottages like teeth.
It wasn’t just the Bevin Boys who became artists, of course. Many miners who could not find the words to describe their uncommon and often lonely experience underground, used paint and ink instead, as with the Ashington artists, for instance, whose success in the Thirties was so vividly reimagined in Lee Hall’s 2007 play The Pitmen Painters.
The Bevin Boys’ conscription was the result of a bureaucratic gaffe. When war had begun in 1939, the government had failed to make mining a reserved occupation, meaning too many miners had signed up for the military or moved into better-paying war industries. By summer 1943, more than 36,000 of them had left the pits, and Britain had only three weeks’ supply of coal left.
Bevin’s clumsy, ill-conceived solution involved picking numbers from a hat. Those whose National Service registration number ended with the same digit were informed by letter that they should report for training forthwith, at a specially-built ground on Annfield Plain, Country Durham.
Peter Robinson was 17 and at grammar school when, in July 1944, he received his summons. Having already had his interviews for the RAF, he was horrified. Even now, he knows its content by heart: “Please disregard all previous arrangements, you have been balloted.”
Eric Crowch, who celebrated his 93rd birthday yesterday, was equally shocked to have fallen prey to Bevin’s crude scheme. “I was at engineering college in London at the time, but thanks to the doodlebugs [the V-1 missiles that plagued the capital during the summer of 1944], I’d been up every third night, and failed my exams. That was it – I got my letter shortly afterwards.”
Officially you could take your case to a tribunal, and many did, but in reality there was no way out. “My father asked one of the officials, ‘What have you got a tribunal for?’ Robinson tells me, “And he said, ‘We do live in a democracy, sir.’ Well, I had to laugh at that.”
The alternative was prison – and some chose it, only to find when they were released several months later, that they had to go down the mines anyway.
At the Bevin Boys training camp, where they were lodged in Nissen huts, men from all walks of life were thrown together. “There was a boy from the Orkneys, who had never seen a cinema,” says Robinson, of his fellow Bevins, “then we had a Cambridge undergraduate, an Old Harrovian and some Liverpool lads, who took me under their wing because I could write their letters for them.”
Crowch found his first trip below ground terrifying. “I suffered a bit from claustrophobia – many of us found it difficult – but you just had to get over it, and I did.” Stationed at Ryhope colliery, just south of Sunderland, the seams he had to mine were 2,000 feet underground, and stretched two miles out from the coast under the North Sea. One of them was only 18 inches wide. “It was absolutely horrifying,” he says, adding: “the worst thing for me was not knowing when it was ever going to end.”
In fact Crowch got out after injuring his hand, which became trapped in a moving conveyor belt. Such accidents were commonplace, of course. Other Bevin Boys caught Weills disease from the vermin, and many were killed by explosions or buried alive when tunnels caved in.
Others suffered mentally. “Some of the boys had it hard,” recalls Robinson. “One boy had hysterics and wouldn’t get in the cage. He screamed and screamed. They took him away. I don’t know where he finished up.”
Bevin’s lottery was suspended in May 1945; the last Bevin Boys demobbed in 1948. But, unlike other conscripts, they had no right to go back to their previous occupations. A few, like Robinson, decided to stay. “When they first asked me, I said, ‘You must be joking!’ but what they were offering wasn’t the hard labour I had been doing, and in the end there were a great many like me, who made the same decision. There were many others, of course, who were glad to get away.”
None of the Bevin Boys received medals and because the official records were destroyed in the Fifties, unless they have kept their personal documents, they cannot even prove service. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1998 that were allowed to take part in the Remembrance Day parades at the Cenotaph, in Whitehall. Crowch has never been – he has problems walking these days, but Robinson has been once. How did it feel? “It’s hard to describe,” he replies, shyly.
It was a march at the National Memorial Arboretum, the UK’s year-round site of remembrance, that he says he felt most proud. Sitting on a bench in his miner’s hat, he was approached by a huge Marine. “He said, ‘Ahhh, a Bevin Boy, are you coming in the procession?’ and then he threw his arms around me. So we marched, right at the back, and I think we got the biggest cheer of all. That was good. Very good.”
The Bevin Boys - War’s Forgotten Workforce is at the Mining Art Gallery Mar 28 until Sep 30
The Bevin Boys Association 0151 342 3703; bevinboysassociation.co.uk