Working Lives

Bevin Boy, miner and publican (1941-1987)

Location: Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Norfolk

Peter was a Bevin Boy who stayed on working in the mines and ended up as a publican.

I was fourteen years old when I left school in 1941. My first job was an ironmonger’s errand boy for six months before I went to work for a baker on a bread round. I delivered bread and bakery products to different houses out in the country, six days a week, dawn ’til dusk from ‘bout eight o’clock in the morning to probably seven o’clock at night. I was paid three pounds and ten shillings.

Call-up to the mines

I wanted to go in the Navy but at eighteen years old I got my call papers to go into the coal mines as a Bevin Boy. They sent me to Creswell Colliery in Derbyshire for six weeks’ training which was just showing us round the coal mine what different people did. They never took us into anywhere where it might get dangerous for us or anything like that. We didn’t get that until we went to the colliery that we were sent to.

I was sent to Mansfield to go to work at Bilsthorpe Colliery. On the first day they just told us what was what. I think there were about a dozen of us and we had different instructors, about four to an instructor, and they took us down the mine and showed us round where we might be working.

My first job was on haulage, clipping tubs on and off the haulage rope. I brought the full tubs from the coal face and sent the empty ones back. I also did a bit of machinery fitting. We had to be down the mine for seven o’clock and we knocked off at half past two. I got used to it.

The dust wasn’t so bad when I first started, but once I got onto the coal face the dust was shocking. That was about three and a half years later. As the big machines that were cutting the coal the air would flow in one direction; it would come down one roadway along the coal face and up the other one. So, there was flying dust all the while once the machines were working.

At the time the dust didn’t affect me. Thirty years ago, they did start paying compensation to ex-miners. I had to go to Kent for an examination. I had silicosis and they paid me fifteen hundred pounds. That’s about all most of them got but some of them were worse than I was. I say, dust never bothered me.

From collier, to shotfirer and deputy

I worked with an experienced miner for a while when I first went on the coal face [the place where coal is cut from the coal seam], and then they gave me my own stint [the length of a collier’s work on the coal face]. Working conditions were very hard. The stint was nine yards long, five-foot six-deep and three-foot high. I was on my knees all the while until finishing time. We wore knee pads strapped on our knees. I was lucky because I’m not very tall and my back didn’t bother me.

I can’t remember exactly how many years I did that for and then I went to train to become a shotfirer [a qualified collier in charge of detonating shots or explosive charges]. I went to night school for that, one night a week for a couple of months. We didn’t get time off to go to night school.

I had eight stints to look after so I used to carry sticks of explosives and forty detonators. There were five holes in each stint of coal. When the collier was ready for you to blow his coal down, we had to rake the old dust out from the holes, ram the blasting powder down the hole, place a detonator and then clear everybody out of the way far down the coal face before blowing it. I had no accidents, if you followed the procedure properly and did as you’re supposed to do it was safe. We did have our short cuts.

I applied for my deputy’s papers and I got a coal face of my own to run. I had about forty men on it plus a few by-workers, so I had quite a few men underneath me, filling coal out, with the pick and shovel. I organised the shift work and tested for gas. As they took the coal out, they left a big rolley-way and that’s where you used to get the gas. If we ever detected any we had to put  a brattice cloth across [a heavy cloth or hessian] to drive the air up over the top and bring the gas down.

We wouldn’t find gas often in the general atmosphere. If there was one and a quarter percent you switched all machinery off, and if you found two and a half percent you withdrew your men. That never happened to me. I never worked in water, thank God. You’d have to be kneeling in water up to your thighs and trying to get a shift of what you’re supposed to be doing.

Comradeship and recognition at last

My main memory from working as a miner is the comradeship. You might have two miners hating each other’s guts but if something horrible happened and one got buried or something like that, they’d break their fingernails trying to dig them out.

It was hard work being on your knees all day, bad for the back and the knees. Camaraderie helped. Most collieries had their own brass band. The lads used to go out for a drink at night to the local club or pub or for a game of pool or billiards. There wasn’t much to do really.

I remember the Bevin Boys’ song. We used to sing it quite often when we got together, when we were at the hostel. We’ve been singing since then at the Bevin Boys’ meetings, at Sheringham. ‘Come and join us, come and join us, come and join old Bevin’s army, fifty bob a week, bugger all to eat, hobnail boots and blisters on your feet! Bev-in! You’re barmy!’

We didn’t have the sense of helping the war effort while we were here, with war centres down here… There were a lot of lads who didn’t like the work trying to get out of it, but they wouldn’t let you leave to go in the forces or anything like that.

Eventually the Bevin Boys were recognised. The first thing that happened in recognition was that Bevin Boys marched at the Cenotaph on Memorial Day. They also put in for medals, but they said we couldn’t have them. Eventually they gave us a badge. It was Norman Lamb [the MP] who presented it. What will happen to it when I kick the bucket I don’t know!

The pub trade

I met my first wife, then married, and stayed in mining for twenty-five years until I decided to go into the pub trade. It was a big change, but I had some good customers and made some good friends. The first pub I had was on the edge of Lincoln town, Lincoln city. My wife and I were there for about twelve years and then we took one in the country. Unfortunately, she only lived for about another two years, so I was on my own for about five years.

In the morning there was breakfast, then washing up, tidying up and anything that wanted doing in the cellar. I had a cleaner come in once a day for a couple of hours, but I did half of the work myself. I did a bit of food as well. Not a lot but it was there if anybody wanted it.

It’s all paperwork now, like the same with any trade, any industry now. When the new regulations came in, I’d just had enough. I had the chance to get out with a decent amount of money, so I packed up at sixty-three and a half, about eighteen months before paid retirement. And then I met Rita at Retford and we moved to Norwich because most of Rita’s family is this way.

I have fond memories of my first wife. We enjoyed going on holiday. I went on holiday on my own quite a few times after my first wife had died. My job was not a highlight, I was always glad to get back up the pit once the shift was over.

Views on the miners’ strikes

I had finished by then. If I had been in mining then, I still would have had to go on into work. As the collier deputy I would have had to go down the mine and take in all the areas to make sure everything was all right. I think strikes were a waste of time. There was a lot of aggro about it, there were families falling out over it, it wasn’t right. The miners’ union was trying to bring the government down, that was what it was at the back of it all. I didn’t agree with that.

Peter Horn (b.1927) talking to WISEArchive on 10th April 2013 in Norwich.

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