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Bevin Boy

National Service in the Pits 1945-48

Roly Gingell (38-43)

Roly second from right, with mine managers and the medics.

IT DOES seem rather ironic, having put in three years in the school's ATC squadron, that when the time came for call-up, at age 18, Ernie Bevin, the Minister for Labour and National Service, conscripted me to work in a coal mine ! So I went down the pits rather than up with the R.A.F.

Thus I found myself at Oakdale Colliery near Blackwood, South Wales undergoing a month of intensive training on how to use a shovel and all aspects of safety underground, which is a very dangerous place. At the end of that training I was sent further west into Wales to work in the Rhondda Valley at the Bertie Pit of the Lewis Merthyr Colliery, which is now a Rhondda Hertiage Museum at Trehafod.

I was handed out to Tom, an experience miner and we drove a heading through a 6-8 feet seam of coal. We worked the afternoon shift going down about at 2pm and coming up at 10. We were 520yards down, 2 miles in with a 1500 ft mountain on top. Strangely I never gave it a thought. Later, Tom was badly injured by a horse crushing him and was invalided out of the pit leaving me at a loose end, as it were. I did odd jobs with people who needed a shovelling body on the day shift, none of which tasks I took kindly to, so when a notice appeared on the colliery office board advertising day release at Mining School I quietly applied and was accepted in spite of being English !

Mining School

I attended Mining School one day a week and became a sort of minor official at the pit responsible for keeping a record of what the colliers did each day, so that when the under-manager made his round of the face on Friday he would agree with the collier in his workplace how much he should be paid. The rates were based on the square yardage of coal cleared, the thickness of the seam, the amount of shale between the seam and the hard rock roof and any extra work he had had to do to make his place safe. The measurements always led to mistrust and dispute. It was always assumed that I had fiddled the tape measurements in the management's favour.

One day I was called in for a interview with a Doctor from the Medical Research Council. They were investigating the high incidence of dust diseases in the valleys and needed people with underground experience to use fairly delicate instruments to collect samples of dust and air for their studies. I was accepted for the job and benefitted from a shorter working day, extra pay and transport to and from the hostel where we were working that day. It lasted about four months at the end of which I returned to my colliery.

Now I began recording 'time and motion' on new machinery that had been brought into the pit to try new methods of coal extraction. This was being done on a 24-hour cycle so I was working days, afternoons and night shifts in rotation. For various reasons this equipment was not entirely successful and the district reverted to long-wall face working.

A new method of roof support was brought in for trial. This involved the spoil, which, instead of being dumped on surface tips, was crushed, mixed with water and taken back to be packed into the space where coal had been removed. This was done by blowing the slurry with compressed air to form a wall four and a half feet thick running parallel with the coal face. In a way it was an early form of conservation by doing away with unsightly tips above ground. As this system used all the compressed air that the pit could produce it was done at night when all other equipment was still.

By this time I was permanently on the night shift and I had already had to give up the day release for Mining School as I could not study AND work nights. Trigonometry, algebra and geometry had been my weak subjects at school and these were needed for the surveying part of the mining exams. Trying to pick this up as I went along in class AND work nights was not possible. So I gave up the studies and worked nights until demob came in February 1948. Freedom at last ! My days in the pits were over. I was still a young man and looked forward to a new career and a full life back in my own county. A life in the pits was not for me.

"How green is my valley"

But now let us go forward to 1995. On a chance visit to Weston-Super-Mare, I met up with one of my old fellow Bevin Boys who had been in our hut at the hostel for those three years. We set about searching for the others who had been with us. This took a couple of years but we traced and met up with six of the seven. We made several trips back to Wales seeking the pits where we had all worked. Now green fieds grow where the collieries had been. Only the odd ventilation pipes sticking out if the ground mark their whereabouts. The hostel has gone and now there is a playing field. Trees grow where the tips had been and only one small colliery remains in the whole of the valley - now owned and run by the miners themselves. One would hardly guess or believe what had been there in the valley fifty years ago.