World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                         Jack Stafford 

Bevin Boys at The Government Training Centre at Birley East Colliery

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Jack Stafford
Location of story: the Shirebrook Valley between Woodhouse and Hackenthorpe near Sheffield
Background to story: Civilian

 The Bevin Training camp era at Birley East Colliery and a group of trainees and instructurs pose for the camara near the lamp cabin at the eastern end of the pit yard.


Unfortunately, Part 1 of this story is not available

Chapter 2 - The Government Training Centre

As the last tubs of coal were hauled to the surface on October 15th 1943 it seemed to those present that the final chapter in the history of Birley East was drawing to a close. The vast majority of the work force had already found employment elsewhere, and salvage work followed by the inevitable process of demolition seemed to be just a formality.

a As it transpired though October 15th did not herald the colliery's demise but was the prelude to a brief but important chapter in its own right. The reason for the reprieve was centred around the acute national shortage of miners and the resultant decline in coal output. By 1943 civilians felt less involved in the war than they had done earlier. No longer was there the fear of invasion, the horrors of the blitz or the excitement of the North African campaign. Patriotism no longer kept men at work. Overworked and by and large underpaid, many key areas rebelled. Engineering workers, provincial bus men and Liverpool Dockers all went on strike, but the worst of the industrial action was centred on the coal industry.

The 1941 Essential Work Orders had been applied to the mines too late to stop the drift of miners heading towards the better paid munitions factories where the average take home pay was £2 a week higher. Hugh Dalton, President of the Board of Trade wanted to radon coal, but the conservatives, under pressure from the powerful mine owners vetoed the bill. Neither an increased minimum wage, nor an offer to conscripts of working in the pits as an alternative to the forces, attracted new miners.

So, in December 1943, Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, announced his own contingency plans. He told the House of Commons, "I therefore propose to resort to the most impartial method of all, that of the ballot. A draw will be made from time to time of the numbers 0 to 9. Those men whose National Service Registration Certificates happen to end with the chosen digit will be transferred into the mining industry:" The unlucky conscripts were forced into the mines, and so was born the 'Bevin Boy'.

The vast majority of collieries designated as Government Training Centres were working pits where the trainees found themselves integrated into the existing workforce but at Birley they had recently vacated premises almost entirely to themselves. To house recruits from outside the locality, purpose built accommodation in the form of Nissen huts was erected half a mile north east of the colliery alongside Beighton Road, and the first occupants duly took up residence in the spring of 1944.

In the early months not all the trainees were Bevin Boys in the true sense of the term. Some were purely and simply volunteers, whilst others had opted for a career in mining in preference to joining the armed forces. These two groups often consisted of local men who made the daily journey from home in preference to residing at the hostel.
According to the initial advertising each volunteer would receive "highly individual training" during the six week course, prior to being found full time employment at a working colliery. As it transpired, to imply that recruits obtained sound basic skills training was to put it mildly somewhat of an exaggeration. Indeed as the influx of foreign volunteers began to swell : the intake, the course was reduced to one of four weeks duration, and for a time, with the introduction of double shift working, to just three. Small wonder that many people considered the whole thing somewhat of a fiasco.

Daily instruction was centred almost entirely on the old day shift, four hours of which were generally spent underground arid four on the surface attending lectures or physical fitness training sessions. The gymnasium along with lecture facilities and canteen were situated with the hostel complex on Beighton Road.

One of the early recruits was Jack Stafford who for six weeks made the daily journey from his home at Hurlfield near Manor Top. At the age of 34 he was co-opted into mining having initially been offered the simple choice of pit or army. Although in later years clothing and footwear was provided, Jack and his compatriots discovered that despite their low rates of pay, they were expected to supply their own overalls and boots.

Jack, like many, gained little experience during his short stay at Birley. Underground visits were relatively few, training was in the main restricted to the haulage and packing aspects of colliery work, and only the P.E. sessions were looked upon favourably by most of the men. Cross country runs, basic P.T. exercises, boxing and football all formed part of what was generally considered to be the enjoyable facet of the schedule.

Football was played on a pitch situated in a field on the Beighton side of the spoil tip whilst cross country runs around what is now the Hackenthorpe estate, in the late 1940s took place across unspoilt farmland. Occasionally the Bevin Boys fielded a representative football team playing matches against local pits and Harry Wheeler recalls turning out for Brookhouse against the Birley lads.

Initially financial remuneration could hardly be considered as an incentive to volunteer for the scheme. £2.l0s a week was, even in the circumstances, scarcely an adequate wage but outlay was minimal and of course the training period was at the maximum only six weeks duration, at which point the men were allocated jobs at nearby working pits. There, before commencing full time employment the men were given twelve weeks in depth training in specific aspects of mining and wages rose accordingly to around £4.15s.0d. per week. Back at Birley the instructors earned a somewhat more respectable wage. In 1946 for example, the starting pay was £405per annum or around £8.l0s.0d. per week.

Instruction was in the hands of experienced personnel, often with a lifetimes experience in mining. S.J. Hughes the assistant manager, and the person in charge of underground technical training was a certified colliery manager, and a number of ex deputies and over-men were recruited to add their expertise in training and administration. Birley East employees were also encouraged to remain, and in some instances return to their former place of employment, thus making available their invaluable personal knowledge of the pit.

Bob Mantell and Frank Hargreaves were two such instructors, whilst down in the lamp cabin was William Bostock, another Birley man. By 1946 Bill probably knew as much about mining as anyone else at the pit, having spent the previous 52 years in the industry. Percy Annis gave the trainees an insight into shot firing whilst based over at the hostel was one of the few relatively young instructors. Physical fitness was an important aspect of the course and Alan Brown, later to achieve fame as the manager of Sheffield Wednesday, was the man with the responsibility of ensuring that the trainees were in peak condition for the rigours ahead.

In order to provide an introductory look at what the underground training sessions entailed, each new group of recruits was taken on a guided tour the day after they arrived. Kitted out in their uniform of helmet, overalls and steel toe-capped boots, this was a completely new experience for almost all concerned. Lamps were carefully checked and searches made for surreptitious cigarettes and matches before each small group was permitted into the cage. Then, before anyone had the chance to collect their thoughts, the iron gate clanged noisily into place, and they were on their way.

Dropping faster than a lift in a shop, the first seconds were the worst. Gyrating stomachs, a
gale force wind roaring up trouser legs, and eardrums which seemed to have caved in, these were just same of the symptoms encountered as the cage hurtled downwards. Although the
first cage run left most of its occupants breathless, any misgivings were soon dispelled on arrival in the pit bottom and the men would look on amused at the startled faces of those coming down on the next run.

Embarking on their underground tour many trainees were surprised to discover that the roadways were higher and wider than they had imagined. Others had the impression that tunnels in coal mines were flat. Ten minutes below ground at Birley East soon discounted this assumption and proved that not only did the roadways extend for miles, but frequently they went up and down steep gradients.

The newcomers also discovered that the seams of coal left in situ when the pit ceased production were not worked but served as exhibits and a starting point from which to follow the various stages of operation from the face to the pit bottom. The men were taught how to couple coal tubs together; how to clip a line of tubs on to a moving rope and how to give
signals to stop and start a rope. Conveyor belts rattled along the coal face and down the gates, ponies hauled sets of tubs, but not an ounce of coal was won. Unlike training centres at working pits the system at Birley was focussed on look and learn.

Although Birley's target figures were scanned as closely as any colliery in the country, its output was measured, not in terms of coal, but men. Recruits came to the pit to learn in a matter of a few short weeks the three “R’s” of coal mining and thus hopefully prepare themselves for a career in the industry.