World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                             Bill Pratt 


By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Bill Pratt
Location of story: Ormside, Appleby Cumbria, Blackpool, Silloth, Carlisle, Doncaster, Anfield Plain, Ferryhill, Co. Durham
Unit name: Bevin Boy
Background to story: Civilian Force


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Bill Pratt.

by Bill Pratt

My story starts in 1942 when I was aged 16. I worked for my father on his farm in the village of Ormside near Appleby, Cumbria, and as farming was a reserved occupation, the call up did not affect me. The change in my life came when I joined the Air Training Corps in 1942 as we were told that at the age of 16, we should join one of the junior organisations . After joining I became very enthusiastic and worked hard to learn as much as I could, Morse code and aircraft recognition being my best subjects. We were taken for flights sometimes on Sundays and we went to camp once at Blackpool and once to Silloth. After one or two flights, I thought this is the thing for me, little realising that flying operations was an entirely different ' kettle of fish '.

When it came to call up time, my Father just needed to sign a paper that I was needed on the farm and that would have been the end of the story, but I told him I was going to volunteer for the R.A.F. and not to sign the paper . After numerous arguments he eventually agreed and after a normal army medical at Carlisle, I was sent to Doncaster for three days to an Air Crew selection board where all the tests that we were given, including Morse code etc., were no problem. I failed the medical due to faulty colour vision, and I was told it was the Army or the pits for me.

Eventually I received a letter, which told me to report to Anfield Plain Co. Durham on the 20th. November 1944, where after booking in at the Hostel, I would report to the old Morrison Pit for a month’s training. The training consisted mainly of work on the surface designed to get you fit. If you went down the pit, it was all nice and clean and no coal production took place while we were there, we were given a limited choice of what area we would like to work in . I looked at the map and thought the Ferryhill area of Co. Durham was the nearest place from home. Luckily I was able to go there and I was sent to the Dean and Chapter Colliery for a further fortnight's training and then to Mainsforth colliery, Ferryhill where I was to stay for the rest of my time as a Bevin Boy. The Hostel at Ferryhill was about a mile from the Colliery, so luckily I did not spend a lot of time travelling to work, and I could walk to work if I wanted to save expense. Starting work at a Colliery where coal was being dug and brought to the surface was entirely different from what I had seen before. If the seam was deep and dry, the dust was everywhere, often you were black before you reached your place of work because you often had to walk half a mile or a mile "IN BYE" as they used to call it . Sometimes I had to work in seams which were not very deep and they were cold and wet. The work we did was described as "DATAL" work, consisted of mainly labouring jobs, which released regular miners to go on coal production. Those jobs were piece-work.

After about a year of carrying pit props, fastening tokens on tubs, pushing tubs under conveyor belts for filling with coal, linking tubs onto the haulage system which took them to the bottom of the shaft ready to go to the surface, I was called into the overman’s office one morning and asked if I would like a job assisting a fitter who repaired coal cutting machines, conveyor belts etc. This meant I would no longer have to work shifts but would be permanently on days, in other words, 8a.m. start every day, I readily accepted.

I do not remember how long I was on this new job which was much better than my previous work and more interesting, but guessing it would be about a year. One morning it all changed, I was asked to go to the inspector’s office and wait to see him, I wondered what I had done wrong! He asked me would I be staying in the pits after the end of conscription, and as I said I would not even consider staying, he said that they would have to remove me from my job as they wanted someone to assist the fitter who would be permanent, so it was back to shifts and "DATAL" work for the rest of my pit days. During my time at Mainsforth Colliery I left the miners’ hostel for a while and went into lodgings with a miner who worked at the same pit. Although it was much cheaper than living in the hostel I never settled. One reason was that I missed the other Bevin Boys when I had free time, I also felt at times that I was in the way as they were a young couple with a baby.

One incident which happened after I was sent back on "DATAL" work and could have had serious consequences is probably worth mentioning. I and a number of other Bevin Boys were sent to work on a new coal face that was being prepared, which was called PROJECT 49. A massive new machine was extracting stone to make a tunnel large enough to lay track on which coal tubs could run, also the tunnel was high enough for miners to walk without bending. Our job was to clear rubble and assist miners to carry girders bolts and plates, which would be used for the roof; timber was also brought in for added safety. One morning we arrived at the place where we were working to find that it was "on the move", as the miners described it. In other words, timbers were cracking and the steel girders sounded as if they were having to stand a lot of pressure. Suddenly a steel girder jumped out of position and hit me on the head. Luckily I was wearing my safety helmet (some miners and Bevin Boys never wore them) which took some of the force, nevertheless, I was knocked unconscious and remember wakening. As I was being carried out on a stretcher, I was taken back to the Hostel in an ambulance (no hospital check up). The doctor arrived and told me to go home as soon as I felt well enough and see my doctor back home. Luckily I soon recovered and was back at work in about 10 days, I could not afford to stay off work any longer than was necessary. Incidentally, I was told that the new project caved in all together the following day and had to be completely restarted (I was never sent there again).

As I am getting towards the end of my time as a "Bevin Boy", I keep thinking about things I will never forget, for instance, the speed at which the pit cage used to descend and ascend, I always thought the Banksman was trying to frighten the life out of us Bevin Boys, also if you were unlucky to be on the outside of the cage you were soaked with water on the way down. Another thing I remember was the shock of finding a mouse in my "BAIT" when it came to snap time. This was before I had bought a sandwich tin. Also, I remember miners who never washed there backs because they said it weakened them. I will also remember the smell from miners who chewed tobacco and there was a large number of them in those days.

Eventually the summer of 1947 came round and I was released and went back to farming for a few years. I was married in 1950 and moved from Cumbria into Yorkshire where I started work in the insurance industry and remained until I retired in 1986.