World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                     William Brailsford 

Life As A Bevin Boy 1943 - 1947

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: William Alan Brailsford M.B.E.
Location of story: Handsworth (Sheffield) South Yorkshire
Background to story: Civilian


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Julie Turner of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of William Alan Brailsford M.B.E.

When I left High Storrs Grammar School, Sheffield in 1935 I was successful in getting a job which was difficult in those days, R Messrs Hadfields Ltd., Steel Manufacturers, famous for manganese steel and world renowned.

I trained as an Accountant and qualified as an Associate of Cost and Works Accountant, by correspondence course and attendance at Sheffield University evening classes.

War clouds were gathering and in 1938 being of a certain age I was required to register for Military Service and I remember going to the Artillery Barracks in Glossop Road Sheffield to “sign on” and attending at the Drill Hall near Bramall Lane.

By this time it was realised that War was almost certain and Hadfields was obviously a vital part of the war machine and was asked (or told) by the Ministry of Aircraft Production to build a factory on a greenfield site to manufacture 500 lb bombs. I was detailed to be responsible for the Capital Expenditure and administration of this project, which was to be located at Swinton Nr. Rotherham. We worked every hour possible 7 days a week. Problems, problems but on record time the factory came into production. Steel melting, casting, 5000 ton presses, annealing, machining, hardening, assembly of components. Explosives were dealt with elsewhere.

As a result of this work, I was reserved from being called up. I joined the L.D.V. Local Defence Volunteers, later to be the Home Guard (Dads Army). I was the only N.C.O. who had not been an ‘Old Sweat’ in the First War. We were ‘E’ Company; our C.O. was a Guards Officer. We were charged with the defence of East Hecla Works as Hadfields was called.

It was near the time when we were achieving full production at the Swinton factory, that the Ministry told us to close it, I think the bombs were too small.

I volunteered to join the Royal Navy, passing both the medical and quite searching mental written examination and was recommended for the Officers’ Training Course.

I wanted to be called up. It was 1943 and Ernest Bevin, who was Minister of Labour, needed more manpower in the coalmines. He decided that anyone being called up with a number 9 at the end of their registration number would be directed down a coalmine as their compulsory National Service.

I was convinced I was in the Navy but to my horror I received Bevins invitation, against which I actively objected, attending a Tribunal in Leeds – result I was directed down a coalmine. I was a Bevin Boy.

Training took place at Woodhouse, near Sheffield, where I suppose some 50 of us were instructed in the running of a colliery safety measure, duties, and responsibilities. Physical Training was a regular part of the course and I remember being ‘matched’ with Alan Brown in the boxing sessions. We were both over 6ft tall – he was manager/coach of a Professional Football Club, Sunderland I think and obviously pretty fit. I had all on to stop him killing me in the boxing. I was much better in the Cross Country runs where we ran together and had interesting chats on the way round.

After some 6 weeks we were “fully trained coalminers and I was allocated to the Nunnery Colliery in Handsworth, South Yorkshire which meant I could live at home. Many of the lads were allocated to Bettshomger Colliery in Kent.

My first job was to chip cement off some old bricks and to dismantle a wall (on the surface). My colleague thought this was a great job. Shortly afterwards I was transferred to work on haulage in a drift mine (running straight down into the ground) extracting a high grade coal from the Furnace Seam. All the coal was processed through a coking plant at Orgreave, producing valuable bi-products, besides, coke, tar, natha, petrol, gas.

The drift mine as it ran straight into the hill side and being relatively near the surface was very wet. Often water would be pouring from the roof, we wore waterproofs, got pretty wet and we became very tired ploughing through the deep mud with our huge safety boots. The smell was disgusting – sulphurated hydrogen – bad egg smell and I can still recall it when thinking about it. The seam was only 1ft 9ins. So much of our work was ripping and removing the overburden. This grey material was razor sharp when shattered and removed but became a soft shale very quickly when exposed to the outside atmosphere. We hauled the coal and rock to the surface with a very old worn compressed air donkey engine.

Signals were given by one ring to stop, two to go on a bell system. The ground was very unstable and the roof would come under pressure causing great problems.

The person in charge of operations, the Deputy, may have been good at his job, but like so many of the Managers was blunt in conversation and the continuous use of bad language was accepted as the only way of making English understandable.

After some time on the Furnace seam I was transferred to a deep mine in the same District, the Handsworth and Flocton seams.

The shaft had been sunk around 1880 and coal had been extracted in such a way to leave a block under Sheffield to avoid subsistence. Consequently the working faces were becoming a long way from the pit bottom and it would take an hour to walk along the roadways to the coal fact. As the seam was on a decline it became hotter and hotter and we shed out clothing as we went. A large bottle of cold tea was like champagne and I soon learned that if I did not have a Snap Tin I would have no grub. The first time I put my sandwiches in my pocket the rats ate them and my pocket while I was away working.

T this time I was allocated to work on haulage with the aid of a put pony for the motive power. A wonderful animal with tremendous power. The stables underground were very well run, the ponies well looked after and the many rats were well fed too.

Haulage of coal and overburden to the put bottom was a tortuous business, reasonably carried out with the pit pony on the more level areas. All the time I was bedevilled by being 6ft tall and my safety helmet worked overtime and often I thought my head was being pushed down into my body. My pony would pull 6 or more tubs each holding 10cwts.

My next job was haulage with the use of compressed air engines in a very uneven location where the roadways were up steep inclines and valleys due to the numerous faults. The tubs in line would be se off from the loader and down a roadway into the darkness with a great rumble. Frequently a ‘stopper’ would be put in the wheel to retard the speed. After a short time an even greater rumble would be heard as the line of tubs would come off the rails and finish in a confused mass of tubs and coal or rock. The delays caused by having to rectify the situation were many and I used to complain to the Deputy (the boss) about the complete inefficiency of the workings.

I had now progressed from having a Davy Safety Lamp which on occasion went out – a worrying situation when working alone, to an electric lamp with the battery on my belt and the light on the safety helmet.

During my service underground I worked on most of the jobs. Ripping with a hydraulic ‘digger’ to removing rock, coal getting and loading. We had no machinery as is now available, the only mechanical aid was a conveyor belt. The roof conditions varied considerably from stable rock formations, where holding up the roof was relatively easy to faulty rock which required steel arches in the roadways with shuttering. When moving a coal fact forward the coal would be removed and the overburden put in the ‘GOB’, virtually building a block wall behind as we progressed. This held up the roof. Pit props were also used. If the appropriate supports were not put in position, the pressure would “come on” and reduce the height probably causing more ripping to be done.

The Deputy gave me the opportunity to carry out some of his duties – I helped with shot firing and some surveying – I even carried the caged canary used to identify gas (fire damp). Fortunately the canary never keeled over whilst in my care.

Ventilation was a problem. In one location air was fed to the working area along a canvas pipe about a foot in diameter. In other places a great wind would be blowing, interrupted in various places by large rubber doors.

Accidents wee frequently suffered but during my time there were no major falls. Absenteeism was a major headache and I do not think there were any working weeks when one or more of the team was not off sick or injured. I am pleased to say I never missed a shift over nearly 4 years despite the fact I could not say I enjoyed the work. There were no pit had baths and I would go home straight from the mine as we all did.

At one stage I was so frustrated by the interruptions caused by inefficiencies that I asked the Deputy to arrange for me to see the Managing Director of the Company. I was not Nationalised at that time.

He thought this was most unusual but I insisted and eventually was invited to see
Mr. Ditcher, the M.D. at the Head Office at Nether Edge. I took the opportunity of asking him when he had last been down the mine. Had he any idea at all of the low level of efficiency etc. He spared me nearly an hour – a most interesting conversation and no doubt one of the most unusual interviews that either of us ever had. I realised the put was an old one and little could be done to really improve tings. I thought the event was worthwhile as a fact reporting mission. As I recall the only r result o my interview was to e invited to a cocktail party of the Mine Officials. A Bevin Boy on parade!!

Maybe it also resulted in being asked to help in the wages Department as the Manager had had a nervous breakdown.

This gave me an opportunity to meet many of the miners. They were a great lot, particularly underground, they would risk their lives for their mates. They tended to lie from day to day and if they had any money left at the weekend they would be hard pressed to turn up on Monday. Very many would ask for a ‘sub’ every week, which had to be deducted from the next weeks age – only to ask for another. Some would ask for a spare wage packet so that their wife would not be aware of total earnings.

A coal allowance was available to married men and 2/6 a week was deducted for a load of coal. They purchased safety boots paying a few coppers a week by deduction from wags.

My wages over nearly 4 years were £5.00. per week except when on a few occasions I stood in for someone who would be paid overtime or some allowance according to the job.

I gave my notice in every week but it was rejected until eventually I was formally released from my National Service in 1947.

I had made friends with some of the miners who would invite me to their home – small back to back terrace houses, spotlessly clean, as far as was possible in a mining area. The Yorkshire Range would have the brasses highly polished and the fire would be roaring up the chimney even in summer. Hot water was required for the bath in the Tin Bath on the hearth. Outside many houses would be a load of coal, he cellar being full.

On leaving, he miners gave me a party – that is a drinking session. It was with some trepidation that I went along knowing how these fellows could drink – 8 pints on Saturday lunchtime and “we’ll go out and really have some tonight”.

However, the session at the Greyhound at Attercliffe and another pub the name of which I cannot recall went off successfully although I must admit I could not manage to read the destination board on the tramcars so I walked all the way home to Broomhill.

This period in the mines was a relatively isolated one for me as friends of my age had left the area and were in all parts of the world on active service. Some consolation was had from being Hon. Secretary of the Sheffield Rover Scouts which at the end of the War numbered 1,200. Every month a printed magazine was compiled by the District Commissioner (Gibby) in which I assisted. It was sent around the World to each of the Rover Scouts and kept them in touch with home. Their stories form part of the magazine called ‘SLABS’(Sheffield Local Association of Boy Scouts).

This was my National Service as a conscription BEVIN BOY – an experience I would not have had or chosen except for the War – and never a medal in sight.