The fact that Albert Puddy’s National Service number ended in a ‘9’ was to change his life forever!
Called up for national Service in 1943, at an initial interview, partially because of his height (6ft 1in), he was told he could expect Officer-Cadetship in the Brigade of Guards. In as much as anybody could do so in a time of war, Albert was quite looking forward to becoming a Guardsman and was proud to sign up accordingly. Chance unfortunately robbed him of that opportunity.
The nation was short of coal. In those days coal was the source of power for virtually everything; electricity, gas, making steel, railway-engines, many ships were still coal-burning, and coal-fires were the usual source of heating and hot-water in domestic houses. A reliable supply of coal was essential for the war effort. As an alternative to military service, men were offered the choice of volunteering to become coal miners but by 1943 there were nowhere near enough volunteers. Something had to be done and done quickly to get more men mining coal. Ernest Bevin, then Minister of Labour and National Service made the decision. Every week 1-in-10 of that week’s intake would become miners. A number between 0 and 9 was drawn at random (literally out-of-a-hat in the Minister’s office) and if your National Service number ended with that number – you were destined to go ‘down the pit’ for the duration of the war.
The week Albert was called up for National Service, number ‘9’ was drawn out of the hat and he was disgusted to receive a letter telling him he had been directed to become a miner. He had no choice in the matter; the letter threatened him with prison if he didn’t report for training. Albert’s first reaction was that he would sooner go to prison! However his father urged him to accept his fate, telling Albert it was his patriotic duty to respond to the Government’s call because the Country needed coal so Albert reluctantly agreed to comply. He was sent a travel-warrant to go from his home in Essex to Cresswell Colliery in Derbyshire to be trained as a miner.
At Cresswell Colliery he was issued with a miner’s helmet and a pair of steel-capped boots, but that was all. He would have to work as a miner wearing his own clothes. He was soon to learn that his boots would wear out after about three months and he would have to pay for a new pair. He would have to buy all his own clothes at a time when clothing was strictly rationed – and he would have to meet all the other expenses of day-to-day life. As a miner he did receive an extra ration of coal, mainly to heat water for washing every day after work, but no extra food-ration apart from a small extra amount of cheese!
At first, he said, it wasn’t too bad. Fortunately Cresswell was a modern colliery which had hostels for the trainee miners, pit-head baths and modern canteens serving good meals every day. Training began on the surface but then transferred underground where they were taught to operate machinery conveying coal to the surface. National Service men (soon to be called ‘Bevin Boys’) did not usually work at the coal-face. Cutting coal with a pickaxe and shovel was skilled work done by regular miners who were reluctant to have an unskilled ‘draftee’ working alongside whose performance and concern for safety could not be relied on. So work at the coal-face remained in the hands of regular miners whose work was more dangerous but also paid significantly higher wages.
Life for Albert became much harder after he had completed his training. He was sent to an old pit in the small mining village of Shirland, also in Derbyshire. Coal mines (pre-nationalisation) were privately owned and mine owners competed to produce coal as cheaply as possible. Consequently no mine-owner ever spent more than was absolutely necessary on mining equipment or pit-head facilities for a mine whose coal seams might run out at any time without warning.
The pithead machinery at Shirland was old and dilapidated. There was no hostel, no pit-head baths, and no canteen. Conditions underground were far worse than anything he had experienced in training. He was constantly bent double moving tubs of coal along galleries only about 4ft 6in high. There was little light, no toilets of any kind, nowhere to take a meal-break. It was hard work; dark, dirty, dusty, hot, and uncomfortable. He frankly admits to ‘being scared. Everybody was’.
At mines without a hostel for the Bevin Boys (and that was most of them because the Government soon stopped building hostels) the mine owners arranged accommodation with local landladies. An allowance was taken from a miner’s wages to pay for board and lodging but was far from generous. ‘None of the landladies ever grew rich’, Albert said. His first accommodation (arranged by Shirland Mine) was as a lodger in a small terraced house. No heating in the bedrooms, toilet outside in the yard, and no bathroom. To clean up after work he would bathe in a galvanised tub in the scullery: Or in warm weather, outside in the back-yard. He went looking for better lodgings and moved three times until eventually he found a bedroom in a council-house with a modern bathroom and an inside toilet.
He worked at least 8 hours a day, 5 days-a-week, in the winter months never seeing daylight from one weekend to another. He got two days off at Christmas, 3 or 4 days at Easter and one week’s holiday a year (Wakes Week so called) for which he would be issued with a travel-warrant to enable him to go back home – but no holiday pay.
Albert didn’t receive anything like the money coal-face miners were paid. If he didn’t report for work or if, for any reason, the mine was not working, he would miss that day’s pay. The most he ever earned in a week was £4.00, which he only accomplished by working every single day. On these wages he couldn’t afford the train-fare to visit his family back home in Essex, so he volunteered for night and weekend shifts which paid better. He worked with more experienced miners ‘Ripping-Out’ pit-props from worked-out galleries so the props could be used elsewhere. It was difficult and more dangerous work.
Ripping-Out was done when no coal was being mined or moved, so the mine would be unsettlingly quiet and darker than usual. Sunday work was to recover the more expensive steel pit-props. There was always the danger of a roof collapse so wooden props were inserted temporarily to shore up the roof while the steel props were removed. Unfortunately for Albert, a wooden prop fell out, hit him in the face and broke some of his front teeth. As a Bevin boy Albert was neither a service-man nor a civilian. Had he been in any of the forces, he would have been given whatever dental work was necessary as the result of his accident at work but as a civilian he had to meet all the costs himself. Unable to afford expensive dental repairs, Albert had the damaged teeth removed; a decision which was to have an unfortunate impact on his later career.
However bad the situation got for Albert he had one consolation. Although he respected miners at the coal-face as ‘Hard Men’ (they had to be tough to cope with such arduous work in cramped spaces) he recounted that ‘I actually felt sorry for them, particularly for the younger men. At some point I knew the war would be over and I would be released from being a miner. I could go back home and live a normal life but they were stuck. They were going to be miners for the rest of their lives – and I felt sorry for them’.
When Albert was at home for Christmas in 1946, his parents were dismayed to find him in such poor physical condition (primarily from an infected cut on his arm) that they sent him to their doctor who immediately admitted him to hospital. When he was discharged, he was able to arrange his release from mining.
Fate however had one last trick to play on him. When, a few weeks later, Albert applied to join the Port of London Authority River Police he would have been accepted apart from one thing. In those days police recruits had to have all their own teeth. So Albert’s application was rejected because an accident down-the-pit had lost him a few teeth.
Bevin Boys never received the recognition they deserved for their time in the pits. Unlike other service-men, Bevin Boys had no right to go back to their previous occupations. They received no ‘demob’ suit, or even a letter of thanks, and didn’t qualify for service medals of any kind.
The Bevin Boys formed an association in 1989 to press, amongst other things, for official recognition of their services in the form of a decoration but it wasn’t until 1995 (50 years after VE Day) that the Queen mentioned them in a speech and they were allowed to formally participate in Remembrance Day at The Cenotaph in London. Eventually in 2007, Tony Blair as PM said the Government would express the country’s ‘sense of gratitude’ to the workers by awarding them a badge in 2008 to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the demobbing of the last Bevin Boy. The badge was designed in conjunction with the Bevin Boys Association, and featured a pithead-gear and a profile of a miner.
A few years ago Albert suffered a minor stroke which affected his speech and his walking but thanks to his determined regime of regular exercise he made a full recovery. At 94 Albert still goes for a walk every day, keeps his garden in good shape, and tackles occasional DIY jobs around the house. When he went ‘down-the-pit’ as a Bevin Boy to do his patriotic duty and help produce coal for the war-effort, Albert Puddy was a tough guy – and he still is!
Albert Puddy, PPAGDC, PPGSN was initiated into New Concord Lodge in September 1970, so he has been a Mason for just over 50 years. He was a member of Redbourn Lodge, later WM, and a member of both Harpenden Lodge and Chapter of which he was MEZ in 1994.