‘Digging up the past’ with Phil Yates

I hope Phil won’t mind me borrowing the title of his and Warwick Taylor’s book, but I thought such a clever title I couldn’t resist using it for my post today about Phil and his life as a Bevin Boy.Bevin Boy badge

Most people know that during World War Two all male British subjects between 18 and 51 years old and all females aged 20 to 30 years old and who were resident in Britain were liable to be called up for National Service. There were some exemptions such as those who were in the Police, or were blind or in the case of women those who were married, and provision was also made for conscientious objectors. However if you were not on the list of exemptions then you were liable to be conscripted. What is lesser known is that between 1942 and 1945 men aged between 18 and 25 were not necessarily called up to fight. Some 50,000 young men were conscripted to work in the coal mines; they became known as the Bevin Boys. The only reason they ended down the mines rather than fighting was the last digit of their National Service registration number. Whilst they may not have been fighting for their country, they were certainly digging for it. The hours were long and the work was hard in appalling and deafening conditions with no toilet facilities. For a young man like Phil from the southern counties and from an office job it must have been a huge shock to the system. What made it bearable was the friends they made with each other and with the few experienced miners still working in the pits.

I had not really known much about the Bevin Boys until Nicky and I chatted with Phil in his beloved Theatre Royal in Winchester last week. As we listened to him  I was struck by how amazing the Bevin Boys were and how wrong it is that we don’t more about them. They are the Forgotten Conscripts.

As Phil shares in the short video below he was conscripted to the coal mines in April 1945. His first posting was to the Prince of Wales Colliery in Pontefract, West Yorkshire and his lodgings were a few miles away in Castleford. After basic training many of men Phil had trained with were transferred to mines elsewhere, but Phil remained at “The Prince’. His first job was pony driving at the loader end of the coalface. Later on in his service he was on pit bottom (nearest point to the cage) working as a “catch-striker” who releases the “catch” so that empty tubs come out one end and full tubs of coal can go in at the other end. After two years at the “The Prince” Phil was posted to Ackton Hall Colliery where he initially continued as a “catch-striker” before being trained to become an “on-setter” (the person who works the cages from pit-bottom).

Phil wasn’t “demobbed” until March 1948, at which point he returned to Winchester to resume his career in the legal profession. One of the things I found extraordinary, apart from the fact Wintonian office boys ended up down coal mines, was how Bevin Boys were treated by the national media. Phil explains more.

It wasn’t just during the war that they were unrecognised for their war efforts, it was afterwards too. Despite their vital role in the war effort they received no form of recognition for their services and were even refused permission to join in the official war remembrance services. In 1998 the Bevin Boys Association was finally granted the honour of parading in the Remembrance Day Parade at the Cenotaph in London. Phil, who was a key member of the Association, explains how they came about.

Nicky and I felt honoured to have been able to have sat down with Phil and listen to him as he shared some of his stories. They were incredibly moving at times, and at other times very entertaining. In fact we had so much fun Nicky and I are going to meet with him again so that we can discover more about why he has a plaque in the Theatre Royal.

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