Life underground with Second World War’s forgotten Bevin Boy

Bill Gibbs EMN-150326-164324001
Bill Gibbs EMN-150326-164324001

The armed forces are credited as the key figures of Britain’s Second World War effort; conscripted to help, they ensured the nation’s safety.

However, behind the scenes, a second vital operation was also underway, in which vast numbers were called up to work and provide for King and country - these were the Bevin Boys.

Bill Gibbs' medals EMN-150326-164336001

Bill Gibbs' medals EMN-150326-164336001

Although not recognised for their efforts in the war until 1995, these men provided vital fuel for the war machine, as Horncastle resident and Bevin Boy Bill Gibbs remembers.

At the age of 17, he attended Wintringham Secondary School, which included an Officers’ Training Unit for preliminary army education.

He was fascinated by what he learnt, and so was eager to volunteer for the army, especially as the war had already started, and tales of extraordinary feats by soldiers were trickling into the British press.

Since he was not of age, this could only be achieved through his parents signing a form to permit early entrance - but his mother would not sign.

A year later, a fortnight after his 18th birthday, Bill’s anguished resentment at this was amplified when he received his call-up papers.

He had naturally assumed he would be billeted into the army due to his previous knowledge, but Bill found himself facing conscription as a Bevin Boy coal-miner, as did one in 10 men because many previous miners had raced to be freed from the mining-system and joined the army, leaving a lack of workers to acquire the vital fuel.

Refusing the call-up meant being labelled a conscientious objector and prison.

Bill was given four weeks training at Cresswall Colliery; an astonishingly paltry amount of time for a previous Junior Clark at a bank, and then allocated to Clipstone Colliery.

The beginning of his placement was marked by the back-breaking manual labour of an individual 20-ton daily target, toiling 1,000 yards into the earth, in claustrophobic conditions.

Despite being “horrified” at the role he had to play in the war effort, Bill remarked he was “never frightened” of the tight, suffocating atmosphere, despite having to work on his knees for hours at a time.

He made friends quickly, describing the camaraderie as “great.”

More salt was poured into Bill’s wound of despondency at not being placed in the army when he realised he had to live in army-style Nissan huts with 12 men to a cabin; this, plus his meals, had to be paid for by his weekly wage of 65 shillings. When he was eventually ‘demobbed’ and allowed a return to civilian life, he found a significant lack of recognition for his work; a sharp contrast to his following job as a policeman.

However, due to the tightly controlled private life and minute wages of the police’s lifestyle, Bill soon decided to return to the mines as an employee, most likely due to the astonishingly amicable atmosphere of working life there, despite living among dismal, jagged slagheaps. However, the Colliery house he lived in with his new wife had little power, and coal found its way into every nook; even the bottom of the washtub.

A friend managed to persuade Bill to join the Colliery miners’ rescue team, which would be called out to any incident as a backup for the more prepared permanent squad.

Bill received medals for his help in this team: they attended many mine emergencies –the worst being on September 27, 1950. A conveyor belt had caught fire at Cresswell Colliery; the continuous motion of this equipment had caused the fire to swell quickly, which, with the toxic gases produced, left 80 miners dead.

Bill and his team fought for three days to put the fire out and seal off the pit; leaving some men’s bodies trapped; these were eventually brought out the following Easter. The village was so small that nearly every family was affected by the tragedy, but the mining amity meant that all there rallied together.

This “good life” Bill experienced at the mines is a testament to the concept of making the most from an apparently dire situation. Despite his initial disappointment at not attaining a position in the army, and despite the harsh working conditions at the collieries, which included wearing only shorts and a vest to descend into the pits, Bill felt extremely content there, even stating he felt being billeted into the mines may have been a blessing because he may not be alive today had he left to fight.

After retiring from the mines, Bill took on a host of varied jobs, before settling in Horncastle 12 years ago where now lives off Langton Hill.