Boston Bevin Boy recounts near-death experience working down the mines

Albert Wilson of Boston who worked as a Bevin Boy.
Albert Wilson of Boston who worked as a Bevin Boy.

One of Boston’s last surviving Bevin Boys has spoken of his memories working down the mines – including an incident where he nearly lost his life.

Albert Wilson, of Old Leake, was one of thousands of conscription-age men chosen at random to work in Britain’s mines from 1943-1948.

Despite many labelling them as cowards, the workers were doing their bit during the war by helping to keep the country going - with the huge reliance on coal in those days.

The 89-year-old spend nearly five years working about half-a-mile underground in the dark, damp and dirty Clipstone Collery near Mansfield.

“It wasn’t hard work to me because I worked on the land before as a cabbage cutter,” said Albert, whose main role was being a haulage hand.

It was his job to guide the empty coal tubs send down from the shaft, to other workers who filled them up.

Recently a memorial has been unveiled for the Bevin Boys in Staffordshire - recognising the service they did to their country - and putting an end to decades of being labelled ‘cowards’ for not being chosen to fight in the war.

Albert told how one day his mother even received a letter from someone in the village that contained a white feather - used to signify cowardice.

“It didn’t bother me,” he said. “I know i wasn’t a coward, the work we did had to be done. I asked to go in the air force but didn’t get the chance so I just got on and did the job as well as I could.”

Albert, like other Bevin Boys, received a medal around five years ago - but it is only recently that they their contribution has been fully recognised.

“So many years have gone by and so many people didn’t even know about us,” he said.

His daughter Marion Clark said: “I think it’s really nice they are finally getting this recognition as they were a part of the war effort.”

Albert added: “I don’t feel sorry that we didn’t get recognition at the time. I felt more sorry for those that were fighting as they were the ones getting killed – although I did nearly get killed myself but it was just my big toe that got killed.”

Albert was working down the mine one day when a tub carring over half-a-ton of coal came hurtling towards him down a ramp. The accident was the result of a 15-year-old worker failing to read the correct signals before letting the tub go.

“I would probably have been killed if I had not have moved out the way,” he said. “I had steel toe caps on but it ran over my toe and broke it. I just carried on working and didn’t say anything about it.”

While Albert had a lucky escape, others weren’t as fortunate, and he says he can remember hearing that others had been seriously injured doing the job - with one man falling to his death.

“There were two or three killed when I was there,” he said. “There was one man who got trapped between frame of the cages that carried the tubs up the shaft, and one of the tubs. He was off for about six months but then came back. One bloke threw himself down the shaft as he had lost his wife a few days before. That was a terrible day.”

To keep their spirits up Albert admits he and his workmates would sometimes joke about and ride along in the empty tubs - “although we knew we weren’t allowed to,” he said.

Albert would return home from the pits once a fortnight - and would go straight from the train station to join his band, playing accordian at local dances in the area.

His wife Connie, who died in January this year, worked in a munitions factory.

Speaking about the Bevin Boys, daughter Marion added: “Just because they were not on the front line or fighting doesn’t mean that they didn’t do their bit, and I think Dad was really pleased to get recognised.”

Bevin Boys were named after Ernest Bevin, the government minister who created the roles for about 48,000 men who joined other miners to do the work.

“The Government realised they had made a mistake sending so many off to fight and that they wouldn’t win the war if they didn’t get enough coal out,” said Albert.

Some of his memories come from his time spent in private lodgings, where he said the food wasn’t quite up to scratch, with one trying to pass off horse meat as beef and another ‘watering down the baked beans’.

He soon left for the miner’s hostel - but found he had to share a room with six men - and a bed with a strange man.

After leaving the mines, Albert went back to cutting cabbages in the fields, and later worked as a milkman and in insurance where he stayed for more than 22 years before retiring.