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Bevin Boy tells his story

PUBLISHED: 16:22 27 March 2008 | UPDATED: 07:18 01 August 2010

AS thousands of Bevin Boys across the country were finally recognised for their efforts during the Second World War this week, Beccles Bevin Boy Jim Wyatt has come forward to tell of his own experience in the mines of the North East.

AS thousands of Bevin Boys across the country were finally recognised for their efforts during the Second World War this week, Beccles Bevin Boy Jim Wyatt has come forward to tell of his own experience in the mines of the North East.

Mr Wyatt, 81, was one of 48,000 unsung Bevin Boys who were conscripted to mine coal in the war and had never been officially honoured.

But on Tuesday Mr Wyatt finally received a medal through the post celebrating his contribution, and said he was glad that he and his fellow Bevin Boys had finally got the recognition they deserved.

Mr Wyatt, who lives in Peddars Lane, was in the Home Guard before the war, and so was expecting to be part of the land army during the conflict. However at the age of 18, at an age when he had never before left Beccles, he was asked to travel to Horden colliery, near Newcastle, to begin a six week training programme.

The training involved general strength building exercises, which included arm wrestling and particular work on the back, as well as working with pit ponies in case he had to work in a gas mine. The men also had to get used to wearing steel capped boots, and were even taught about how coal was formed.

When the six weeks were up Mr Wyatt was allocated to a nearby colliery at Craghead, on the Busty Seam that ran through County Durham.

He worked seven and a half hour shifts underground, more often than not starting at 2.30am. He said that whilst it was very hard work, he generally enjoyed the experience. “Some people couldn't hack it - they went down and wouldn't come up again because they were scared,” he said. “But I got on well with the locals and I was playing for the colliery team in football. I think that made a big difference.

“I accepted the life as it was but I wouldn't want to make a career out of it. When you come up after the shift you're like a bat, blinking in the sunlight.”

Coal mining is a dangerous job in itself, but when one day Mr Wyatt volunteered to do some timber drawing, which involved going into mines that had been spent and withdrawing the timber props because they were expensive pieces of equipment, he was well and truly exposed to the perils of working underground.

“They put up on the notice board that you could work for half a shift and get paid for a full one if you wanted to do timber drawing. The locals didn't want to do it,” he explained. “We'd been down there about an hour and a half and suddenly there was a big crash and a cloud of dust and grit as the whole lot caved in. That was the worst moment. Running for your life. I was very fit but we were running on very uneven ground.

“The locals loved hearing about it, they said: 'When are you going down again chuck?'! I didn't do any more timber drawing after that!”

Mr Wyatt said that he was happy that the Bevin Boys have now been officially recognised, mostly to honour the memories of his friends who had not lived to collect their medals- particularly his late friend Barney Wilson who also lived in Peddars Lane and died two years ago.

The old school friends were sent to train together in Horden, and also ended up working together after a man due to be conscripted to Craghead agreed to swap placements with Barney, who was initially set for Gateshead. Both men became members of the Bevin Boys Welfare Association.

Mr Wyatt said: “I didn't worry too much about getting recognition, we were just doing a job, but you've got to be fair with these things. The women's land army has also been recognised recently and I think that's absolutely right, they worked like slaves.

“Barney was always on about how we weren't recognised at occasions like the Armistice, and it did annoy me a bit, but at least we are now. I wish he could have been about to see it.”

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