Today’s unveiling of a memorial to the ‘Bevin Boys’ – conscripted men who were sent down the mines during the Second World War – got me thinking about my grandfather Colwyn, who died about 20 years ago now.
Col was a wiry, grumpy old bugger who made the mistake of thinking that small children appreciate sarcasm (they really don’t). He was also an expert whistler and a champion grower of tomatoes. When courting my grandmother, Morfydd, he walked a fifteen-mile round trip every Sunday to see her.
He started work at the Wyndham Colliery in South Wales as a young newly-wed, and was quickly promoted to Safety Officer. Jobs in coal mines don’t come much more significant than that. This was in the glory days of the South Wales Miners’ Federation – the ‘Fed’, which sent so many radicalised young men to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. If you ever find yourself in the Wyndham (which is admittedly unlikely, unless you’ve got family in Nantymoel or you’ve got badly lost on the way to the Gower), you’ll find the ‘Fed stone’ – a massive boulder where unofficial union meetings were once held – set into the playing field that now covers the decommissioned slag heap.
The seams of the South Wales coal field are notoriously narrow. Men spent their working lives bent double in knee-high water, unable to stand fully for an entire shift in the baking underground heat. In the winter, when they went to work before sunrise and came up after sundown, it meant not seeing the sun at all during the working week. Deaths, amputations and grievous injuries were known hazards – and, given his job, were Col’s responsibility when they occurred.
Col hated mining, but unfortunately for him, he was too damned good at his job. When war was declared in 1939 he asked immediately to be released so that he could sign up for the army instead, but – despite repeated requests – he wasn’t allowed to leave the pit. By the time of the miners’ strike in 1984 – the Wyndham Colliery had closed at the beginning of that year – he had long retired. But despite the economic devastation, until he died he counted the day of the pit’s closure as one of the happiest in his life. ‘It was a filthy place. No man should spend his working life on his knees.’
So I’ll raise a glass to the Bevin Boys today – but also to all the men who worked for decades in conditions most of us couldn’t withstand for more than a couple of hours. Seems to me they deserve a national memorial too.