All hands to the coalface

Another bleak landscape. Next time someone talks to you wistfully about the past, the days of old king coal, think of this. This, the pollution, hardship, and generations of poor education, poverty and poor health are what they're unwittingly celebrating. We owe those men a massive debt, we as a community and society stand on their shoulders. We must never forget that. Taken from 'Coal Mining in Walsall Wood, Brownhills and Aldridge' by Brian Rollins and Walsall Local History Centre.

Walsall Wood Colliery, for one, would have been at full tilt during the war. We owe those miners a massive debt, we as a community and society stand on their shoulders. We must never forget that. Taken from ‘Coal Mining in Walsall Wood, Brownhills and Aldridge’ by Brian Rollins and Walsall Local History Centre.

I’m intrigued by the following report in the Lichfield Mercury, from November 15th 1940. I found it whilst searching the newspaper archives for reports of wartime evacuees in the area, and I had no idea adults were evacuated at all.

It seems 120 miners came to Brownhills in in the first year of the Second World War, moved by ‘The Ministry of Labour’. This raises more questions than it answers.

  • Where did the miners come from?
  • Why were they not needed where they were?
  • Which pits did they work at?
  • Did any remain here after the war?
  • Was this widespread?

Coal was obviously the lifeblood of the war effort – it moved trains, melted metal and produced gas. It heated homes and powered a lot of canal transport, so it was vital to maintain production – but since mining was a protected profession, where did the ‘spare’ workers come from?

I welcome anyone who can shed light on this for me. Please comment here or BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Thanks.

Anglesey Wharf-1

Coal production was essential to the war effort. Coal Wharves like Anglesey Basin here would have been hives of industry. Picture supplied by Andy Dennis.


Considerable discussion ensued at Wednesday evening’s meeting of the Brownhlls Urban District Council, concerning the housing of evacuees, when it was pointed out that the authorities had the right to commandeer any house for that purpose.

Councillor L. Sadler said they had now a large number of evacuees, including 120 miners moved by the Ministry of Labour. There was now a housing shortage owing to the influx of those people, and they would have to re-fit some of the houses waiting demolition. The Housing Committee felt that those people who had been sent there were entitled to all the consideration that could be given them. Some of those people should be given priority even over their own people.

Councillor R. A. Jones said there was a motion put before the Health Committee to deal with that part of the business, but he found out that nothing of the kind had arisen from the motion. It was moved that the Health Committee should give their chief Sanitary Inspector instructions to house those people who had become homeless, and in the finish, like many other businesses in that local authority, it came back the Maintenance Subcommittee. It was wrong to state that the matter was settled.

The Chairman (Councillor J. A. Robson): That is what I said. No definite decision was made on the matter. Councillor D. Marklew: Whatever Minute there is, the Sanitary Inspector has power in the matter.

In regard to a letter from the Lichfield Superannuation Joint Committee expressing the hope that the Council would pay both the employer’s and employees contributions of their employees who Joined H.M. Forces, rather than pay subsequently by means of increase in the equal annual charge, it was agreed that both contributions be paid in such cases.

On the recommendation of the Fire Brigade Committee it was agreed that the Surveyor should submit rough plan and estimate of cost of adapting the Fire Station for sleeping by making a room in the roof, and that work bo proceeded with

Councillor Sadler said he was glad they were at last going to get an extension to the Fire Station, and have facilities more in keeping with the service. At the present moment they were under very great difficulties, and the men were sleeping on the floor.

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15 Responses to All hands to the coalface

  1. Pedro says:

    A nice article concerning evacuees can be seen on the staffordshirebred site…

  2. goodcuppa says:

    i believe some of the extra miners were the lads who could not join the forces. I watched a programme about this, one lad was so annoyed when he got his call up paper and sent to the pits, not sure if they became the bevin boys. Who, until recently were not acknowledged for their war work. I used to be a case worker for SSAFFA, and found it very sad that there were a number of civilian groups during the war that were not recognised for their active service

    • Andy Dennis says:

      I think maybe you refer to the Bevin Boys, but that was much later in the war.

      Dad used to talk about a lodger they had, when they lived at the corner of Watling Street and Castle Street, and I’ve been trying to recall the name; Harry something-or-other. Too late to ask him, now. I wonder if he was one of the 120.

      One thought is that they came from pits that were no longer productive, perhaps through bombing or underground fires.

      • Thanks. What’s interesting me is that – unless Brownhills was unique – there must have been an influx to other coalfields. If so, that’s quite a number of families migrating.


  3. David Oakley says:

    I share Bob’s curiosity about these 1940 miners. As I remember it, although Direction of Labour was a regulation adopted early in the war, I do not remember it applying to coalmining at that time.. H.M. Forces was the dominant recruiting need and young miners received calling-up papers and could elect to serve in the armed forces. Many did so and coupled with this depletion of labour, together with deaths and retirement of older miners, national tonnage of coal output plummeted from 1939 to 1943. At this point Ernie Bevin, the Minister of Labour, being aware of this crisis, decided that a) miners would no longer be eligible for call-up into the armed forces. b). In future, all men liable for military service would take part in a ballot, every ninth name would be directed to work as a coalminer. Bevin initially called these men ‘Ballotees’, but they soon became known as ‘Bevin Boys’. A reluctant army, to say the least. At least one was recorded as a suicide in his fear of going underground, and police courts where often crowded with ‘absentees’. This did not take place until 1943, so the 1940 dateline leaves me puzzled. There was always a slight turnover of labour in the industry, miners moving to different pits, with the occasional new face, appearing. But I do not remember an influx such as this in Walsall Wood or Brownhills, so early in the war. Hoping we get a little more light on this.

  4. Must admit that I hadn’t realised there were adult evacuees in WW2 until I read Nella Last’s War many years ago. (I think her diaries were dramatised but I never caught it.) Taking into account the many that were made homeless and jobless, it made sense. It wasn’t compulsory but the billeting of such evacuees with locals in town where they were needed for work was. A story that has never really been told. The Bevan Boys were an entirely separate kettle of fish.

  5. Pedro says:

    Alderman Jones (Midland miners Federation December 1940) expressed doubt as to whether any men could be called up from the Midland coalfields without doing serious harm to the national cause. It was very easy, he said, for people to say “take young men from the mines and re-draft men from other coalfields to take their places….coalfields could absorb an additional number of men without releasing a single man, and in view of the present big demand for coal he hoped the Tribunals would not act hastily in taking men from the mines for they might find that before the winter was over they had inflicted a serious injury upon the capacity of the industry to produce the needed coal and thereby weaken our war effort…

  6. Warren Parry says:

    I remember my grand father talking of some Polish miners that came over. I remember this clearly as my gran father was telling me of how 1 met his end on one of his shifts.
    May be the Polish miners were some of the 120?

  7. anereen says:

    Re. 120 miners,

    Polish and Ukrainian miners were present, on the other hand, whilst I might be wrong, Snowdown, Tilmanstone and Betteshanger collieries, just outside Dover were just in range of German big artilery, not to mention aircraft, so some may have been from there, the same pits received an influx of Geordie and Scottish miners after the war to fill the gap, NCB archives might tell a tale.

  8. Pedro says:

    The newspaper article is dated November 1940, but it was not until 1942 that the government took over control of the mining industry from the owners.

    Found the following recorded in Hansard for September 1940…

    The Secretary for Mines (Mr. David Grenfell)

    The number of unemployed mine workers registered by the Ministry of Labour in County Durham at 12th August was 4,178 wholly unemployed and 13,506 temporarily stopped. Steps are being taken, so far as transport conditions and the qualities of coal produced permit, to give an increased share of orders to Durham. Steps are also being taken, in consultation with both sides of the industry, to encourage the transfer of coal miners from Durham to other coal-mining districts where they are needed, and there has been some relaxation regarding coal miners who are unemployed and wish to take up work in other industries. As I said on 20th August in 172 answer to my hon. Friend, it is necessary to keep a sufficient margin of man-power available in the coal-mining industry to meet all possible demands, and to provide against local interruptions arising out of war conditions. I cannot add to my answer of 20th August in relation to the payment of full wages for short-time working.

    Mr. Adams

    The replies which I have received hitherto have been to the effect that men who are involuntarily unemployed and are retained at the mines do not receive wages for the time lost. It seems an inequitable arrangement. Will the Minister not consider the matter further?

    Mr. Grenfell

    I think I must ask to be excused. Questions touching unemployment benefit must be addressed to another Minister and not to me.

    Mr. Shinwell

    Will the Minister make further inquiries with regard to the removal of the present restrictions on alternative employment, because many men are complaining that although they have been permitted by colliery managers to seek employment in munition works, when they go there they are sent back by the Employment Exchanges?

    Mr. Grenfell

    I am well aware of that, and I have discussed that aspect of the question with representatives of the Durham mineworkers, who are well informed on the subject, and who are in constant touch with the mineworkers, with ourselves and with the Ministry of Labour. I am meeting to-morrow the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, and these two districts of Durham and South Wales will be represented. We are doing everything we can to try to relieve the pressure of unemployment in those two districts, which have suffered such a grievous injury by the collapse of the export trade in circumstances known to everyone in this House.

  9. David Oakley says:

    I think Pedro’s extract from Hansard, “Steps are also being taken,,,,,,,,,to encourage the transfer of coal-miners from Durham, to other coal-mining districts where they are needed”, could throw a little light on our own ‘coal mining evacuees’. What better place than the Cannock Chase coalfields, with all the vast industry of the West Midlands to keep going? Although, I must admit that, being around then, I cannot recollect a noticeable increase of Geordie the village.
    This extract makes interesting reading. It seems that supernumerary miners, in order to keep ‘a sufficient margin of labour available’ were not allowed to leave the industry for other jobs, nether were they paid full wages for the short-time working that was allotted to them. The sticky end of a cleft stick, could it be said?

  10. Pedro says:

    October 1940…Call up of miners…

    Because of the loss of certain export markets, the same amount of output is not required, but the Mines Dept is anxious to ensure adequate coal supplies. Owners and miners representatives are watching the position closely.

    Instead of a general raising of the reserved age for miners the needs and conditions of each coalfield may be examined by special tribunals with a view to the release of miners no longer required.

    30 October 1940… A big call-up to the Army of young miners, whose places will be taken by older unemployed men, is projected under a scheme now under discussion between coal owners, miners and the Ministry of Labour.

    The fact that the discussions were proceeding with Mr Bevin was mentioned to the Executive Council of the South Wales Miners Federation yesterday.

    Mr Oliver Harris, South Wales Sec, said that because of the slump in the coal export trade many thousands of miners were “surplus to the needs”.

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