“Don’t go down the mine daddy – there’s plenty of coal on top”.
That was the joke that became a reality in 1944 when, instead of being able to join the Royal Navy, Neil Kendall was called up and became a Bevin Boy.
No appeal was permitted as the Government had previously allowed miners to join the Armed Forces and then found they had an embarrassing shortage of... yes, coal miners!
Neil, of South Shore, recalls: “So it was six weeks training for wet-behind-the-ears young lads, who had only expected to go underground when they popped their clogs.
“We were sent to the huge Horden Colliery and then posted to a mine at Seaham Harbour, which went far out beneath the North Sea on the County Durham coast.
“Were we carried kicking and screaming into the pit cages and lowered hundreds of feet into the black darkness? Of course not – we fastened our cap lamps to our helmets and got on with our dangerous new life.
“My job was to be in charge of a landing point, the nearest I was ever to get to a naval carrier’s flight deck.
“Here I marshalled trains of full coal tubs and periodically rang an engine room for them to be transported to the main pit shaft. In between trains I initially sat on my tod in the darkness listening to the occasional scurrying rats! Then, one day, I had a shaft of light in my brain and, always an avid reader, joined the local library and smuggled books down the mine.
“That’s how I came to one day experience the irony of being sat in the blackness of a coal mine, the only light from my cap lamp, reading the famous Welsh mining novel How Green Was My Valley.”
Neil says: “So I spent the many months of my temporary entombment, interspersed with attending medical boards in an attempt to secure my discharge, as you were only sent ‘down under’ if you were medical category A1.
“Finally, after seeing me so regularly, the chairman of the medical board at Preston, God bless him, looked at the board’s findings, then looked at me and said: ‘You’re A1 again - you know what that means?’
“He looked at my crestfallen face and added: ‘I’m going to take a chance with you, young man and put B1 on my report.’
“I was out in three weeks, hung up my miner’s lamp and helmet and cleared the last of the coal dust from my pores. Oh yes, and returned my last library book to Seaham Library.
“All this comes back as a distant memory with the news that the powers-that-be have finally recognised the service of the Bevin Boys and a memorial stone was recently unveiled by the Duchess of Wessex. It has only taken 70 years but How Green Is My Valley now?”