19 Aug 2015 Exhibition podcast: George Brinley Evans
Our second exhibition podcast features George Brinley Evans, writer and ex-miner. George walks through our exhibition with Mike Mantin and talks about the loss of his eye in the mine, working after the accident, life in a mining village and starting his writing career.
Mike Mantin (MM): Welcome to the Disability and Industrial Society podcast, my name is Mike Mantin, and I’m here with George Brinley Evans. George, thank you so much for joining us. If you’d like to say a little bit about where you grew up and which colliery you worked in?
George Brinley Evans (GBE): Well I was born Dyffryn Cellwen in 1925 and I worked in Onllywn No.3 Colliery but everybody called it Banwen Colliery. When I signed on in Banwen Colliery there were 1200 men working in Banwen Colliery.
MM: Now you met with an accident, how old were you when you had that accident?
GBE: I was 30… 1961 so I’d be, what 34?
MM: And then you went on to have quite a long career afterwards.
GBE: Yes yes I went to a training centre in Cardiff and my first important job really was weighing in the coins for the Royal Mint. They were half-penny pieces, it was a sailing boat on the back.
MM: Fantastic, thank you George.
GBE: Now I don’t know it must’ve been in the 1950s and we had Dr Daffyd Aubrey Thomas, have you heard of him?
MM: Yes, yeah.
GBE: Now he opened a clinic in our village where you could go for x-rays, you could have treatment without travelling. Anyway this particular day my mother called me and she said “George, John, Dr Thomas’ son-in-law is here and he’s very worried. Branwen, Dr Thomas’ daughter is expecting a baby and she’s quite ill, she’s been taken into hospital. And a doctor has been called to Onllywn No.1 Colliery and he’s down there attending to someone there who’s injured. I said, “I’ll take him down now” cos John didn’t know nothing about collieries so I drove him down in the car, I went down into the lamproom and they said, “Listen now don’t bother, the doctor’s busy now, he can’t be bothered with you now. WS’ leg had been swept under the coal cutting machine and had taken his leg. I said I don’t want him now, I just want you to let him know that Branwen is alright, she’s in hospital. Righto, they said. And years after, Dr Thomas told me exactly what’d happened now. A coal-cutting machine – you’ve seen the chainsaw haven’t you?
GBE: Think of something much bigger. And the spikes had gone into WS’ leg, digging in, and they had to turn the power off and crank it by hand, and put the spikes back in the hole they had made, and he had to have his leg amputated. This is the attitude people had then, see because Dr Thomas was in the surgery that night after being underground all day.
In the ‘30s, if someone was injured and not to badly injured they’d take him home on the back of a horse. Or they’d take him home on a stretcher. But if he was dead they’d carry him up here. When he was carried down here they’d circle his cap over his face not for him to be embarrassed for him.
MM: So they’d walk him through the town?
GBE: Through the village. Everybody knew everybody.
MM: So they’d know pretty quickly who had died.
GBE: Yeah, and there was one very comical story they used to say about one chap. They’d carried him all the way out underground and up to his house in the village and when they got to the gate he said, “Hang on lads I don’t want to upset the missus,” and he got off the stretcher and walked about a mile.
MM: Oh wow, that’s amazing. So you must have memories of doctors and miners walking through the village, getting to the hospital or wherever they need to go.
GBE: Oh yes, in one of my books I write about Ernie Beecham who lived next door to us. He was 19 years of age and a handsome looking boy, and in them days the only people who came to see you was the minister.
MM: But would the village attend funerals? The whole town coming together?
GBE: Oh yes, they were very…. Most of the men who were miners when I was a young man had been in the First World War. So if they were going to a funeral, if anyone had turned up in brown boots he would’ve been the talk of the valley. They were all dressed smart.
MM: We’ve got a few artefacts in the cases including a mobile ambulance that we found when we were looking at Big Pit.
GBE: St John’s Ambulance was a big, big thing you see.
MM: So they had a branch in your coalfield?
GBE: Oh yes, well we had a proper unit in the village. And Evans and Bevan, the coal owner, built not just ours, St John’s Ambulance all right through the valley. And they used to compete.
MM: Yeah, the competitions. How did you do?
GBE: Well, the one tournament we were very good.
MM: I imagine it must get pretty competitive, people taking pride…
GBE: And I can’t remember quite but I think you used to get a shilling a day for carrying an ambulance box, see. And a shilling a day was quite a tidy sum then.
MM: On top of your wages?
GBE: Oh yes. Because if you carried it for six days you had six shillings. When my mother and father lived in a brand new house built by Evans and Bevan, 3 bedrooms, hot and cold water and a big gaden for twelve shillings a week.
MM: Yeah, so if you’ve got the extra income…
GBE: It’s half of the rent.
MM: So was there a bit of a scrap to get to be the one that carries the ambulance?
GBE: Well they, you’d just go and tell the manager you’d carry it. But you had to be a qualified St John’s Ambulance man.
MM: Yeah. How many of your colleagues do you think became qualified?
GBE: Ooh, quite a big unit you know. And Evans and Bevan, I could’ve put it in my pocket and brought it down to show you. In the First World War, all St John’s Ambulance men had volunteered for the Western Front and were given free of charge 13 tons of coal a year delivered to their house for five years.
MM: Did that stop or did it keep going?
GBE: It went right through the war, you know. They came back and came to work for Evans and Bevan but because they’d gone to the Western Front they were given 13 tons of coal for free. I can remember, every lunar month, the coal was delivered to the house.
MM: And that’s almost a kind of reward?
GBE: Well you know you thought it was good men doing it. But we had an exceptionally good family looking after us. Our valley was run by the Evans and Bevan family.
It was, in the anthracite fields, there you are in the Evans and Bevans family, you know how young people today they say you have special needs?
GBE: Well Evans and Bevan if it was possible to give them a job, he’d give them a job. A simple job.
MM: What kind of job?
GBE: Well you know the rollers that spin on the floor. Go in with a big kettle of oil and just do that all day, every day. But they had full wages.
MM: So there wouldn’t be any wage cuts?
GBE: No no no. Actually they wouldn’t have to go down and beg some civil servant for money. They had money of their own.
MM: That’s nice, that’s a good thing to do.
GBE: Well it is, it is. You know, dignity. The worst thing you can put a man through, you can put a man in this to make him beg for something.
MM: Absolutely. So say if you had your leg injured, your leg amputated and you couldn’t…
GBE: Oh yes, they could find you a job, they could find you a job the Evans and Bevan. And nobody was ever evicted, they owned all the houses as well. And like I told you, my mother lived in a house for 12 shillings a week, and that was everything for me, everything. And there were people, say they had a spinster daughter and she outlived her mum and dad…
MM: Did she get to keep the house?
GBE: She still got to keep the house, never turned out.
MM: And so if you were injured and on compensation, you could still keep the house?
GBE: Oh yes.
MM: One of the panels we’ve got is about rehabilitation, do you know anyone who went through the rehabilitation homes or went to Talygarn?
GBE: Well I didn’t go to there, I lost an eye, see. I went to Cardiff to Western Avenue to be retrained. And as an engineer and storekeeper. 16 of us were living in a house. Mrs MacMahon was the landlady, one of the big houses, and our rent for full board and lodge was £3 10 shillings a week. And it was a good lodge.
MM: Yeah, and that’s pretty reasonable.
GBE: It was very good, yes.
MM: I’d quite like a house for £3.10 a week now but…
GBE: But anyway, cos you had breakfast and evening meal, see.
MM: Yeah, so you get pretty much taken care of?
GBE: Yeah, yeah. And anyway, I wrote a letter, there was something on about our British money made, and I knew it wasn’t right, so I wrote a letter to say the first money minted in Wales was in Western Avenue, Cardiff, because as a trainee engineer and storekeeper, there were blokes there who were injured from ironworks, and they were training them now to work in the new Royal Mint that was still being built. So my first job in the morning was to collect a bowl of blanks, blank coins, and we had to go through the procedure of security and all that, sign for them then take them into the machine shop where these lads would be trained to work in the Royal Mint, and at the end of the shift I’d go and collect the bowl. And you know the old half pennies? You don’t remember…
MM: I do know them, I don’t remember them…
GBE: They had a ship on the back. And that’s what we were making. I’d weigh ‘em, then they’d be packed and sent to the Royal Mint in the town of London. That’s where the first money was made in Wales, in Western Avenue, Cardiff.
MM: By you!
GBE: Well not by me, I used to weigh it in and out.
MM: Still part of the process. So was everyone else at the factory also be injured?
GBE: Oh yes. Not just from the mining industry, from the steelworks. There was a lot of steelworks then.
MM: Port Talbot and Ebbw Vale… Who organised the factories and how did you get there?
GBE: I don’t know, they had this special thing didn’t they, Remploy. My first job was in the hospital service. But the money in civil service was dreadful, I think I was on about £800 a year. So when an engineering company advertised a job I went there.
MM: So how old would you have been then?
GBE: Well I was 35 when I knocked my eye out so I’d be about 37.
MM: So how long was it in between you losing your eye and you getting your next job?
GBE: Ooh about two and a half years. Because I had a really bad infection in the socket. It was that bad that, I forget what they call it, they were injecting me and I was having shivering fits you know, they tried to kill the infection. And you know the wire that ripped my eye out was filthy dirty. Anyway, then I went to work for an engineer company and I ended up with Wimpey, best employer I ever had.
MM: What were you doing?
GBE: I was in the cost office.
MM: We have a, I’ll show you one of the things we’ve got in the cabinet is B.L. Coombes’ original manuscript for These Poor Hands.
GBE: Oh yes, I knew Bert quite well.
MM: Did you communicate about your writing?
GBE: No, well oddly enough my wife used to be the newsagent see, and Bert used to take The Writer, and he was old then, and he was living in a smallholding outside the village. So on days when it was terribly wet Peg would say, “got and take this to Bert.” And there’s a first-aid box, Bert used to carry it.
MM: It’s pretty small and compact. How many of these do you think would be in each mine?
GBE: I don’t know. When I knocked my eye out they just put a patch on each eye. And I walked out for about a mile. And I walked out into the bathhouse, you know pithead baths, and the old fellow who was there was smoking a pipe. And he didn’t put his pipe out he was looking out said, dear dear George, how did you go and do this? I said I’m gonna have a bath first so I had a shower. He put a patch on my eye and I drove down to the doctors.
MM: You drove by yourself?
GBE: Well my cousin was with me and he said “I’ll drive, George” but I had a Volvo car with the gear lever was on the steering wheel. He said “Oh George I can’t manage”, so down we went and the doctor was fuming. He said there’s an ambulance on the way for you.
MM: And you’d made your own way?
GBE: I said I’m not going anywhere until I go home to see Peggy. Poor little John Gibbons, he’s dead now, he said, “John, take this clown home”. And then I went to Swansea, to the old hospital, and they sewed both my eyes up and there we are. But by the time I got there the National Health was in full swing. Otherwise I would have been dead.
MM: If it wasn’t for the treatment?
GBE: This is Bert’s? That’s not Bert’s?
MM: That’s not Bert’s but that is his manuscript there. Scribbled over.
GBE: I got all this to the University, see. Alan Richards said to me, can you get Bert’s here? Drive down to see his grandson. And I said it still belongs to you but if you don’t want it I’ll take it to the university. So the following week then, Alan didn’t drive see, he drove a motorbike, so I drove Alan down, and he had this box, and that’s how it ended up in Swansea University.
MM: Oh wow, well thank you for that! We’ve got a lot of use for that. It’s been restored, it was almost unusable for a while…
GBE: Well it had been up in the attic, it was wet, it was damp, everything. It’s marvellous.
MM: It’s been rescued.
GBE: Yeah. And if we hadn’t gone down it would’ve never come from there.
MM: Well thank you. We’re very grateful!
GBE: The young man who got it, his photo is up there. Oh, I knew Bert well. In fact I wrote a short story about him, The Man Who Saved A Miner. So what’s that Illustrated London News about?
MM: Well, we chose this to illustrate the family side of life in the coalfields and we found this one from 1873 of a miner in the strike, it’s supposed to be the interior of a collier’s cottage.
GBE: Oh some of the coal owners were dreadful. You take Gresford, I was old enough to remember Gresford, I was 9 years of age. I remember reading about it and now I found out about it, all the men that were killed and all the mothers and wives they’d all been dropped up until the time they were killed.
MM: It sounds like you remember your colliery quite fondly but a lot of others were…
GBE: Well you can take the worst explosion of the lot…
GBE: And what were they fined, £40 or something?
MM: And even Aberfan, not dealt with properly.
GBE: We had nasty accidents. You’ve heard of, what’s his name, Max Boyce? His father was killed in our colliery. I remember the day, yeah. It was a beautiful day, a real fine sunny day, and my father said, George, go up and see if David is alright. I got up to the Federation shed and they said, “George, where are you going. Your brother David is alright, now you clear off.” And when you were told in them days to clear off you would clear off.
MM: We have a section here about compensation.
GBE: Ah well compensation, it was a strange thing now. I remember after I had to go down I was on compensation, and then I was sent for examination, and I went down, and I don’t know if this doctor had a little thing against coal miners or what, but I had to pay for it as well. When I sat down he said to me all hoity-toity he said, “Now then, how much vision have you got in that eye?” And I said in the most pleasant voice I could manage, it’s an artificial eye. “Go and see the clerk,” he said, “he’ll get you a bus fare”. When I went a week or two later I’d been docked about 20% of my money, I had to go to a tribunal, well not me, the NUM took me to a tribunal. There was about 9 of us there, a steelworker, and there were QCs, god they must have cost the earth.
MM: QCs? Wow.
GBE: And then he came to me, George Brinley Evans, and the man got up and said, “no no no, Mr Evans is to have his money back”.
MM: So you won in the end?
GBE: And afterwards he came to me and said sorry, and this was about 6 months after, and you know all the money I hadn’t had, I couldn’t have. I’d only be paid from then.
MM: Did you go to the union, to the Fed?
GBE: No that was it, that was the settlement. There’s always been that, not normal, it’s just the odd person likes to show their authority. You get it now, don’t you?
GBE: And there’s not much you can do about it. But in general I was treated very well.
MM: Excellent. How many doctors did you have to go through when you applied for compensation?
GBE: Only my own doctor, and then you had to go to the compensation doctor when I had my eye out, and of course I had a terrible infection. I couldn’t be fit with a glass eye for ages cos of the infection in the socket.
MM: And were you on compensation in that time?
GBE: Yeah. And mind you, it’s a big difference cos in the olden days they used to have nothing didn’t they? The only time when I was properly without money was about 6 months.
MM: And the rest of it was pretty decent dealings?
GBE: Well the NUM stood in for me.
MM: Did you go through your local lodge compensation department?
GBE: Yeah. The one thing I noticed about the NUM, I find – I went to Wimpey I told you – and everyone said, if they know you belong to a trade union they’ll sack you. Well everybody knew that I belonged to the NUM, even the directors, cos I used to take my work to them every Thursday. Now when I retired, they send me a ‘keep in touch’ letter every year – is there anything you want? Now the only thing I find about the NUM that is lacking, and maybe it’s because they haven’t got the money, now I know people like Jeff Camden to work like a dog all his life, nobody ever went near him, and he didn’t have a family. And he was a good union member, always made his whack, very rarely lost a shift. And there was Ivor O, his wife had dementia. Ivor O was a communist. He believed in communism, see, he used to work from gong to gong, never stop. And his wife had dementia, and nobody every come to help him, he used to walk down, come to the garden to have a chat with me. He was a big fella like you, he never grumbled about nobody coming to see him. I knew from the way he was talking that nobody was coming to see him. As opposed to Wimpey.
MM: Where you were treated, you know, as a member of the family?
GBE: And that’s when I retired.
MM: Sounds like a good last working place.
GBE: Yes. And I had written just that one thing, that George Ewart Evans. And then I ended up having three books. What they said in this class, he used to give them all books. “Hey,” he said, “you published?” I said “I couldn’t stand them criticising me.” But he copid it out and thankfully they all liked it.
MM: When did you first get interested in writing stories?
GBE: When I knocked my eye out. I never had time before. I was home in bed and was moaning and Peg said, “George you’re spoiling it for everyone, try writing something”. So I wrote this thing in long hand, and Peg had her niece come up, I wouldn’t send it away, I said I don’t want anybody telling me what a load of rubbish this is. So after a couple of months Peggy gave me a letter from the BBC. It was from a man called Harry Green who was a very famous scriptwriter, used to do Z-Cars, you remember Z-Cars?
MM: I do know it. The reason I know it is ‘cos my dad’s an Everton fan, and that’s the theme of Everton, the theme from Z-Cars.
GBE: So in the letter it said, please come up to London. So I went up and I’d never been in such a big building before in my life, it was the new BBC buildig then, the one with the round front.
MM: Yeah, Broadcasting House?
GBE: And I met the cast of this. And anyway, “George”, he said, “have a seat.” I’d written a drama about working underground. And television then was in black and white. So he said “George this is the best thing we’ve had for ages and ages, take it back and put it between two cardboard covers.” So I went home now and I showed it off to Thomas cos he had arranged for a friend who was a filmmaker to meet me in London, cos I still didn’t have an eye. Anyway, “no no no, we’ll have to have a second opinion” he said, we’ll send it off to ITV, they’d just started then. And I had a letter from Kitty Black, the head of drama for ITV. “Will you come to London George?” She was South African. They used to broadcast things live then. So there was a play in the afternoon then called Boy Can See and quite a famous lead actor was the leading part, I forget his name now. And language, they were using worse language than underground. The actors couldn’t hear it, only in this room. And she said, “George, if you come up to London and work here in the studio, you will understand what a camera can and can’t do.” And when I was going home on the train I thought good god, there’s me sitting here and Peggy’s working her socks off, two little boys, running the business. So I didn’t tell anybody about that, when Peg was out I took them out the garden and burned the lot of them.
MM: Oh, wow. It’s just too much I guess?
GBE: That’s how I landed up in Cardiff in the training centre.
MM: Yeah. That’s an incredible week! You must’ve been exhausted after all that.
GBE: But you’ve got to be lucky and know the right people. Now Dr Thomas, he was a brilliant scholar, got a first in Oxford and god knows what. Dr Thomas knew George Ewart Evans, they’d been at University together. And he told George Ewart Evans about my writing. One thing leads to another.
MM: Yeah, yeah, it’s a bit of a chain
GBE: Because as a collier I didn’t know anybody. And then by chance, in the end, I met Alan Richards.
MM: Fantastic. Thank you George!