BLOG POST: Taking Inspiration from Real Life Stories by Liz Trenow

Taking inspiration from real life stories
By Liz Trenow, 2024, Colchester based best-selling author of The Secret Sister, The Last Telegram, The Forgotten Seamstress, The Silk Weaver, Searching for My Daughter and five other novels.

When searching for inspiration for my novels the most important thing is that I feel passionate about the subject. I’m going to spend at least a year in the company of these characters and if I don’t care deeply about them it’s going to be tough going. So most of my stories have a basis in real life, and my latest book, The Secret Sister is no exception.

After writing nine historical novels I felt empty of ideas until a chance conversation with a friend suddenly unlocked my imagination. Her father, Ivor Singer, lived in Colchester until his death a few years ago. During the Second World War he was one of nearly fifty thousand young men who, having joined up to fight for their country, instead found themselves working down a coal mine. The more she talked about this harrowing experience, the more I wanted to write about it.

The story of the Bevin Boys and their contribution to World War Two is little known and barely recognised – The Secret Sister is the only novel written about it, to my knowledge. The government had drafted so many men into the armed forces there was a shortage of labour in the mines, and a dwindling supply of the coal needed to make steel for planes, tanks
and other armaments. When a plea for volunteers failed the Minister for Labour and National Service, Ernest Bevin, devised a scheme for compulsory conscription.

Controversially he insisted that, to make it completely fair, the mine conscripts should be chosen by ballot. He asked his secretary to pull a number from a hat each month, and if your National Service number ended in those digits you would be sent down the mines. Astonishingly, as many as one in ten of all young men of call-up age were picked. Few appeals were granted. They came from all regions of the UK, all backgrounds and all levels of education. For some, including Ivor, the culture shock must have been profound. The posting was deeply unpopular and most hated it. The work was poorly paid, hard and dangerous; accidents were common and near misses an almost daily event. Bevin Boys, as they came to be known, enjoyed none of the kudos or perceived glamour of joining the armed forces to fight for their country. Worst of all was the stigma of not being in uniform; they frequently endured public taunts for being cowards and were derided as ‘conchies’, because some genuine conscientious objectors had actually volunteered for the work. Even when the war ended, the Bevin Boys were not allowed to leave until two years
after most servicemen had been demobilized, and they received no medals or other recognition for their significant contribution to the war effort. Unlike those in the armed forces, they were awarded no employment protection for their original jobs nor even a demobsuit – a free set of civilian clothes – on discharge. Until as recently as 2004 they were not allowed to march in Remembrance Sunday parades, even though other civilian services had long been represented.

Finally, in 2007, then Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that the Bevin Boys should receive long-overdue recognition, and awarded all those still alive a ‘Veterans Badge’. Five years after that the Bevin Boys memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire was unveiled.

I hope The Secret Sister goes some way towards honouring the memory of Colcestrian Ivor Singer, and offering the recognition these brave young men deserved.

* signed copies of The Secret Sister are now available at Red Lion Books