Ernest Bevin, wartime Minister of Labour and National Service and a former Trade Unionist, believed the shortage could be remedied by using conscripted men to fill the vacancies in the mines, keeping production at the rates required. In Dec 1943 he announced a scheme in Parliament.
A ballot would take place to put a fixed percentage of conscripted men into the underground collieries rather than into the armed services. “We need 720,000 men continuously employed in this industry. This is where you boys come in. Our fighting men will not be able to achieve their purpose unless we get an adequate supply of coal.” Any refusal to comply with the Direction Order would result in a heavy fine and/or imprisonment under the Emergency Powers Act in force back then.
Bevin Boys' first day down the mine
Photo credit: Express
Bevin boys training with a pit pony
Photo credit: Bevin Boys Photo Grallery
Every month, 10 numbers were placed in a hat; 2 numbers were drawn and those whose National Service registration number ended with those numbers were directed to the mining industry. Along these ballotees were the optants, men who had volunteered for service in the coal mines, rather than the armed services. From 1943-8, 48,000 young men between the ages of 18-25 were conscripted for National Service Employment in British coal mines.
After medical examinations, travel warrants & instructions, the men had to report to one of the thirteen Government Training Centre Collieries in England, Wales and Scotland. Accommodation was provided in either a purpose-built Miners Hostel similar to an army camp, or billeted out to a private home at £1.25/week from a weekly wage of £3.50.
Each new miner was taught mining in a 6 weeks training course: classroom lectures, surface-and-underground training and physical fitness. Only a minority of Bevin Boys were actually employed cutting coal on the coal face, and others worked as colliers' assistants, filling tubs or drams. The majority worked on maintaining haulage roads, or controlling underground conveyor belts. The few who had previous electrical or engineering experience were given similar work in the collieries.
This alternative to army service caused much dismay; many of the Bevin Boys wanted to join the fighting forces, or felt that as coal miners they would not be valued.
The Bevin Boys came from a range of backgrounds and skill sets. A few were true conscientious objectors who were being conscripted for essential but non-military work. Some were sons of privilege, and many were lads from big cities who had never even seen a coal mine. Whatever their background, by Dec 1943 one in ten conscripts found themselves in the mines instead of at the front.
6 weeks of training for each intake of conscripts
in classrooms, via vigorous physical training and in the underground mine
Photo credit: PressReader
Finally a large number of reserved occupation miners also disliked the Bevin Boys. They saw the lads as a threat to their livelihoods and also as dangerous liabilities, given that most did not come from mining backgrounds. Worse, the local mining families had already seen their own sons conscripted into the armed services, only to be replaced by very young, reluctant outsiders.
Unlike the ordinary miners, who wore their own clothes, Bevin Boys were issued with overalls, safety helmet and working boots. But it was unfortunate that Bevin Boys a] were not given an identifiable war service uniform and b] were not released from their coal mines until several years after the war ended. This was long after their counterparts in the armed forces had been demobbed.
The mine-work was done in appalling conditions with no toilet facilities, working in areas that were hot, cold, wet, dusty or dirty. The constant noise of machinery was deafening. And there was always the fear that there could be an explosion resulting in fire or rock fall. [I am claustrophobic. That would have been my worst fear].
The ballots were suspended in May 1945, with the last of the 50,000 conscripts working in the coal mines. The Bevin Boys had all been demobbed in 1948. A small number stayed in mining after the war, but most couldn't wait to leave.
Unlike other conscripts, they had no right to go back to their previous occupations, they received no service medals, demob suit or even a letter of thanks. And because the official records were destroyed in the 1950s, former Bevin Boy ballotees could not even prove their service, unless they have kept their personal documents.
They were just teenagers, away from home for the first time
photo credit: WW2inColor
Many men who spent their war on the so-called underground front went unrecognised for almost half a century. Perhaps they were still embarrassed about not serving on the front. In any case, some men did eventually form the Bevin Boys Association in 1989 in Dorchester Dorset. The first official Bevin Boys reunion was held at the former Chatterley Whitfield Mining Museum in 1989.
It took until 1995 for the British government to formally recognise the contribution of these men, by then old age pensioners. The Queen made a speech and unveiled the Home Front Memorial in Coventry. And in 2007, the Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that a special honour was to be presented to all conscripts who served in the mines. This was on the 60th anniversary of the last Bevin Boy being demobbed. Any living Bevin Boys are now officially allowed to take part in the Remembrance Day service at Whitehall.
Many thanks to The Forgotten Conscripts by Warwick H Taylor and the BBC’s The Coal Industry in Wartime by Dr Martin Johnes.