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Bevin Boys were young British men conscripted to work in the coal mines of the United Kingdom, from December 1943 until 1948. Chosen at random from conscripts but also including volunteers, nearly 48,000 Bevin Boys performed vital but largely unrecognised service in the mines, many of them not released from service until years after the Second World War ended. Ten percent of those conscripted aged 18–25 were selected for this service.
Creation of the programme
The programme was named after Ernest Bevin, a former trade union official and then British Labour Party politician who was Minister of Labour and National Service in the wartime coalition government. At the beginning of the war the Government, underestimating the value of experienced coal-miners, conscripted them into the armed forces. By mid-1943 the coal mines had lost 36,000 workers, and they were generally not replaced due to the availability of cleaner work. It became obvious the miners needed to be replaced. The government made a plea to men liable to conscription, asking them to volunteer to work in the mines instead, but few accepted and the shortage continued.
By December, Britain was becoming desperate for a continued supply of coal both for the war effort and winter at home. It was decided that some conscripts would be directed to the mines. The colloquial name "Bevin Boys" came from the speech Bevin made announcing the scheme:
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.
From 1943 to the end of the war one in ten of the young men called up was sent to work in the mines. This caused a great deal of upset as many of the young men wanted to join the fighting forces and many felt that they were not valued. These conscript miners were given the nickname 'Bevin Boys'. Many suffered taunts as they wore no uniform and were wrongly assumed to be avoiding conscription which was mandatory for young men in Britain.
Selection of conscripts
To make the process random, one of Bevin's secretaries would each week pull a digit from a hat containing all ten digits, 0–9, and all men liable for call-up that week whose National Service number ended in that digit were directed to work in the mines, with the exception of any selected for highly skilled war work such as flying planes and in submarines, and men found physically unfit for mining. Conscripts came from different professions, from desk work to heavy labour, and included those who might otherwise have become commissioned officers.
The Bevin Boys were first given six weeks of training (four off-site, two on) before working in the mines. The work was typical coal mining, largely a mile or more down dark, dank tunnels, and conscripts were supplied with helmets and steel-capped safety boots. Bevin Boys did not wear uniforms or badges, but the oldest clothes they could find. Being of military age and without uniform caused many to be stopped by police and questioned about avoiding call-up.
Since a number of conscientious objectors were sent to work down the mines as an alternative to military service, there was sometimes an assumption that all Bevin Boys were "Conchies". The right to conscientiously object to military service for philosophical or religious reasons was recognised in conscription legislation, as it had been in the First World War. However, old attitudes still prevailed amongst some members of the general public, with resentment by association towards Bevin Boys. In 1943 UK Government minister Ernest Bevin said in Parliament: "There are thousands of cases in which conscientious objectors, although they may have refused to take up arms, have shown as much courage as anyone else in Civil Defence.
End of the programme
The programme was wound up in 1948. At that time the Bevin Boys received no medals, nor the right to return to the jobs they had held previously, unlike armed forces personnel. Bevin Boys were not fully recognised as contributors to the war effort until 1995, 50 years after VE Day, in a speech by Queen Elizabeth II.
On 20 June 2007 Tony Blair informed the House of Commons during Prime Minister's Questions that thousands of conscripts who worked down mines during the Second World War would receive an honour. The prime minister told the Commons the Bevin Boys would be rewarded with a Veterans Badge – similar to the HM Armed Forces Badge awarded by the Ministry of Defence.
The first badges were awarded on 25 March 2008 by the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, at a reception in 10 Downing Street, marking the 60th anniversary of discharge of the last Bevin Boys.
Responsibility within government for the Bevin Boys lies with the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
The Bevin Boys Association is trying to trace all 48,000 Bevin Boy conscripts, optants or volunteers who served in Britain's coal mines during and after the war, from 1943 to 1948.
On Tuesday 7 May 2013 a memorial to the Bevin Boys was unveiled by the Countess of Wessex at The National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas, Staffordshire. The memorial was designed by former Bevin Boy Harry Parkes. The memorial itself is made up of four stone plinths carved from grey Kilkenny stone from the Republic of Ireland. The stone should turn black like the coal that the miners extracted.
Notable Bevin Boys
- Stanley Bailey, Police officer
- Roy Grantham, Trade union leader
- (Lord) Paul Hamlyn, Founder of the Hamlyn group of publishers and Music for Pleasure (record label)
- Nat Lofthouse, Footballer
- Dickson Mabon, Former Labour MP
- Eric Morecambe, Comedian
- Jock Purdon, Folk singer/poet
- Peter Alan Rayner, Numismatic Author
- Brian Rix, Actor/manager, and president of Mencap
- Sir Jimmy Savile, Broadcaster
- Peter Shaffer, Dramatist
- Alf Sherwood, Footballer
- Gerald Smithson, Cricketer
In popular culture
- Bevin Boys – BERR
- Called Up Sent Down : The Bevin Boys' War – Tom Hickman Pub. The History Press 2008 ISBN 0-7509-4547-8
- The Peace Movement 1940–49, Peace Pledge Union
- The debate can be found here.
- "Bevin Boys Association entry on Culture24". Retrieved 16 December 2009.
- "Bevin Boys memorial unveiled by Countess of Wessex". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 12 May 2013.
- Mosse, Werner Eugen; Carlebach, Julius. Second chance: two centuries of German-speaking Jews in the United Kingdom. Mohr Siebeck. pp. 376–. ISBN 9783161457418. Retrieved 10 May 2013.
- "Bolton Council - Bolton's Bevin Boys remembered". Retrieved 18 December 2012.
- Briefly SDP Obituary in Daily Telegraph Issue 47,544 (dated 14 April 2008
- Cooke, Ken (2007). History of the Percy Jackson Grammar School: Adwick-le-street, Doncaster, Yorkshire, 1939 - 1968 : Recollections of Schooldays of the 1940s, 1950s & 1960s. Troubador Publishing Ltd. pp. 6–. ISBN 9781905886784. Retrieved 7 May 2013.
- English Dance & Song. 41-44. English Folk Dance and Song Society. 1979. p. 18.
- Fox, Margalit (2 November 2011). "Jimmy Savile, TV Personality, Dies at 84". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 November 2011.
- Morton, Ray (2011-02-01). Amadeus: Music on Film Series. Hal Leonard. pp. 21–. ISBN 9780879104177. Retrieved 7 May 2013.
- Giddings, Robert (30 April 2009). "RADIO: Seamless drama goes underground to dig deep for victory". Tribune. Retrieved 25 August 2011.
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