The Bevin Boys
The Forgotten Conscripts of Sixty Years
By Warwick H Taylor, MBE,
Vice President of the Bevin Boys Association
Sixty years ago on the 2nd December 1943, Ernest Bevin, the wartime
Minister of Labour and National Service announced in the House of
Commons a scheme that was to change the lives of many young men, by
directing them to serve their National Service by working
underground in the coal mines of Britain.
This is because when war was declared against Germany in
September 1939, a large number of experienced miners were called up
into the Forces, with others leaving to take up work in other
higher paid industries. In the years leading up to 1943 various
schemes were set up to recruit labour and thus increase the coal
production that was vital to the needs of the nation. Attempts to
release ex-miners in the Home Forces, recall retired miners and
sign up unemployed men and young boys of school leaving age to forge a career in coal mining
were all unsuccessful.
The only way of overcoming this serious situation was to conscript
an additional 50,000 men to work underground in the coal mines over
a period of eighteen months.
A ballot scheme was employed whereby young men between the ages of
18 and 25 years, upon registering for National Service, would be
selected according to the last digit of their registration number.
Numbers would be drawn on a fortnightly basis, with the first being
drawn in the Minister's Office on the 14th December. Any refusal to
comply with the Direction Order would inevitably result in a heavy
fine or possible imprisonment under the Emergency Powers Act which
was in force at the time. The men conscripted to work in the mines
became known as the Bevin Boys.
Not all Bevin Boys were ballotees, as many had the opportunity at
the time of call-up of choosing this form of employment in lieu of
service in the Armed Forces. These men were classified as Optants
or Volunteers. However, the Bevin Boys were not Conscientious
Objectors because of this decision, an unfortunate stigma that has
existed ever since.
With the ending of the Second World War in Europe, eventually a
release scheme was introduced similar to that of the Forces, but
Bevin Boys received no form of recognition or reward for their
services to the war effort, in which they played a vital part.
After many years of campaigning, the
Government officially recognised the Bevin Boys and awarded them a
badge. 25 men were invited to Downing Street in 2008 when the then
Prime Minister Gordon Brown presented them with their badges.