bevin boy

Bevin Boys

Bevin Boys were young British men conscripted who worked 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 not being released until years after the war. 10% of all conscripts 18-25 were picked 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 these workers were generally not replaced due to the availability of cleaner work. It became evident that the miners needed to be replaced. The government made a plea to men liable to conscription to offer to work in the mines, but few offered and the shortage continued.

When December arrived and Britain was becoming desperate for a continued supply of coal for both the war effort and a winter at home, it was decided that a percentage of 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."

The programme

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. Conscripts came from different professions, from desk work to heavy labour, and included those who might otherwise have become commissioned officers.

Working conditions

The Bevin Boys were first given 6 weeks of training (4 off-site, 2 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", and, although the right to conscientiously object to killing was recognised in conscription legislation, as it had been in the First World War, old attitudes of discrimination 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.’ The Peace Movement 1940-49

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 in World War II 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 Prime Minister (Gordon Brown) at a reception at 10 Downing Street, marking the 60th anniversary of the last Bevin Boys being discharged.

Other usages

The term was also used facetiously of or by entrants to the Foreign Office during the time Bevin was Foreign Secretary, 1945-1951.

Famous Bevin Boys

Jimmy Savile DJ and charity worker "I went down as a boy and came up as a man."
"If that's what we were told to do by the country to save the country, that's what we did"
Jock Purdon Folk singer/poet Purdon stayed on in the Durham coal mines after the war. "For me there's three great generals - Geronimo, Alexander the Great and Arthur Scargill".
Dickson Mabon Moderate UK Labour politician On his discharge in 1948 he went to the University of Glasgow to read Medicine.
Brian, Lord Rix, CBE, DL Actor/manager, and president of Mencap Rix volunteered to leave the RAF to join the Bevin Boy Scheme. "I have never regretted the decision," he says.
Eric Morecambe Comedian Half of the British comedy double act Morecambe and Wise, Morecambe worked at a mine in Accrington for 11 months, which may have affected his health and led to heart attacks later in life.
Peter Shaffer Dramatist The author of Equus and Amadeus, he graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge.
Alf Sherwood Footballer Went on to win 41 caps for Wales
Gerald Smithson Cricketer While serving as a Bevin Boy, Smithson was called into the Test cricket team for a tour of the West Indies.
Peter Alan Rayner Numismatic Author Rayner was conscripted into the mines during World War II.
Peter, Lord Archer of Sandwell Former Member of Parliament Represented both Rowley Regis and Tipton; and latterly for Warley West. Solicitor General for England and Wales from March 1974 to May 1979. Also chaired the Enemy Property Claims Assessment panel.
Sir Stanley Bailey Police officer Former chief constable of Northumbria Police


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