Five Bevin Boys outside 'Huts' at Oakdale Training Centre. Courtesy Bevin Boys Association.
On Sunday April 10 2005 a group of elderly men and their families gathered with Ivor Caplin MP, Minister for Veterans at the National Memorial Arboretum outside Stratford Upon Avon.
United by a common experience, these ageing comrades of World War Two were gathered for a service of remembrance. But they are not 'combatants' in the accepted sense and theirs is not the usual story expected of veterans of the last war.
They are members of the Bevin Boys Association, who as young men were forcibly conscripted from 1943 onwards to work down the coalmines of England, Scotland and Wales. Taking their name from the then Minister of Labour and National Service, Ernest Bevin, their contribution to World War Two was to vitally fuel the war effort from the coalface.
A small group of Bevin Boys (wearing cap lamps) at Cramlington Lamb Training Colliery, Northumberland 1944. Picture courtesy Bevin Boys Association.
The story of the Bevin Boys has been long underrepresented in our remembrance celebrations and until recently, it was an aspect of World War Two that often was absent from museum exhibitions representing the conflict. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that few of us realise that Bevin Boys represented 10 per cent of male conscripts aged between 18 and 25 called up in the last two years of World War Two.
The Bevin Boys Veterans organise exhibitions and displays that tell their story. It tours various venues in the UK and is currently resident at Wakefield For more information contact Bevin Boys Association page on Culture24.
At the outbreak of war with Germany in September 1939, the British Government had allowed experienced coal miners to be called up into the armed services. Men were also allowed to transfer from pit work to higher paid jobs in other reserved occupations – at the time it was hoped that gaps in the coal mining industries would be taken up by the unemployed.
General view of 'The Huts' Oakdale Training Centre. Courtesy Bevin Boys Association.
But by mid-1943, over 36,000 coal miners had left the industry for better paid jobs leaving the coalmines in dire need of 40,000 more miners. Despite asking service men and conscripts to opt for this now reserved occupation, little impact was made on the numbers needed. Coal production slumped to dangerously low levels and by the end of 1943 it was estimated that Britain had only 3 weeks supply of coal in reserve.
In response, in December 1943 Ernest Bevin masterminded a scheme whereby a ballot took place to put a proportion of conscripted men into the mines instead of the armed services.
48,000 Bevin Boys were conscripted for National Service employment in the mines; half being selected by ballot (ballottees) without any any choice to serve in a preferred service and the remainder opted (optants or volunteers) as an alternative to serving in the forces.
Henry Moore (1889-1946) Miners Resting During Stoppage of Conveyor Belt, 1942 © Leeds Museums and Galleries.
The ballot consisted of a number being drawn from a hat every month for 20 months. All men whose National Service Registration Number ended with that digit were directed into coal mining. Any refusal to comply with the direction resulted in a heavy fine or imprisonment under the wartime Emergency Powers Act.
In Yorkshire the National Coal Mining Museum at Caphouse Colliery near Wakefield is one of the best places in the country to learn about the mining industry.
For Warwick Taylor, ex-Bevin Boy, historian and Vice President of the Bevin Boys Association, the lottery of being picked for mining work during World War Two was a bitter pill to swallow; not least because of the lack of public recognition and understanding about the vital role the Bevin Boys played in contributing to the war effort.
Warwick Taylor in his Air Training Corps uniform at home in North Harrow, Middlesex in 1942. © Warwick Taylor.
“I call it having served in the secret underground movement - because nobody knew about us,” he says. Warwick and a few like-minded colleagues set up the Bevin Boys Association in 1989, to campaign for greater recognition. Bevin Boys were at last invited to march past the Cenotaph during remembrance ceremonies during 1998.
Warwick grew up in Harrow and had been preparing for his conscription for three years. At 18 years of age he reported to Ruislip to register for national service where he remembers vividly what the man from the ministry of Labour said to him. “‘Hard luck chum you’ve been balloted for the coal mines’,” he remembers. “I said: ‘ridiculous, I’m going in the RAF’, he said ‘no you’re not...’”
“I was in the air training corps for three years, I was an ATC cadet waiting to get into the RAF, so of course when this scheme came in, it was embarrassing.”
Two years later - Warwick (centre) was a Bevin Boy - pictured at Oakdale Training Colliery in South Wales in October 1944. Picture courtesy: Bevin Boys Association.
Warwick, an effusive man with seemingly boundless energy, (he has received an MBE for his tireless work with the Bevin Boys Association) can laugh about it now, but at the time, this young man from Harrow on the Hill had dreams of joining the most glamorous arm of the services at the time - the RAF.
He wasn’t alone, the Bevin Boys came from all social classes and regions of the Britain – not just the traditional mining heartlands of the Midlands, Wales and the North. After the lottery of the call up they could be posted anywhere in the UK.
Thirteen government training centre collieries were established to cater for the influx of the collier conscripts with one in Scotland, one in South Wales and the remaining 11 in England. Warwick was conscripted to work at Oakdale Colliery in South Wales.
Oakdale Colliery. Courtesy of National Museums & Galleries of Wales.
In Wales, the Big Pit: National Coalmining Museum, has a display about the Bevin Boys as well as a reserve collection of ephemera, which together with materials from the Bevin Boys Association will form the basis of an expanded display due to open in October 2005.
The Museum is one of the best places to find out about the nature of coal industry – since its decline as a major industry in the 1980s. Guided tours by ex colliers include a 300ft descent into a mineshaft by pit cage – a journey familiar to thousands of Bevin Boys and generations of moners alike.
After four weeks of ‘Stage A’ training, which included class instruction, practical work and physical exercise it was down the mine for two weeks of ‘Stage B’ training. From here it was a short journey to the life of a collier. Many Bevin Boys worked in the pit alongside experienced colliers - many with the pit ponies or on conveyor belts – a few made it to the coalface as face workers.
Much as in the army many of the young men were thrown together and housed in Nissan huts, or Miner’s Hostels as they were euphemistically termed at the time, others were billeted in local houses.
Many collieries have now disappeared altogether – so little physical evidence remains of the Bevin Boys' time down the mines.
But at the former North Midlands training centre which was situated at the (now closed) Creswell Colliery in Derbyshire, you can see the hostels or Nissan huts that used to accommodate Bevin Boys. Now garages for local firms they are one of the few reminders of an experience shared by thousands of young men during wartime.
Boys Own Comic circa 1944 © National Mining Museum of England.
By the end of October 1944, 45,800 young men between the ages of 18 and 24 had been employed as miners and many of them were not released from their duties until several years after the war.
In 1948 the last of the Bevin Boys were demobbed back to ‘Civvy Street’ – no medals, no associations, and no real sense of camaraderie. “We’ve not had the recognition we deserved really,” says Warwick Taylor, “because I think people forget that we were conscripted to go in but gradually that’s changing and there has been some form of recognition.”
A group of Bevin Boys at Oakdale Colliery. Courtesy Bevin Boys Association.
There is also an exhibition about their activities at the Eden Camp Museum in North Yorkshire.
This recent process of recognition was consolidated two years ago when the Bevin Boys had a plaque placed at the national Arboretum together with three trees. An English Oak to represent those who served in England; a Scots Pine to represent those who served in Scotland and Mountain Ash for those who served in Wales.
“This Year the whole nation seems more focussed on the civilian input to the war, virtually every civilian during the war was doing something,” says Warwick. “Apart from their jobs – they were air raid wardens, fire watchers, ambulance drivers. Then there was the women’s land army, forestry workers, munitions workers - millions of them in munitions and they never get a mention.”
The Bevin Boys Association Banner. Courtesy Bevin Boys Association.
For the Bevin Boys at least that sense of recognition is changing. And for the elderly veterans from the Bevin Boys Association a plot amidst the other combatants of World War Two is part of that process.
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 World War Two - 1943 to 1948. For further details contact: Warwick H. Taylor MBE, School Cottage, 49a Hogshill Street, Beaminster, Dorset, DT8 3AG.