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A black-and-white photograph of coal miners smiling outside a colliery.

The Bevin Boys: Conscripts for the Mines.

Not all the men conscripted in World War II were sent abroad, some were sent down the mines to resolve labour shortages

Discover England and Wales on the eve of war in the 1939 Register

The shortage of trained miners during the Second World War caused by men volunteering to join the military was a serious problem for the government. Mined resources, particularly coal, were essential for war production, and so a shortage of trained men would seriously harm the ability of Britain’s coal miners to match the quotas required to keep factories churning out the munitions required at the front.

Enter Ernest Bevin. Minister for Labour and a former Trade Union activist, Bevin recognised that the shortage could be remedied by using conscripted men to fill the vacancies in the mines, keeping production at the rates required. He said, in 1943 when the scheme was established, that “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.”

Bevin recognised that the shortage could be remedied by using conscripted men to fill the vacancies in the mines, keeping production at the rates required

A black and white photograph of a room set up like a schoolroom. At the front of the room there is a blackboard, where a gentleman in a suit is teaching. Facing him are rows of wooden benches, where coal miners sit attentively.

These Bevin Boys, who included a number of future famous personalities such as Eric Morecombe, came from a variety of backgrounds and skillsets. Some were conscientious objectors who were being conscripted for essential but non-military work, others sons of gentry and privilege, and more sons of one of the major cities who’d never even seen a mine before. In 1943, one in ten conscripts found themselves in the mines instead of at the front.

In 1943, one in ten conscripts found themselves in the mines instead of at the front.

A large proportion disliked their time spent in the mines, as they had been hoping to join the army or one of the fighting arms for ‘some action.’ This was compounded by some communities seeing all Bevin Boys as ‘conchies’, as a number of conscientious objectors were used as part of the Bevin Boy scheme, when in reality only a small number were. Police would stop and question these men of military age as they suspected they had avoided conscription or were shirking duties, and some communities looked upon the Bevin Boys as dodging the real work.

Some 48,000 men were sent into this alien world rather than to the front line.

A large number of reserved occupation miners also disliked the Bevin Boys, who they saw not only as a threat to their livelihoods but also as dangerous liabilities, given that a lot of them did not come from mining backgrounds and so had no experience or knowledge of mining beyond 6 weeks training. Some 48,000 men were sent into this alien world rather than to the front line.

Main image: A group of coal miners and 'Bevin Boys' talk to a Safety Officer outside the colliery at Ollerton, Nottinghamshire in February 1945. Image: D23740 © Crown Copyright

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