2 December 1943: ‘Bevin Boys’ conscripted into the mines

With the coal industry desperately short of men, the Minster of Labour, Ernest Bevin, announced today in 1943 that thousands of conscripts would be sent down the mines instead of to the front.

During the First World War, many working men were called up to serve in the armed forces, leaving the country desperately short of skilled workers to contribute to the war effort. So the government drew up a “Schedule of Reserved Occupations” whereby men within the stipulated ages working in the listed occupations would not be required to fight. For some clever reasons, the schedule failed to mention coalminers. Given that coal powered virtually all the country's industry, this was a fairly serious omission.

When WWII came round, thousands of miners signed up to fight. And by 1943, there was a severe shortage. While women were able to stand in for the absent men in many other occupations, they were not allowed to work underground as miners, having been banned in 1842.

From 1942, people called up for war service were given the option of working in the mines as an alternative to military service – 13,000 or so chose this option. They were joined by people with mining experience serving in the army at home. But that still left the industry short of some 50,000 men.

And so, on this day in 1943, the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, stood up in the Commons to announce a new compulsory recruitment scheme. Rather than be sent off to give old Jerry a damn good hiding, one in ten random conscripts between the ages of 18 and 25 – no matter what their background or how well suited they were to manual labour – became “Bevin Boys” and instead were sent for six weeks‘ training, then down the mines to dig for coal. Refusal could land them in jail.

In all, some 21,000 men who thought they were going to fight ended up underground in this way. The scheme continued well past the war, until 1948.

Churchill gave a speech backing the Bevin Boys: “one will say ‘I was a fighter pilot'; another will say ‘I was in the Submarine Service’; another ‘I marched with the Eighth Army’; a fourth will say ‘none of you could have lived without the convoys and the Merchant seamen’. And you, in your turn, will say, with equal pride and with equal right: ‘we cut the coal’."

But many believed they were not given the recognition they deserved. Their service was not honoured until 2008, when surviving Bevin Boys received a veterans’ badge from the prime minister.

Recommended

1 April 1999: The minimum wage is introduced in Britain
This day in history

1 April 1999: The minimum wage is introduced in Britain

On this day in 1999, the national minimum wage was introduced in Britain, bringing an instant pay rise to 1.9 million low-paid workers.
1 Apr 2021
27 February 1900: The launch of the Labour Party
This day in history

27 February 1900: The launch of the Labour Party

Responding to the need for a single political party to represent the trade unions, the Labour Party was formed on this day in 1900.
27 Feb 2021
24 February 1981: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announce their engagement
This day in history

24 February 1981: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announce their engagement

On this day in 1981, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer made their engagement official in front of the world's press at Buckingham Palace.
24 Feb 2021
24 February 1809: Drury Lane theatre burns down
This day in history

24 February 1809: Drury Lane theatre burns down

On this day in 1809, celebrated playwright Richard Sheridan was effectively ruined when the Drury Lane theatre went up in smoke.
24 Feb 2021

Most Popular

The bitcoin bubble will burst: here’s how to play it
Bitcoin

The bitcoin bubble will burst: here’s how to play it

The cryptocurrency’s price has soared far beyond its fundamentals, says Matthew Partridge. Here, he looks at how to short bitcoin.
12 Apr 2021
Central banks are rushing to build digital currencies. What are they, and what do they mean for you?
Bitcoin

Central banks are rushing to build digital currencies. What are they, and what do they mean for you?

As bitcoin continues to soar in value, many of the world’s central banks are looking to emulate it by issuing their own digital currencies. But centra…
8 Apr 2021
Four investment trusts for income investors to buy now
Investment trusts

Four investment trusts for income investors to buy now

Some high-yielding listed lending funds have come through the crisis with flying colours. David Stevenson picks four of the best.
12 Apr 2021