If, during the dark days of World War Two, the armed forces had a certain romantic appeal for many youngsters, one thing is clear – the mining industry did not. And yet, from the end of 1943 onwards that is exactly where a large number of conscripts found themselves.
In May 1940 there were an estimated 750,000 men working in the mining industry, but even in those early days of the war the government required another 40,000 to reach the essential output needed to fight the war. And things did not get any better.
By the beginning of 1943 there was a shortage of around 36,000 miners, many having gone into the armed forces or left the mines in order to take up better paid jobs in places such as munitions factories. By the autumn that figure was thought to be around 50,000 and the government was seriously considering the release of former miners from the armed forces.
It was clear that a revolutionary new approach was required – and that is exactly what Britain, her conscripts and her mining industry now received.
Conscripted to the mines
On 2 December 1943 Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour and National Service, stood up to address the House of Commons. Henceforth, he announced, when young men were called up for active service a certain number of them would be chosen by ballot and conscripted, not into the army, navy or air force, but into the mining industry.
A figure of one in every 10 conscripts was arrived at, a figure that eventually gave the Bevin Boy Scheme – as it soon became known – a total strength of 48,000. The selection process consisted of Bevin's secretaries pulling a number from a hat. Any conscript that week whose National Service number ended in that digit found himself down the mines. It was as arbitrary and random as that.
It was inevitable that the scheme should be unpopular, particularly among those men who had no desire to ever enter a coal mine. As Bevin Boy Harvey Arnold remembered: “I wasn't too happy about it because I'd made up my mind that I wanted to go into aircrew. But instead of going up, I had to go down – a bit of a blow, really."
And yet it was something that Harvey Alford and thousands of other young men just like him accepted, in the main, without argument. They knew there was a war to win and if they could not do it sitting behind the guns of a Lancaster bomber then they would do it by hacking and hewing coal a mile below the surface of the earth.
The boys, as they were perhaps disparagingly known, came from a wide range of backgrounds, from concert pianists and trainee teachers to manual labourers and clerks. It was, of course, a culture shock for all of them but, perhaps surprisingly, the vast majority excelled.
The first drop down the mine shaft – the initiation drop as the Bevin Boys called it – was never easy, the cage plummeting down two or three thousand feet at a rate of 70 feet a second. But, like the rest of the work underground, it was something they got used to.
The new recruits were given a six week course of theory and practical instruction, and off they went. There was little more that could be done – now it was up to them.
Many of these new miners went to the collieries of the Welsh valleys where, by and large, they were treated well by the miners and their families. Some formed close relationships with the people who gave them lodgings, and the stories about Bevin Boys being told to lead out or control pit ponies who knew only Welsh have become part of the legend. In the main, however, it was all done in fun.
There were comments from some of the public who saw these fit young men out of uniform and thought of them as shirkers - an attitude that never failed to annoy the Bevin Boys – but mostly they were accepted as young people who were doing there bit to help the war effort.
Things were not easy. The Bevin Boys received a pair of steel toe-capped boots and a helmet but they had to buy their own equipment, just like the full-time miners. And when their first pair of boots wore out it was up to them to replace these essential pieces of clothing.
After the war
The Bevin Boy Scheme did not end with the closure of hostilities in 1945. Britain still needed coal and, as a result, Bevin Boys were still going down the mines until 1948.
Recognition did not come easily, either. There were no medals and, for many years, Bevin Boys did not march in with the armed forces at the Remembrance Day Service.
Fortunately, all that changed and in 2008 the first Veteran Badge Awards were made to some of the Bevin Boys – a fitting tribute to men who had made just as much effort and sacrifice as those who flew bombers or went down in submarines.