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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Reserved Occupations


Conscript miners became known as 'Bevin Boys', after the Minster of Labour Ernest Bevin, pictured here in 1940
Conscript miners became known as 'Bevin Boys', after the Minster of Labour Ernest Bevin, pictured here in 1940©
In April 1939 the Military Training Act was passed, under which men aged 20 and 21 were conscripted to complete six months military training. At the outbreak of war, the National Service (Armed Forces) Act made all men between 18 and 41 liable for conscription into the armed forces. However, in 1938 a Schedule of Reserved Occupations had been drawn up, exempting certain key skilled workers from conscription. The government was determined not to repeat the mistakes of World War One, when the indiscriminate recruitment of too many men into the military had left major war production schemes short of the necessary workforce. Australia and New Zealand introduced similar schemes.

The reserved (or scheduled) occupation scheme was a complicated one, covering five million men in a vast range of jobs. These included railway and dockworkers, miners, farmers, agricultural workers, schoolteachers and doctors. Ages varied, for example a lighthouse keeper was 'reserved' at 18, while a trade-union official could be called up until the age of 30. Engineering was the industry with the highest number of exemptions. After November 1939, employers could ask for the deferment of call-up for men in reserved occupations but outside the reserved age.

The government frequently reviewed the situation, as its need for men to join the armed forces grew greater. As the men went off to fight at the front, women began to fill some of reserved occupations, for example working in munitions factories and shipyards and driving trains.

Some men in reserved occupations felt frustration at not being allowed to go and fight, while those in the armed forces envied them for not being conscripted. Many in reserved occupations joined civil defence units such as the Home Guard or the ARP, which created additional responsibilities on top of their work.

Their occupations were often far from a soft option. Hours were long and conditions often difficult, and some places of work, such as factories and dockyards, were prime targets for enemy bombing. In addition, if you were in a reserved occupation you could be transferred to another site in the UK if your skills were needed there. For example, dockworkers were moved from Southampton to Clydeside in Scotland.

Coal-mining suffered a severe shortage of manpower. In December 1943 the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, decided to select men of call-up age for the mines by a ballot. One in ten men aged between 18 and 25 were to be selected - only those who were on a list of highly skilled occupations or who had been accepted for aircrew or submarine service were exempt. These conscript miners were known as ‘Bevin Boys’. They came from all backgrounds and worked alongside experienced miners, doing the less skilled tasks such as unloading coal from the tubs.

Some 21,800 young men became Bevin Boys, alongside 16,000 who opted for coalmining in preference to the forces, when they were called up. The scheme lasted until 1948.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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