Bevin Boys in the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire Coal Field

During the Second World War, the coal industry faced an employment crisis in spite of coal being an in-demand fuel at the time. Despite mining being a reserved occupation, which exempted those working in it from military service, this only applied to men aged 30 or over. Many men took advantage of this and went on to work in other reserved occupations that had better pay and working conditions, such as munitions factories. Various attempts were made to bring them back to mining, including offering a better minimum wage. However, this only brought back around 500 men, which was not enough to solve the problem.

A 1911 Coal Mines Act Register for Boys working at a coal mine reused for Mansfield Colliery Bevin Boys, NCB/A/BOL/3/36

In 1943, Ernest Bevin, the then Minister for Labour and National Service, drew up plans to create a conscription scheme to send young men, between the ages of 18 and 25, down the mines. The men who were chosen would become known as Bevin Boys after Ernest Bevin. The men who were chosen had their national service number drawn out of a hat and if it matched the last four digits of their number, they were sent to work in the mines, rather than serve in the armed forces. This meant that many of the men chosen were not from areas that had coal mines or probably even knew what one was. It wasn’t a popular choice for conscripts as 1 in 4 of those called up appealed the decision and some of those who still refused were sent to prison for their protest. Those who were sent to prison didn’t win as they were still sent to the mines after the end of their prison sentence. Even though there was defiance against it, there were also many who chose to work in the mines on their call up forms.

Photograph of Bevin Boys trainees working surface tubs a Hartshay Colliery, Mid 1940s, D503/91/2

Whatever way men were called up, they would have had to pass a medical examination before they could go on to do their training. Following that, they were sent to any of the approved training centres around the country. Around 2,300 of them were sent to the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire coalfield. Their training would have been at either Hartshay or Cresswell Colliery. In our collection, we have many lovely photographs of the trainees at Hartshay. It had closed down as a working colliery in 1934 but was still in good condition to use as a training centre when Bevin Boys were introduced. The four-week training they had to have included classroom lessons as well as physical training to prepare them for surface work as well as coalface working. Compared with the seasoned miners already working in the mines, many of whom had been there since they were young teenagers themselves, meant the Bevin Boys were viewed with suspicion for their lack of experience.

Photograph of Bevin Boys trainees working in a gallery at Hartshay Colliery, Mid 1940s, D503/91/2

After training was over, they were sent to a colliery in the same district as their training had taken place. This would have been anywhere that they were needed. For many, it meant their first experience of the real working conditions miners dealt with. It was a harsh life, and many didn’t attend their shifts regularly. It would also have been hard as they didn’t have their own accommodation. They were either housed in miners’ hostels, which were quickly built prefabricated buildings, or were billeted on local families. Whichever they used, 25 shillings were deducted out of their wages to pay towards their upkeep. Eight hostels were provided in the area at Alfreton, Hucknall, Eastwood, Worksop, Nottingham, and two at Mansfield.

The scheme was officially wound up in March 1948, nearly a full three years after the end of the war. Despite the important contribution of 48,000 Bevin Boys, they weren’t officially classed as serviceman like their counterparts in the armed services. Many viewed them as ‘draft dodgers’ who had worked in mines to escape army duty, despite that not being the case. It wasn’t until 1989 when the Bevin Boys Association was created that their effort to keep Britain going during World War Two began to be recognised.

Photograph of Bevin Boys at Ollerton Colliery with their Safety Officer, Mid 1940s, D503/91/4

Bibliography:

‘Bevin Boys’, http://www.healeyhero.co.uk/rescue/individual/Bob_Bradley/Bevin_Boys-1.html

History Extra, 5 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Bevin Boys, 6 May 2018, https://www.historyextra.com/period/second-world-war/5-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-the-bevin-boys/

The Forgotten Conscripts, http://www.theforgottenconscript.co.uk/who-were-the-bevin-boys/

Mining the Seams is a Wellcome Trust funded project aiming to catalogue coal mining documents, originally held by the National Coal Board, so they can eventually be viewed by the public. Alongside the Warwickshire County Record Office, the project aims to focus on the welfare and health services provided to miners. 

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