In 1943, four years into the Second World War, the British government faced a terrible predicament – it was estimated that there were only three weeks of vital coal supply left. With an urgent need for more coal to fuel the war effort, and unable to attract enough workers to meet this demand, a large workforce of men was conscripted to work in the coal mines. They became known as the Bevin Boys.
This year marks 75 years since the Bevin Boys scheme began, and 10 years since the Bevin Boys were formally acknowledged by the UK government. In 2008, prime minister Gordon Brown awarded commemorative badges – which featured a pithead and profile of a miner – to the 27 surviving men of the thousands that were conscripted to work as miners during the conflict.
As a new exhibition dedicated to the art of four former Bevin Boys opens at The Mining Art Gallery in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, curator Angela Thomas pick five things you might not know about this historically significant, but often overlooked, group of men…
The Bevin Boys take their name from former minister for labour, Ernest Bevin
Following the outbreak of war in 1939, the demand for coal exports dropped significantly and many pits closed overnight. Whilst many miners became unemployed, they were unable to seek an alternative job, as coal mining was considered a ‘reserved occupation’, a category which was introduced to exempt certain key skilled workers from conscription.
In an attempt to address this, Ernest Bevin, the Minister for Labour and National Service, raised the age of those able to avoid the reservation from 25 to 30. This turned out to be a mistake, with too many men leaving the mines to take advantage of the better pay and labour conditions in munitions factories and other wartime industries.
On top of this, thousands of miners were leaving the industry every year due to retirement, long-term illness, disability and death. Though Bevin called for men to return to the pits, they were understandably reluctant.
Despite attempting a number of measures to increase the desirability of work in the mines, such as introducing a national minimum wage, fewer than 500 men initially answered his call. As a result, in 1943 he decided to introduce a new conscription scheme to create a new workforce, which was dubbed the ‘Bevin Boys’ by the press.
The Bevin Boys were chosen out of a hat
Class or background was no barrier to being selected to work at the coal face. [though exemptions were applied to men in highly skilled occupations and those vital for submarine or aircraft crew service].
Every month, for 20 months, Bevin’s secretary drew numbers from his distinctive Homburg hat. If the number drawn matched the last digit of a man’s National Service number, he was sent to the mines. Four out of every ten men appealed against their assignment, some even choosing a prison sentence in protest, only to find they were still sent to work in the mines once their prison sentence was over.
By the end of the scheme in 1948, 48,000 men from all walks of life had been thrust into the world of coal mining.
The mines were an unlikely source of artistic inspiration for some Bevin Boys
Despite the demanding and often dangerous conditions they experienced, a group of Bevin Boys also found artistic inspiration underground.
When one miner, John Tipton, was conscripted from Oxfordshire to Ferryhill, County Durham, he found himself among good artistic company. John enrolled at the nearby Darlington School of Art, which offered evening classes to miners looking to broaden their horizons. As well as travelling around the countryside capturing the unfamiliar sights of nearby collieries and landmarks, he also found artistic stimulation beneath the surface, creating a series of humorous pen and ink safety sketches, showing the lighter side of the dangerous tasks he undertook. John took these skills into later life, eventually becoming a graphic artist for The Observer.
An ink portrait by Bevin Boy David McClure. (Photograph by Richard Hawkes/Copyright: the David McClure Estate/courtesy of The Auckland Project
Another Darlington School of Art regular was local boy Tom McGuinness, who from an early age found beauty in the industrial landscape around him. After being called up to serve as a Bevin Boy, Tom began to translate what he saw around him onto paper. His talent was spotted by a supervisor at Fishburn Colliery, who – having witnessed him drawing on the side of coal tubs underground – suggested he take up formal tuition at the school. The mines proved a great source of inspiration, and although he worked in the industry all of his life he continued to sketch, paint and experiment with printing, producing a huge body of work which includes some of the finest examples of mining art.
The Bevin Boys relied on some resourceful miners’ tricks
Bevin Boys were only issued with a compressed cardboard helmet and a pair of steel-toed boots, and were required to provide their own work clothes by using up their ration coupons.
Like many of the miners he worked with, Bevin Boy and artist David McClure’s flasks of cold tea quenched his thirst in the stifling heat of the mine. When that ran out, McClure quickly learned the miners’ trick of sucking a piece of clean coal to keep his mouth lubricated.
Some Bevin Boys remained in the mines long after the war ended
Many of the Bevin Boys were not released from their work until several years after the war ended, continuing after other services had been demobbed. Coal was still required to help rebuild the country.
In the case of Ted Holloway, the experiences he had as a Bevin Boy had such an impact on him that having returned to Hampshire when his service ended in 1947, some five years later he was back in County Durham, working in the mines once more.
A sketch by Bevin Boy Ted Holloway. (Copyright: Gemini Collection, Zurbarán Trust/courtesy of The Auckland Project)
Throughout his life, Ted spoke admiringly of the men he encountered during those first years and the sometimes-herculean strength the Bevin Boys demonstrated. Forty years after his service, he completed a series of retrospective sketches which are a record of the daily toil he and his colleagues undertook to meet their quota.
Angela Thomas is curator of the Mining Art Gallery in Bishop Auckland. You can find out more about the Bevin Boys and the artwork depicting the conscripted miners’ wartime efforts in the exhibition: The Bevin Boys – War’s Forgotten Workforce, 28 March–30 September 2018.