Ernest Bevin and the Bevin Boys
It was realised at the beginning of the Second World War that coal would be
an essential energy source for industry. In 1940 as Winston Churchill formed
an all-party coalition Ernest Bevin was appointed as Minister of Labour. Bevin
had been a leading member of the Transport and General Workers Union
and had assisted a campaign by the TUC to extend paid holidays to a wider
proportion of the workforce which led to the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938.
Churchill had been impressed with his opposition to trade union pacifism and
his work ethic.
Although coal had been stockpiled by 1942 shortages were occurring
and an ‘essential work order’ had been issued to protect supplies. Bevin had
complete control over the workforce and the allocation of manpower. Over
48000 military conscripts were diverted to work in the coal industry. They
were called the Bevin Boys. Men could work in the mines at 14years old, but
military conscripts had to be 18, and some volunteers from protected
industries were older.
The mines then were privately owned and in poor condition. The Bevin
Boys were given six weeks training, but weren’t supplied with proper clothes
or equipment, and were often dressed in second hand clothes. They were
met by inadequate toilet facilities- they were told to go on their shovel- and
unsanitary conditions smelling of horse urine and coal. They often had to
work for 15 hours per day, since once down the mine they may have to walk
two miles to their job. After only one week they went on strike to obtain better
pay and conditions. They were given £3 per week, which was much better
than soldiers but then soldiers received board and lodging free.
Although Billy Butlin designed hostels that were built for them, they had
to pay for their own washing facilities and clothes to be cleaned. Because the
Bevin Boys weren’t operational until 1944, at most they served 18 months war
service, but they weren’t allowed to leave until after 3 years, and even then
only if they could prove they had alternative employment. Then despite have
contributed to a pension fund an administrative blunder resulted in them not
receiving a pension. After having contributed magnificently to the war effort in
mines in Scotland, the Midlands, Wales and Kent the Bevin Boys were not
treated well, and never received a war medal until they were finally
recognised by the Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2007.
Dr Ann Kneif Phd (Kent) gave an excellent talk and was roundly
applauded by the Society.