So, a thing about Bevin Boys

As regular readers will know I’ve long been of the opinion that conscription is slavery. And if a society can’t find enough volunteers to fight for it then that society doesn’t have much of a right to exist.

Which brings me to Bevin Boys. For some years (I think, maybe 4) those who were conscripted could be sent off to the coal mines. Bevin himself, I’m told, would pluck a number from a hat. And thus, weekly, those whose number ended in 08, 02, 03, dependent upon the number plucked, would, as part of that week’s conscription intake be sent off to the mines, not to the Army (the only armed service where conscription was a major feature of intake, at least in peacetime years).

And so there’s a bit I want to try and get my head around. Given that it’s conscription, and those plucked from the hat have to go off to some mine somewhere, how were they allocated? And how housed? And were they paid normal miners’ wages?

If it really was that lottery, so how was some 18 year old from Dorset set up with a mine job in Durham? And fed, lodged, trained and so on?

And the really important bit I’d like to know is what happened when someone said “Fuck You!”?

Sure, the Army’s got sergeants, jankers, jail cells. Coal mines don’t. So, no one could not turn up, because the police would arrest them, but how did they make sure that conscripts actually do anything? No, not going down the shaft. Or, if forced, not shovelling coal? What was the enforcement mechanism?

Anyone know?

31 thoughts on “So, a thing about Bevin Boys”

  1. A very good friend of my father was a Bevin boy. he was a conchie who chose to go down the pit rather than take human life. Ironically, his chances of death or injury were far higher than if he’d gone to a tooth arm of the Army. He taught me to play Cribbage, but gave up playing me when I started taking money off him regularly.

  2. “so how was some 18 year old from Dorset set up with a mine job in Durham?”
    Farm boys from Dorset, yes.
    But it’d be fascinating to know how many public school boys served down the mines. Lot of volunteers for the officer corps, of course. But all of them?

  3. Miners had extreme solidarity with each other due to the hazards of the job. They were very interdependent on each other which may explain why they were so well unionised. So there were intense peer pressures to conform and to pull one’s weight. Plus the fact they were probably very patriotic despite the nasty slurs issued against them by the British press and politicians.

  4. These were surely the bygone days of yore when all pulled together and British Bevin Boys, full of backbone, would proudly do their duty, with no supervision or coercion or social expectation, for God, King, and the Empire.

  5. @BiG: It always amazes me, the amount of responsibility that men had back then. They had to be responsible for things that if they fucked up, people died. Steam train crew for example. Two blokes had complete control of a train weighing hundreds of tonnes, travelling at speeds of up to 100mph, with hundreds of passengers on board. No dead mans handle. No computer central control. Just decades of experience and a cast iron sense of duty to do the right thing, come what may.

    All gone now of course, thats progress for you.

  6. Eric Morecambe was briefly a Bevan boy, and it’s claimed that that’s where he picked up the heart condition that eventually killed him. But I can’t help you on the coercion used. Perhaps just the threat of being roughed up by a gang of coal miners.

  7. This is an interesting question, but I have been pondering another similar one, from another side of the front (Finland).

    We got plenty of Russian prisoners of war who starved on camps in the first winter, so we realised this cannot go on, the camps were horrible. So let’s have fewer camps. Instead, many POWs were sent to work in farms to do the work of the men who were serving on the front. And Igor and Sergei happily did the farmwork, guided by the women who were running the farms while the men were serving in army.

    They did not involve in sabotage, or molest the women, or generally give any trouble at all. I have the understanding that German POWs did much the same in English farms at the same time. How did this work? How were these men motivated, how were they disciplined?

    Here, many of them were in fact so happy that they did not want to go back even at the end of war when their country had won. (I know even a case who, with the help of the local bailiff, took the identity of another local man who had gone MIA, and lived under his assumed name for 40 years, till after the Soviet Union collapsed, set up a family and all).

  8. As I understand it, two things kept the Bevin boys on the job – apart from whatever patriotism actually made most of them willing. One was that if they were there to get a thumping, they’d get a good one if they tried to shirk – they were under the command of senior, experienced miners who I’m sure gave extremely short thrift to those who didn’t work. The other was that if they went AWOL they’d be extremely conspicuous walking around out of uniform (because so few weren’t called-up) and hassled by the police, so they’d have been very likely to be arrested quickly.

    Oh, and yes, there definitely were public school Bevin boys.

    With regard to the POW farmers, POWs were treated very differently according to their views on Nazism, fighting for their country, etc. The ones who showed no inclination to escape would find themselves less watched, and indeed many were only too happy to be in a British POW camp instead of starving and dying.

    Add to that the difficulties of escaping from an island on full alert without any money or papers, and you can see why few even bothered to try.

    It’s generally accepted that only one Nazi POW made a home run in the war, and that was from Canada, before the US was in the war.

    Ironically, the one mass escape from a POW camp in the UK was from a (non-agricultural) camp called Island Farm.

  9. Bloke in Costa Rica

    One of my Dad’s dog-walking chums was a German POW. He’d been in some line unit that came up against the Allies in Holland. He used to say it was very lucky for him that he was captured on the first day of the three day battle his unit fought because all those who held out until days two and three were killed. His outfit was basically annihilated. He settled in the UK, married an English woman, had kids. He was a lovely man (dead now, of course).

  10. The conscription as slavery comparison is all good and well and sounds very nice, until confronted by an enemy power that couldn’t care less about the lives or liberty of its subjects. At that point, when faced by a vast conscripted army, if you choose to rely on volunteers alone, you may as well surrender immediately and save some lives in the process, because you’re going to lose.

  11. Conscription equals slavery sounds plausible at first, but the devil is in the details. How much freedom, exactly, does a slave have to have before he is no longer a slave? Does work or starve equal slavery? What about fight or starve?

    Conscription to fight for the East India Company is slavery, conscription to defend the nation, not so much.

    Plus, a large number of young men with nothing much to do can cause a great deal of harm. Are violent criminal gangs and no go areas a fair price to pay for liberty?

  12. The ex-POW camp, Eden Camp near Malton in North Yorkshire is well worth a visit if anyone is up that way. It is a very interesting museum that concentrates primarily on the home front during WWII, including POW life.

  13. @MyBurningEars, thanks.

    @Dave, yes I understand that it would have been difficult to get out of Britain – an island – during war, but how could you really reliably learn any POW’s views on Nazism and thereby sort them by how dangerous they were?

    Here in Finland I expect there would have been more capability to assess, since Finland had been part of Russian empire until 1917, and as of 1942 the country still had lots and lots of people who were entirely fluent in Russian, particularly any senior military and police officers etc. On the other hand, very many of the POWs and defectors were Finnish-speaking Soviet citizens from Karelia and Ingermanland (the Finnish-speaking countryside area surrounding St. Petersburg, which was purged afterwards). Some people (many of them Finnish-Americans) who defected to USSR in 1920’s were able to escape Stalin’s purges in 1930’s and come back so we had some good idea of who was who in USSR. (And Finnish sigint over Russian communications was excellent, which helped.)

    Was there a similar understanding in Britain about who was Nazi and who was not and how you would recognize and filter them out? How fluent were people generally in German, and how much English did German POWs actually have?

    @DocBud, thanks. I always wondered what’s east of Eden. Now I know it’s Scagglethorpe.

  14. Roue le Jour,

    But if people are willing to fight, why do you need conscription?

    See, I really doubt that WW2 conscription was necessary. I know that my grandfather didn’t hesitate when conscription was announced. He went down the next day and signed up. The government could have said that everyone should sign up, with no element of force and people would have done so.

  15. @Conscription. My father signed up for the Territorials in the mid-1930s, and the Artillery in 1940. No conscription needed. If there was anyone less “war-ry” than him, I’d be surprised, but he did have a sense of duty.

    @POWs. In my teens (mid-60s) I had a Saturday job on a local farm. The “labourer” there was a German ex-POW. I asked him why he stayed on. Answer: he had a job, a cottage, met and married a local girl, and post WWII there was nothing for him to go back to.

  16. @ The Stigler
    In 1914 there were queues to volunteer, but eventually they ran short of volunteers to replace the losses on the Western Front, so in 1916 the government introduced conscription.
    Certainly enough volunteers to fight a battle, but not enough for a long war.

  17. Conscription = slavery? Well not quite. I was conscripted (National Service it was called) in 1958 into the RAF. Paid 22 shillings and sixpence per week out of which I had to buy boot polish and cleaning materials to keep uniform clean, Regulars were paid 3 or 4 times as much. But apart from the difference in pay conscripts were treated in exactly the same way as regulars.

  18. PJT>

    “how could you really reliably learn any POW’s views on Nazism and thereby sort them by how dangerous they were?”

    A number of ways, although obvious nothing could be completely 100% reliable. Let me see. First up, really dedicated Nazis were less likely to be captured alive. Then, they mostly were idiotically proud and boastful about their beliefs. A few tried to hide their ideology, but they generally were very unpopular with their fellow POWs.

    Obviously mistakes were made, but in genera the approach was to question people extensively, then slowly test them by giving them small amounts of extra freedom.

  19. “how could you really reliably learn any POW’s views on Nazism and thereby sort them by how dangerous they were?”

    Speaking fluent Italian was always a good clue.

  20. Bloke in Costa Rica

    “how could you really reliably learn any POW’s views on Nazism and thereby sort them by how dangerous they were?”

    Bugging their barracks was one way, enthusiastically applied, at least in the initial reception phase.

  21. Bloke no Longer in Austria


    If you can, find the film The One That Got Away starring Hardy Kruger. It is about von Werra, mentioned above and is in parts remarkably accurate.

    German officers were screened, bugged and interrogated all through their sojourns in Britain. It was through bugging that the British began to learn about the atrocities committed by the Whermacht and SS, which up until then had been dismissed as implausible refugee stories.

    Interrogation techniques were highly sophisticated and mostly performed without the need for water-boarding or any other nonsense that they need today (there was some torture). Alas a lot of the records were destroyed after the war but there is still a wealth of evidence out there.
    British Interrogation Techniques in the Second World War is one such book.

    ps Regarding Hardy Kruger, I saw a documentary which told part of his story. His family were dedicated Nazis and he joined the Waffen SS as a teenager. He always had an idealised view of what the SS did and so was repulsed when he learnt the truth. He was sent to Austria and his troop of boys were told to attack an American tank. They refused and their commander ( a Belgian) threatened them with execution, so Kruger ( he says) shot the Belgian, took command and they handed themselves into the Yanks. He literally did “get away”, he absconded from his POW camp in Austria and went home to Berlin.

    pps The net effect of drafting men into the coal industry was a loss in production. The inefficency of the newcomers and the militancy (General Strike veterans) and general poor physical condition of the older men coupled with the failure to mechanise meant that Britain faced a continual energy crisis well after the war ended.

  22. One ex-POW who decided to stay on was Bert Trautmann, Manchester City’s legendary goalkeeper, famous for playing the final 15 minutes of the 1956 Cup Final with an (unrecognised) broken neck after banging his head.

  23. Intractable Potsherd

    I knew a couple of ex-Bevan Boys in a previous career. In one case he was really very surprised to be “conscripted” into the mines instead of the army. He came from an agricultural bit of southern England, and had no experience of the type of work involved down the pit. Also, ending up in (what is now) South Yorkshire was a shock to his system. He said that, whilst he was welcomed by the people in his new home, it took a very long time to get used to working in darkness on his hands and knees, when he had expected to spend his life working in the fields. I think he mentioned something about being on a lower rate of pay than the other miners until he signed a contract – the “conscription” being limited in time, just like the military – but I don’t remember the details.

    The other I’m not sure if he could actually be called a Bevin Boy, since he chose not to go into the army, and so was sent to the pit instead. He wasn’t dislocated to the same degree – a few miles from where his family lived – but, in his opinion, was quite badly treated by the community he went to. Once his time was up, he left with no regrets and went into a completely industry.

    To round things up, my granddad was a professional miner all his life, and he had little time for the Bevin Boys, for the same reason professional soldiers had little time for conscripts – they didn’t want to be there, had no relevant skills when they arrived, and then left just as they became good at the job. They were less than popular because they made work for the professionals both in terms of making them safe to work down the pit, but also to make up for lost shift bonuses.

  24. The Stigler: Who wants a non-zero chance of death for defending the freedom of Poland (to harass its German-ethnic citizens).. which was initially invaded by Roosevelt and Churchill’s ally along with those nasty Huns? Devious war propaganda fed WW2 volunteers into the meatgrinder, same as WW1. Belgian babies spiked by Huns in incubaters, blah blah blah blah.

    pjt: That is very interesting to hear about- I had never really thought about the question of how Russian prisoners in Finnish hands were treated. I guess we’re all aware of how the Germans reciprocally treated Soviet prisoners of war little better than the Soviets treated POWs they took- but I rather suspect that this was less due to Hitler trying to appeal to Stalin’s rationality and sense of fair play, and more the simple fact that they had no hope of feeding everyone while under constant terror bombing attack.

    My guess would be that any POWs from Russia or other Red dominions that the Reds forced Finland to return to them post-war, would have been treated the same as those that Churchill and the commies in the White House sent back- they would have been lucky to be executed quickly.

  25. Paul Rains, are you contending that the USSR was allied with the UK and the non – combattant USA when they invaded Poland and the Baltic States? I suspect that you are the legendary DBC Reed under a new name

  26. Pingback: Democracy, Cognitive Dissonance, and Leviathan | Libertarian Home

  27. @Paul Rain: food certainly was an issue for Germans, but it was even more so for Finns, as it was for Russians. It’s really a shame but the death toll of Russian prisoners was really bad in winter 1941-1942. It got better after Finnish high command recognizing that a POW in a camp cannot live with the same rations as a front-line soldier, as the front-line soldier has some possibility to forage. So the prisoners were arranged differently.

    My dad was a young man and fought in the army through all of Continuation War (except time in hospital after woundings); he told how the first thing he’d do when finding a dead Russian was to prowl the pockets for food. Find a loaf of bread, you’d cut away visible blood (even if it had protein…) but the rest was good to eat.

    The Russians were not well off either. There are some photographs about the remains of soldiers who’d been surrounded, and a dead one had been cut and eaten by his comrades. The pictures were originally taken for propaganda purposes, but they were thought too gruesome to be useful so never published, until a couple of years ago.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *