Bevin Boys hit bad seam: Youths sent down pits during Second World War get second-rate treatment

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The Independent Online
ABOUT 230 members of a forgotten army from the Second World War met for a reunion last weekend at Stoke-on-Trent. They were former Bevin Boys, the name given to the young men called up for national service who found themselves conscripted into the coal mines.

The Stoke reunion marked the 50th anniversary of the scheme's controversial introduction in 1943 by the Labour minister, Ernest Bevin.

The Bevin Boys' curious status as conscripts working for private mining companies still has repercussions. They are unable to participate in today's Cenotaph ceremony, since their war service is not officially recognised by the Royal British Legion. Those wanting a medal have to buy one from a commercial company.

Perhaps more seriously, they are also ineligible for compensation for injuries or ill- health under the war pension scheme, something that Ken Tyers from Consett, Co Durham, finds particularly unfair. In 1944 when he reached the conscription age of 17 1/2 he was hoping to join the Army. Instead he was sent to work in a Durham pit. In September 1946 he was crushed in an accident underground between two trains of coal tubs.

'I got a broken pelvis and ruptured bladder and was off work for a year,' he says. He has continued to suffer from the effects of his injuries, adding that he has not had a full night's sleep since the accident occurred. 'If the accident had happened to me in the Army, I would have had a pension. I got a rough deal.'

War disablement pensions are paid to injured or disabled ex-servicepeople and their widows. They can also be claimed by civilians who can demonstrate that injuries received during the 1939-45 conflict were caused by enemy action; the Bevin Boys' injuries in the mines are classified simply as industrial accidents.

John Cook from Fareham is another ex-Bevin Boy who was injured in a runaway coal tub accident. 'They carried me out on a stretcher. I had crushed ribs and spinal trouble, and was in the sick bay for three weeks. I still get a little bit of trouble from it, so I'm very careful,' he says. He recalls that he wasn't paid for his time off work. 'I made enquiries at the pit-head and they laughed at me. It was a case of no work, no pay. The only financial help would have been through the union, but we weren't in the union. We weren't coal miners, we were conscripts.'

About 22,000 people were conscripted to the mines between December 1943 and 1945 (there was also a similar number of volunteers and conscientious objectors). The conscription system was random to ensure that it embraced young men from widely different social backgrounds.

Phil Yates was training as a solicitor's clerk when he was called up. He says that he has 'fond memories' of his time but admits that he is sorry that he and his comrades have not got recognition from the Royal British Legion. There is perhaps a general feeling among the Bevin Boys that they have suffered unfair neglect, both at the time (they missed out on the usual demob pay and Civvy Street suit, for example) and in later years.

Technically the Bevin Boys remained civilians. This meant that the only financial help available to them after an accident came from the employer, through the relatively weak provisions of the Workmen's Compensation Acts (abolished in 1948 though residual claims remain payable).

Those recruited into the armed forces had greater protection. As Michael Day, the Royal British Legion's Pensions Secretary points out, war pensions are not restricted to injuries sustained directly in battle: he describes one case in which a man was 100 per cent disabled having been injured while playing rugby.

Mr Day does not accept, however, that war pensions should be extended to cover the Bevin Boys' wartime work. 'They were civilians, and not in a war-risk situation. They may have suffered health hazards, but not as great as those who served in battle,' he says.

John Cook's experience might suggest otherwise. Just before his demob in 1947, he was working at the Louisa pit in Stanley, Co Durham. One evening he returned from seeing a friend off at Newcastle, and decided not to report for work. 'I'd put my working clothes on, but felt tired,' he says. That night, there was an explosion underground. 'All my shift went. Twenty-seven were killed, including two Bevin boys.'

(Photograph omitted)