Bevin Boys

Over the years we have been asked if we had any information relating to the Bevin Boys, unfortunately official information is limited, and what does exist is spread far and wide. After extensive research by Group Member Dave Gardner in 2022 we published our latest booklet “The Bevin Boys”, and now hope to be able to assist anyone who is interested in the story behind this somewhat forgotten part of our mining history.

Bevin Boys were young men aged 18 – 25 who, between December 1943 and May 1945 were selected at random to fill a labour shortage in the mining industry.  When war broke out mining was not a reserved occupation, so many miners were conscripted or volunteered to serve in the armed forces. In time this created a severe shortage of miners and impacting coal production which was an integral part of the war effort. Ernest Bevin initially asked for volunteers to fill the gap, but with limited success so in 1943 the “Bevin Boy” scheme was introduced. Each week one of Bevin’s secretaries would pull a number from 0-9 out of a hat.  With men who had been called up that week and had a National Service Number which ended in the number drawn, became “Bevin Boys” regardless of what section of the armed forces they wished to serve in. So men from all walks of life were destined to become miners.

Bevin Boys at the Morrison Colliery (Annfield Plain)

The story of John Leslie Bass from Darlington is common among the men called up to work in the mines. On the 14 October 1943 he is instructed to attend a medical on the 21st, he is passed Grade 1 (top grade). 8 February 1944 John receives a letter from the RAF Recruiting Centre in Middlesbrough, that his request to serve in the RAF had been declined as he had been selected for Coal Mining.

Letter from RAF rejecting his application to join

John was born on 5 October 1925, attended school in Darlington and started a bricklaying apprenticeship in 1939. He retired in 1990 and died 2 February 2002.

27 March 1944 he is instructed to attend the nearest Employment Exchange to his allocated colliery to enable him to arrange lodgings, his is also instructed to report to the Manager at Fishburn Colliery the same day. It would appear that all was not well with John, as a letter dated 29 September 1944 from the Ministry of Labour and National Service that his request to work in the building trade in London had been refused. John is still unhappy as a further letter from the Ministry informs him to take up any concerns he has over his conditions of employment are taken up with his employer and appropriate Trade Union. John was released from the “Bevin Boys” on 1 October 1947.

We know from archive material held at Beamish Museum that John was already a bricklayer before being sent into the coal industry and refused to join the NUM, which caused problems for him. He absconded at least once during his time at Fishburn. He was an advocate of the Trade Union Movement and received an award for his work in promoting the unions cause in Darlington Railway Locomotive Works.

Refused permission to work in London

To house the influx of extra men into the mining industry, hostels were built to house the men, with a number here in the North East. The closest to Chester-le-Street were the hostels at South Pelaw and Plawsworth.

South Pelaw Hostel was situated next to South Pelaw Colliery, it opened in May 1944 and could hold 250 men. Plawsworth was only a hostel from January to September 1945. It has had a number of uses since then firstly as a Police Training Centre, a Hungarian Refugee Camp and a homeless centre. The site is currently in use by a nationwide charity named “Changing Lives”. Outside the main entrance is a carving by Richie Barnes a local resident, remembering the Bevin Boys.

The Carving outside Changing Lives Plawsworth
South Pelaw Hostel – Photo kind permission D.A. Hall & G Nairn

In 1975 the Nissen and Romney huts were still on site at Plawsworth and in 2013 a plan was announced to save the Romney Hut with it being dismantled and taken to the Sunderland Aircraft Museum next to the Nissan Car Plant. Unfortunately it was never rebuilt and in 2017 went to its new home at the Aircraft Restoration Group based at Fishburn, where it is currently in use as a workshop and storage area for aircraft under restoration. It is now possibly the last substantial Bevin Boy structure remaining in County Durham.

Plawsworth in 1975
The Romney Hut second from the right with half moon roof originally from Plawsworth now at Fishburn
Bevin Boys Medal -Photo kind permission Mr G Purdon

It took a number of years for the contribution towards the war effort the Bevin Boys provided to be officially recognised, when in 2007 the then Labour Government announced a lapel badge to honour the Bevin Boys. The Bevin Boys Association (formed in 1989) commissioned a medal for those who had died before 2007. In 2013 a memorial to all those who worked in the British Coal Mines during the Second World War was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas, Staffordshire.

Bevin Boys Veterans Badge

When the war ended and the Bevin Boys were being discharged, not all returned home, our book includes the story of one man from Scotland named Jock Purdon who was to stay and marry a local girl Molly who worked at the South Pelaw Hostel, and even went on to write a song about his time as a Bevin Boy.

The book contains a number of stories from men about their time as Bevin Boys including the good and bad, and can been seen at out regular Tuesday Drop-in Sessions.

Famous Bevin Boys include;

Eric Morecambe: From the Morecambe and Wise comedy duo

Stanley Baxter – Actor and impressionist

Nat Lofthouse – Footballer

Lord Brian Rix – Actor

The song by Jock Purdon – Kind permission Mr G Purdon