Jim's war was underground

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jim_arroll-wA HELENSBURGH octogenarian was one of those who benefitted from one of the final acts of former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Mr Blair announced in the House of Commons that thousands of conscripts who worked down coal mines during World War Two, known as the ‘Bevin Boys’, would receive a commemorative lapel badge.

One of the recipients was Jim Arroll, whose joinery apprenticeship with Horn in East King Street was interrupted when he was one of 48,000 conscripted to British mines to tackle coal shortages in a scheme named after the Minister of Labour and National Service, Ernest Bevin.

Jim, who lives in Colquhoun Street and celebrated his 80th birthday in 2007, was conscripted in 1943 and sent to Dunfermline for four weeks training in coal mining.

“That was a bit of farce,” he recalls, “as it was really to build up people, such as office workers, for the physical demands of the job. As an apprentice joiner I was fit anyway.”

Then he was posted to the Stirling district, staying in a hostel just outside the town and working in the five mines in that area for three and a half years.

“It was a hard life, and I was glad when it was over,” he said. “It was dark and dirty, and at times you could hardly see in front of you because of the dust.”

In 1947 the conscription ended, and he returned to the burgh and finished his apprenticeship. Then he joined MacFarlane (Helensburgh) Ltd. and worked with that firm until he retired.

The name ‘Bevin Boys’ came from the speech the Minister made when announcing the scheme for service in the mines, which involved 10% of all conscripts aged 18-25.

“We need 720,000 men continuously employed in this industry,” he said. “This where you boys come in. Our fighting men will not be able to achieve their purpose unless we get an adequate supply of coal.”

They were chosen at random and came from a number of different professions, from desk work to hard labour, and included those who might otherwise have become commissioned officers in the armed forces.

They wore the oldest clothes they could find, and were supplied with helmets and steel capped safety boots. Being without uniform, they were often stopped by police and asked about avoiding the call-up.

Among the Bevin Boys who later became famous were disk jockey and charity worker Sir Jimmy Savile, actor and charity worker Lord Brian Rix, dramatist Peter Shaffer, author of ‘Equus’ and ‘Amadeus’, and comedian Eric Morecambe.

Afterwards they received no medals, and were not fully recognised for their service until 1995, 50 years after VE Day, in a speech given by the Queen.

The first of the new badges was awarded in March 2008 to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the demobilisation of the last Bevin Boys.

The Energy Minister, Lord Truscott, said: “The Bevin Boys badge is a survivors badge, and I would encourage Bevin Boy veterans to wear it in public in order visibly to raise awareness of the important role they played during World War Two and in the post-war reconstruction of the United Kingdom.”

Also another recipient of the badge was a former burgh man, Bert Donald, who now lives in Dumbarton although his sister lives locally.

  • Photo by Donald Fullarton