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Exhibition commemorates 75 years since the Bevin Boys scheme began
David McClure, Tunnel End with Miner, 1947, Pen and ink on paper, 207.5mm x 265mm, Photograph by Richard Hawkes, Copyright_ The David McClure Estate. Courtesy of The Auckland Project.

BISHOP AUCKLAND.- The Mining Art Gallery in Bishop Auckland is presenting a temporary exhibition ​The Bevin Boys - War’s Forgotten Workforce, focusing on art by four former Bevin Boys Ted Holloway, Tom McGuinness, David McClure and John Tipton, from 28th March-30th September 2018.

The exhibition commemorates 75 years since the Bevin Boys scheme began. It also marks the 10 year anniversary of the Bevin Boys’ formal acknowledgment by the UK government. In 2008, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown awarded commemorative badges, featuring a pithead and profile of a miner, to 27 men who were conscripted to work as miners during the Second World War.

The title of the Gallery’s new temporary exhibition, ​The Bevin Boys - War’s Forgotten Workforce, takes its name from the group of men who were conscripted to work in coal mines during the Second World War. In 1943, Great Britain had been at war for four years, the mining industry had lost 36,000 men to the armed forces or other war time industries, and coal supplies began to significantly decrease. The government estimated that there were only three weeks of vital coal supply left. Minister for Labour Ernest Bevin tried to persuade workers to sign up for a job at the coalface, but when they did not respond he was forced to set up a compulsory conscription scheme.

Every month, for 20 months, Bevin’s secretary drew numbers from his distinctive homburg hat. If the number drawn matched the last digit of a man’s National Service number, he was sent into the mines. Four out of every ten men appealed against their assignment, with some even choosing a prison sentence in protest, only to find they were still sent underground once their prison sentence was over. By the end of the scheme, 48,000 men from all walks of life had been thrust into the dark and dangerous world of coal mining. In response to their experiences, some Bevin Boys created art. Drawing and painting the underground world, which was unlike anything they had known before. While the war ended in 1945, many Bevin Boys were not demobilised until 1948 because of the continuing coal shortage. They went unrecognised until a national campaign saw them finally acknowledged by the government for the vital role they played in the war effort.

Artworks by former Bevin Boys Ted Holloway, Tom McGuinness, David McClure and John Tipton are being featured in the exhibition. When the Second World War broke out, Holloway’s National Service number destined him to spend his time underground in the mines. He travelled 300 miles north, from rural Hampshire to a prefabricated Nissen hut in Annfield Plain, County Durham. His sketches on display, made between 1983 and 1987 as he looked back on his experience as a Bevin Boy, record powerful memories from his time underground. The respect he had for his fellow miners is clear from the way he portrays the superhuman strength they seem to display when setting a prop or heaving a tub.

Similarly, Tom McGuinness was also sent for training in Annfield Plain and was assigned to Fishburn Colliery. While at the colliery he was encouraged to take up formal art tuition and eventually enrolled in art classes at the Darlington School of Art and joined the sketching club at Spennymoor Settlement. His etchings feature trademark hunched, distorted figures, as recognisable in this medium as they are in his oil paintings.

Tipton, like McGuinness, also enrolled at Darlington School of Art soon after arriving in Durham to work in the mines. He was based at Dean and Chapter Colliery in Ferryhill where he progressed quickly and was soon training new Bevin Boys in their role underground. He spent his spare time sketching and painting the surrounding countryside and landmarks such as Durham Cathedral. He would often submit designs and safety cartoons to national publications, including ​Coal magazine and even though they were not accepted, this set him in good stead for his future career as a graphic artist at ​The Observer newspaper.

Scottish artist David McClure found himself swapping the pen for the pit helmet when he left Glasgow University to become a Bevin Boy in 1944. Arriving for his training at Townhill Colliery in Dunfermline, Scotland, he was given the standard issue steel-toed boots and pressed cardboard helmet and set to work. Safety procedures were not the main concern for the men he worked with; getting their quota of coal became the highest priority. McClure recalled how he spent one entire shift alone in the dark, pumping water out of a flooded part of the pit. The selection of pen and wash drawings that will be exhibited follow on from earlier mining works that formed part of his application portfolio to Edinburgh College of Art where he went on to study after leaving the mines.

Angela Thomas, Mining Art Gallery Curator comments: “We are thrilled to be launching this new temporary exhibition at the Mining Art Gallery, to celebrate and shed light upon the heroic workforce of men who served this country by working in mines during the Second World War. It seems remarkable that it was only 10 years ago that the Bevin Boys were formally acknowledged by the UK government, however, we thoroughly look forward to raising awareness about their history and cultural significance in the UK, particularly in relation to Mining Art.”

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