Vilified.. but we could have lost the war without them; Seventy years ago next month, the first 'Bevin Boys' were conscripted and selected by ballot to go down the mines to help the war effort - Paddy Shennan meets some of them.
THEY were among the unsung heroes of the British war effort, helping their country by manning the coal mines and digging deep for victory.
And yet it was only earlier this year that they were recognised with a first permanent memorial, while some people actually mistook them for conscientious objectors.
In December it will be 70 years since the first Bevin Boys were chosen to go underground to help end the desperate coal shortages facing the country. By mid-1943, our mines had lost 36,000 workers to the front line and it became clear that they needed to be replaced urgently.
The new recruitment programme ran from 1943 until well beyond the war - 1948 - with around 48,000 young men - 10% of those called up - chosen at random to work in the mines (or face prison) rather than join the armed forces.
They were named after Minister of Labour and National Service Ernest Bevin, who said: "We need 720,000 men continuously employed in this industry. This is where you boys come in."
Boys like Gordon Waterhouse, Stan McCann, Denys Owen and John Pile, who I was privileged to meet at an annual lunch organised by The Bevin Boys Association for its North West members at The Grange in Thornton Hough, Wirral.
Association secretary Liz Todd, from Heswall, says: "We formed in 1989, after someone on a BBC quiz show, when asked 'Who were the Bevin Boys?' said 'Conscientious objectors.' People were horrified and decided to try and raise awareness."
Liz's late husband, Gordon, who was brought up in Rock Ferry and was sent to work in the Nottinghamshire coal mines, was elected the association's national chairman in October 2012, but sadly died in April this year, aged 87.
After his war service, Gordon went on to become an architect and later designed the house in Heswall that Liz continues to live in - 57 years on.
She adds: "The Bevin Boys didn't have uniforms and Gordon would tell me that, as a result of this, they would be attacked and also, humiliatingly, refused service in shops and cafes."
Liz and Gordon became involved in the association in 1993, but Liz says: "Sadly, we have less than 300 members now and, of course, the youngest will be in their late '80s."
People like 87-year-old Gordon Waterhouse. Gordon, who lives in Formby but grew up in Ormskirk, recalls: "I was sent for three weeks training at Newtown Colliery in Swinton in March 1945 and then went to work at Clock Face Colliery in St Helens. I was demobbed in 1948.
"I'd been in the Air Training Corps (ATC) for two-and-a-half years and then did three days air crew training in Padgate and took the exams. They said 'We will notify you for the air force'.
"Then I got my call-up papers to work undergound - I wasn't best pleased with Ernest Bevin! We were classed as conscientious objectors and that naturally rankled.
"But when I finished in the colliery I knew what hard work was. It made a man out of me. It was hard-going at first but, after that, I thoroughly enjoyed it. No one wanted to know us, though. People talked about the Women's Land Army but they didn't mention us."
" In May this year the Countess of Wessex unveiled a well-received memorial to the Bevin Boys at the National Arboretum Centre in Staffordshire, but Gordon says: "It took too long for us to be recognised. Sadly, many Bevin Boys have passed away."MINISTER: " Gordon - who is married to Brenda, has one daughter and three grandchildren - went on to have his own painting and decorating business.
And like Gordon, although they didn't meet until many years later, Stan McCann, 86, from Burscough, was also in the ATC and preparing for the RAF when he was suddenly sent to Swinton to be trained as a miner, before starting work in Clock Face in 1943/44: "Because I wanted to go into the air force I wasn't very happy but I made the best of it," he recalls.
"But they wouldn't let you cut coal - that was well-paid. You had to do ancilliary work."
How did lads like him come to be in this situation? "It was the usual thing - politicians made an absolute b***s of everything! The whole country was run on coal - homes, factories, schools - but because they called so many miners up they had to get us down there."
After his days as a coal miner, Stan went back to being an electrician. His late wife was Isabelle and they had seven children, 16 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
Denys Owen, 86, from Wavertree, though now living in St Asaph, was called up on his birthday - December 4, 1944 - and demobbed in the spring of 1948: "I was in the Liverpool Scottish - in the cadets based in Shaw Street, Everton. My dad Ernest Bevin was an army officer and I expected to go into the army. My two best friends and I were called up together and sent to Gresford near Wrexham after training in Walkden near Bolton. We were kept together and that saved my sanity.
"I don't think we had any antagonism from the public, though I know a lot of people did. I worked on the haulage. It was quite dangerous and quite heavy work but the war was on and you knew you were doing your bit. But we got a bit disgruntled towards the end because our demob dates were later than those who were in the navy and the air force - so all my peers were coming home and pinching all the girls!" Denys, who went on to become an accountant and is not married, adds: "Our lack of recognition never troubled me - nothing surprises me in parliamentary circles."
John Pile, 86, from Kirkdale, was called up in December 1944 and trained in Swinton before being sent to Lyme Colliery in Haydock: "I thought I was going into the army, or possibly the RAF. Then out of the blue came the call - it was the mines or prison.
"There were said to be just three weeks' stock of coal left and we would have virtually lost the war had Ernest Bevin not come up with his idea."
He adds: "I was a waggoner. When a waggon was loaded I ran with it until it was coupled up. Another job was timber dragging - we had to throw pit props to each other and it was very heavy work. We were dressed in civvies and during the war everyone else was in uniform. No one ever said anything to me about us being conscientious objectors and I wasn't aware of any ill-feeling, but I did live in a mining community."
John, who is married to Ann and has three children and eight grandchildren, later spent 43 years working for the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce, including as its Principal Commercial Information Officer.
Meanwhile, Liz Todd reveals the association recently made an important link with the past.
She explains: "In 1943 it was decided that a secretary in the Ministry of Labour and National Service would pull a number out of a hat and if this figure - nine was the first number - matched the last figure of your registration number (call-up number) then you were directed to mining.
"We located the young secretary - Betty Nunn, now Betty McFarlane - who pulled out the first number. She is now 92 and has vivid memories of her special duty. Until very recently she had lived with a feeling of guilt that she had sent 48,000 young men to the mines. And she expressed delight that our association had brought so much pleasure to its members, who are able to exchange experiences and memories which has led to many long-standing friendships."
GOING UNDERGROUND: Gordon Waterhouse
BACK TOGETHER: Liz Todd, secretary of The Bevin Boys Association with, from left to right, former Bevin Boys Stan McCann, Gordon Waterhouse, John Pile and Denys Owen