17 October 2017

Bevin Boys - WW2 conscription down the coal mines

Coal was essential for military production during WW2; somehow Britain had to match the quotas needed to keep fact­ories churn­ing out the munitions required at the front. And as Britain was unable to import coal in wartime, the production of coal from local mines had to be increased. But how? 36,000 miners were already cons­crip­t­ed for army duty and had left their collieries.

Ernest Bevin, wartime Minister of Labour and National Service and a former Trade Unionist, believed the short­age could be remedied by using conscripted men to fill the vacancies in the mines, keeping production at the rates requir­ed. In Dec 1943 he announced a scheme in Parliament.

A ballot would take place to put a fixed perc­ent­age of cons­cript­ed men into the underground collieries rather than into the armed services. “We need 720,000 men continuously employed in this industry. This is where you boys come in. Our fighting men will not be able to achieve their purpose unless we get an adequate supply of coal.” Any refusal to comply with the Direction Order would result in a heavy fine and/or imprisonment under the Emergency Powers Act in force back then.

Bevin Boys' first day down the mine
Photo credit: Express

Bevin boys training with a pit pony
Photo credit: Bevin Boys Photo Grallery

Every month, 10 numbers were placed in a hat; 2 numbers were drawn and those whose National Service registration number ended with those numbers were directed to the mining industry. Along these ballotees were the optants, men who had volunt­eered for service in the coal mines, rather than the armed serv­ices. From 1943-8, 48,000 young men between the ages of 18-25 were conscripted for Nat­ional Service Employment in British coal mines.

After medical examinations, travel warrants & instructions, the men had to report to one of the thirteen Government Training Centre Collieries in England, Wales and Scotland. Accommodation was provided in either a purpose-built Miners Hostel similar to an army camp, or billeted out to a private home at £1.25/week from a weekly wage of £3.50.

Each new miner was taught mining in a 6 weeks training course: classroom lectures, surface-and-underground training and physical fitness. Only a minority of Bevin Boys were actually employed cutting coal on the coal face, and others worked as colliers' assistants, filling tubs or drams. The maj­ority worked on maintaining haulage roads, or con­trolling underground con­veyor belts. The few who had previous electrical or engineering experience were given similar work in the collieries.

This alternative to army service caused much dismay; many of the Bevin Boys wanted to join the fighting for­c­es, or felt that as coal miners they would not be valued.

The Bevin Boys came from a range of backgrounds and skill sets. A few were true conscientious objectors who were being consc­rip­ted for essential but non-military work. Some were sons of privilege, and many were lads from big cities who had never even seen a coal mine. Whatever their background, by Dec 1943 one in ten conscripts found themselves in the mines instead of at the front.

6 weeks of training for each intake of conscripts
in classrooms, via vigorous physical training and in the underground mine
Photo credit: PressReader

A large proportion of the 48,000 Bevin Boys sent to Britain's coll­ieries disliked their time spent there. This was partially because they had been hoping to join the army, as noted. Plus many suffered vicious taunts from by-standers; coal miners wore no distinctive uniform so moral judgements were often made about the lads “shirking” from war service. Even the police would stop and question men of military age, if they suspected the men had avoided conscrip­t­ion.

Finally a large number of reserved occupation miners also dis­liked the Bevin Boys. They saw the lads as a threat to their live­li­hoods and also as dangerous liabilities, given that most did not come from mining backgrounds. Worse, the local mining fam­ilies had already seen their own sons conscripted into the armed services, only to be replaced by very young, reluctant outsiders.

Unlike the ordinary miners, who wore their own clothes, Bevin Boys were issued with overalls, safety helmet and working boots. But it was unfortunate that Bevin Boys a] were not given an identifiable war service uniform and b] were not released from their coal mines until several years after the war ended. This was long after their counter­parts in the armed forces had been demobbed.

The mine-work was done in appalling conditions with no toilet facilities, working in areas that were hot, cold, wet, dusty or dirty. The constant noise of machinery was deafening. And there was always the fear that there could be an explosion resulting in fire or rock fall. [I am claustrophobic. That would have been my worst fear].

The ballots were suspended in May 1945, with the last of the 50,000 conscripts working in the coal mines. The Bevin Boys had all been demobbed in 1948. A small number stayed in mining after the war, but most couldn't wait to leave.

Unlike other conscripts, they had no right to go back to their previous occupations, they received no service medals, demob suit or even a letter of thanks. And because the official records were destroyed in the 1950s, former Bevin Boy ballotees could not even prove their service, unless they have kept their personal documents.

Bevin Boys in Durham
They were just teenagers, away from home for the first time
photo credit: WW2inColor

Many men who spent their war on the so-called underground front went unrecognised for almost half a century. Perhaps they were still embarrassed about not serving on the front. In any case, some men did eventually form the Bevin Boys Association in 1989 in Dorchester Dorset. The first official Bevin Boys reunion was held at the former Chatterley Whitfield Mining Museum in 1989.

It took until 1995 for the British government to form­ally re­cog­nise the contribution of these men, by then old age pens­ion­ers. The Queen made a speech and unveiled the Home Front Mem­orial in Coventry. And in 2007, the Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that a special honour was to be presented to all conscripts who served in the mines. This was on the 60th anniversary of the last Bevin Boy being demobbed. Any living Bevin Boys are now officially allowed to take part in the Remembrance Day service at Whitehall.

Many thanks to The Forgotten Conscripts by Warwick H Taylor  and the BBC’s The Coal Industry in Wartime by Dr Martin Johnes.


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14 October 2017

Smitten by the artist Catherine da Costa

Dr Henry Lew wrote Smitten by Cath­er­ine, the story of Catherine Rachel Mendes da Costa (1678-1756). Lew was stroll­ing through an auction house looking at furniture, and noticed a sp­ec­ial C18th watercolour copy of a Rubens oil painting, att­rib­uted to Catherine da Costa. Since I am particularly interested in the era when Jews were permitted to return to England in mid C17th, my question became: who was this little known artist?

Lew started the story back in Spain and Portugal, from where the Jews were expelled in the 1490s.  The author focused on the strength of Manasseh Ben Israel whose family had fled to Amsterdam from Madeira in Por­t­ugal. In his 1652 book, The Hope of Israel, Manasseh noted that countries tol­er­ant of Jews were also those that flourish­ed economically. Man­asseh had tried to find a solution to counteract the Chris­tian concept of the oppressed homeless Jew; he reminded Whitehall that Jews always displayed civic loyal­ty. Manasseh was a man of grand vision, and had his portrait done by Rembrandt in 1636. But the man was a realist - he  had to accept less favour­able terms for Jews, if they were to be tolerated in England eg synagogues would only be permitted inside private homes.

Catherine’s father, Fernando Mendes (born 1647), came from the town of Trancoso in Portugal, which had a Jewish community surviving as crypto-Jews. Under difficult circumst­anc­es, Fer­nando eventually moved from Portugal in c1660, first to France and then to England. His timing was excellent; Ol­iv­er Crom­well had allowed Jews to be readmitted as recently as 1656.
Henry Lew's book cover
The Victorious Hero... Concludes Peace, 1723
by Catherine da Costa

Fernando Mendes was sent to study Medicine at Montpellier University in 1666, graduating with his Doctorate in 1668. In 1669 he returned to London and went into business with his very wealthy first cousin, Alvaro Rodrigues da Costa. Alvaro was a man who was hugely successful trading inside the East India Company. So clearly Dr Mendes never had to rely on Medicine as his sole source of income. The quid pro quo for a successful life was that neither men could be Jewish - Fernando was a Catholic and Alvaro became a Protestant.

Catherine de Braganza came from a senior noble house in Portugal, and lived there until she married King Charles II of England in 1662. An article of the marriage treaty was that Queen Catherine was allowed freely to practise her faith; her chapels in St James’ Palace and Somerset House were the only two places in London where Catholics could legally worship. Once again timing was critical. In 1678 Dr Fernando Mendes was app­oint­ed physician to King Charles II and Queen Catherine de Braganza. Mendes was paid a salary, and was provided with his own apartment in Somerset House, the Queen’s royal palace in London.

Dr Mendes married Isabel Rodriques Marques, daughter of a devout Jewish merchant. Their first baby was born in Somerset House in late 1689. Queen Catherine, who could not have any babies herself, was del­ight­ed with the little girl, had her baptised in the palace and asked that she be called Catherine. Even after King Char­les’ death in 1685, Dr Mendes remained in the Dowager Queen’s service. And Catherine Mendes remained the god-daughter of Queen Catherine.

I am sorry we learn so little about Catherine’s values, hopes and goals in the book. We DO know that she became a pupil of the famous min­iat­urist Bernard Lens III (1682-1740), a painter at the courts of kings George I and George II. In 1707 Lens became the first British artist to replace vellum, the most common material for miniatures, with ivory. (As Catherine did later). Catherine’s copy of Lens’ painting, The Vict­orious Hero Takes Occasion to Conclude Peace, must have been very influential on the young woman.

In 1698 Catherine married her cousin Anthony Moses da Costa, a young merchant, and had three children. Like his father, Anthony became a leading figure in East India trade, and in banking. He was ad­mired by Voltaire, rejected by the Russian Company because of being Jewish and was appointed commissioner for the new American colony of Georgia.
Top: Bernard Lens, Portrait of a Lady called Mary Queen of Scots (1720)
Middle: Catherine da Costa, Self Portrait (1720)
Bottom: Catherine da Costa, her son Abraham (born 1704)

Anthony and Catherine lived in two lovely homes in London. She was exposed to the impressive operas and oratorios of contemporary George Frederick Handel. And she read the Enlightenment philosophers Locke and Hume. Yet Jewish life in England was ambivalent. Catherine knew that Jews often hid their Jewish identity, that inter-marriage and conversion were common, allowing access to important nat­ion­al organisations. Moreover Catherine witnessed impoverished Sephardi Jews, still fleeing persecution. These Jews could become the subject of anti-Semitic stereotypes in England.

Why would a Jewish artist paint a Madonna and Child? Henry Lew re­iterated that Portuguese Marranos had been living as Christ­ians since the 1490s. And remember that Catherine’s father Fernando and her father-in-law Alvaro were both committed Christ­ians. Perhaps Catherine saw Sofonisba Anguis­s­ola’s Madonna and Child (1556, p65) and adored it.

Catherine’s oeuvre was worth examining. Her Self-Portrait was my favourite (1720, p64); the well-dressed artist was busy working at her easel. The Portrait of her Father Dr Fernando Mendes showed a well dressed gentleman in a wig, in front of his impressive library (1721, p46). And her portraits of her son Abraham da Costa (1714, p66) and her Double Portrait of Two Children were sensitive (not dated, p68). Only the portrait of London mer­chant Francis Jacob Salvador (1720, p67) was, in my opinion, not very sensitive.

Dr Lew, an opthamologist for 40 years, authored 6 other books. For Smitten by Catherine, he has published a limited edition of 500 copies in hardback. This beautiful book was complete with plates of Cath­er­ine’s art, works by her teacher Bern­ard Lens III, and the original painting by Rubens that Cath­erine cop­ied. Readers might like to locate an old catalogue of the exhib­it­ion Jewish Artists in England 1656-1956, held at the White­chapel Art Gallery, Nov-Dec 1956.


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10 October 2017

Australian Impress­ion­ist Art exhibition now on in Canberra - don't they mean Heidelberg art?

We were often told that Eugene von Guerard (1811–1901)’s Australian landscapes of the 1860s and 70s were indebted to the romantic art of Caspar David Friedrich, two generations earlier, or that there was an affinity between­ his work and that of Amer­ic­an landscape painters like Frederic Church. But Christopher Allen (The Australian 8th Oct 2017) wrote that if von Guerard’s style was dist­inct­ive, the sociocultural milieu within which he worked in Australia was also significantly differen­t from that of the Americans to whom he was sometimes comp­ar­ed.

The USA established the core of its identity as a nation around the Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776. The found­ing fath­ers of the new nation were men of the Enlightenment. A century later, America was a great modern industrial nation that had absorbe­d many more influences, including romantic sensib­ility and religious re­vivalism. So by the time Church and his colleagues painted their luminous, sublime landscapes, America was already an established nation with a strong sense of its own identity. Their landscapes evoked westward expansion, and the discov­ery of the­ wilderness as a spiritual symbol.

In von Guerard’s time Australia had not yet reached a comparable level of national identity. Federation (1/1/1901) was still more than a gen­era­tion away and post gold-rush colonial society was growing rapidly, with a boom in urban population. Australia was still transitioning from a coll­ect­ion of small colonies.

Bourke Street West, 1886, by Tom Roberts,
Credit: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 

Down on his luck. 1889, by Frederick McCubbin
Credit: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Two decades later, in the 1880s, the Heid­elberg School was named after an area in outer Melbourne where they started painting en plein air. Fred­erick McCubbin (1855-1917), Tom Roberts (1856–1931), Arthur Streeton (1867–1943), Walters Withers (1854—1914) and some­times Charles Conder (1868–1909) achieved a more con­fid­ent sense of belonging. Admit­ted­ly drawing on naturalist and Impress­ionist ideas, they turned from inspiring sub­jects to farming set­tings. They sought to capture Australian life, the bush and the harsh sunlight that typ­if­ied this country, and a more confident sense of settlement. 

Some of the loveliest pictures done by the Heidelbergers were the little oil sketches on cigar box lids that composed the fam­ou­s 9 x 5 Impression Exhibition in Melbourne in 1889. Note the use of the term Impression­ist here, as explained in Table Talk magazine in June 1889.

So why did the 2007 exhibition at the NGV, Australian Impress­ion­ism, call the most loved group of Australian artists “impres­s­ionists”, not “Heidelbergers”. The title of the 2007 exhibition reflected the view that Heidelberg School art was a credible Australian expression of the move towards natur­al­istic, plein-air painting that was popular in France, acr­oss Europe and in North America. Aust­ral­ians were part of internationalism and modernity!

Even as recently as 2016, the Nat­ion­al Gallery of Australia sent Australia’s Impressionists Exhib­ition to London’s National Gal­l­ery. But British critics were puzzled. Streeton’s Fire’s On! (1891) was far from what they thought of as Im­pressio­nism, and Roberts’s A Break Away! (1891) could not be fitted into a European framework.

I created the same mix-up in this blog, absorbing the spec­ific­ally Australian Heidelberg School into International Impres­sion­ism. “By 1901, Elioth Gruners first work was accepted for hanging in the Society of Artists Spring Show. See the small oil sketches of Sydney beaches 1912-4, very much in the tradition of the 9 x 5 Impressions shown at Buxton’s Rooms in Melbourne in Aug 1889. Gruner claimed his big influence was Roberts, possibly explaining why he was event­ually seen as the heir to the Impress­ion­ist past­oral tradition of Australian art of the Heidelberg school”. 

Now Allen is asking us to understand the specif­icity of C19th Aus­tralian art, distinguishing it from the superficially com­parable Impressionism in Europe or the USA. Consider the times. In 1870-71, France was humiliatingly defeat­ed in the Franco-Prussian War, Emperor Napoleon III abdicated, the republic was proclaimed and Paris was besieged by the German army. Then it was taken over by a radical movement called the Commune 1871, which was quickly put down in a bloody repression.

There was little sign of any of these traum­at­ic ev­ents in the Impressionists’ art. French Impress­ion­ism was specif­ic­ally react­ing to historical circumstances by avoiding the pain. Their emphasis was on the per­s­onal, authentic experience of transient phenomena. In  Claude Mon­et’s idyllic Le bassin d’Argenteuil (1872), the emph­asis was on delight in the clearing clouds and dawn light. French Im­pres­s­ionism wanted nothing to do with nat­ionalist themes.

The Heidelberg painters, on the other hand, were intimately connected to the nationalist spirit in pre-Federation Aus­t­ralia. For ex­amp­le see Roberts’s por­trait of a young Austral­ian woman, An Aus­tralian Native (1888). And Streeton’s Golden Summer Eaglemont (1889) was an early morning scene with long dawn shadows and moving shade. The emphasis here was about inhabiting this land. The rising sun covered the Australian land in typical baking hot heat.

Charles Conder was never as clearly focused on nationa­list identity as Roberts or Streeton. But Conder still contributed to the theme of being at ease in a new land, in works like The Yarra Heidelberg (1890).

Australia’s Impressionists exhibition in London, 2017
Credit: National Gallery London
Fire’s On, 1891, by Arthur Streeton is on the right hand side. See it more clearly in Australian Bush Fires in Art 

Of course these images had little in common with Monet and the other Im­pressionists’ palette. Rather than a high-keyed French palette, most of the pictures were tonal a la JAM Whistler. And they were less often studies of natural effects and more about modern life in Mel­bourne­ or in the rural outer suburbs, the booming economy and travel.

Allen made a couple of exceptions. The late paintings of Mc­Cub­bin and turn of the century work by Emanuel Phillips Fox, Ethel Car­rick Fox, John Peter Russell and Tudor St George Tucker were more directly taken from French Impress­ionism, but only because those artists had direct contact with the Fren­ch. I agree. Phillips Fox had no major social or political theme, and the lei­sured life he depicted was not particularly Australian. Phillips Fox left Australia in 1887, before the inspirat­ion of the Heidelberg artists’ camps had fully developed. And he was outside Aus­tralia during all the nat­ional­ist excitem­ent leading up to Federat­ion. Like Mary Cassatt, Auguste Renoir and Berthe Morisot, Phillips Fox’s long white Ed­wardian dresses capt­ur­ed the light and atmosphere of a summer's day anywhere. 

The exhibition "Australian Impress­ion­ism" is open at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra until the end of Oct