Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in September 1939 shunted the nation into a new state of being – one in which civilian and military resources were essentially merged into one. It wasn’t just soldiers who were mobilised, but many of those who stayed on the ‘home front’. More than a third of the civilian population, including around seven million women, took on roles that directly fed into the war effort. Many men of fighting age were also kept at home so they could continue working in ‘reserved occupations’ – these key workers included doctors, police officers, teachers, railway and dock workers, lighthouse keepers, mechanics and civil engineers.
As historian Dr Juliette Pattinson, who led a project researching these reserved occupations, has put it: ‘Double the number of men of conscription age remained on the home front as went into the forces, but that’s been written out of both popular memory and academic scholarship.’
Thanks to Ancestry, anyone can search employment records and other historical documents to see if their own relatives were among the civilians employed in the often gruelling and thankless jobs that kept the country going through the fog of war. This aspect of genealogical research is especially poignant because many workers, especially the men locked into reserved occupations, felt like they had been left out of the action and resented not being able to ‘do their bit’ on the front lines.
The government realised this, and commissioned a wave of paintings, posters, documentary films and other propaganda pieces specifically designed to celebrate and boost the morale of civilian workers. One prominent example of such propaganda, which went the 1940s equivalent of ‘viral’, was a painting by the popular artist Laura Knight.
Titled ‘Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-Ring’, it depicted the eponymous young woman hunched over a lathe, carefully crafting a component of an anti-aircraft gun. The bold, colourful, celebratory image was widely publicised and made a star of Ruby, a 21-year-old who had moved to South Wales with her family after their London home was hit by German bombers. Having quickly proved her worth in a Welsh munitions factory – allegedly mastering techniques that usually took years to learn – she literally became the poster girl for British civilian pluck.
This kind of limelight never shone on the Bevin Boys. Named after Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin, these were the young men (including future comedy great Eric Morecambe) who were sent to work in coal mines rather than fight abroad. At first, the government hoped enough men would gladly volunteer to enter the pits rather than the armed services. When it became clear this was an incorrect assumption, it was decided that the men shouldn’t be given any choice in the matter. Random ballots were held, with numbers drawn from a hat. Those whose National Service numbers ended with those digits were abruptly dispatched to become miners rather than servicemen.
‘I wasn't too happy about it because I'd made up my mind that I wanted to go into aircrew,’ a Bevin Boy called Harvey Arnold later recalled. ‘But instead of going up, I had to go down – a bit of a blow, really.’
Another Bevin Boy, David Day, was similarly incredulous. ‘There was I, who had never done any manual work, being directed into the toughest industry in the country,” he wrote decades later. ‘I was clumsy and could not hit a nail in straight let alone swing a shovel. Only by impartial ballot could such an unfortunate choice have been made.’
Not only was the work arduous, but there was often friction between Bevin Boys – many of whom came from privileged backgrounds – and the long-time miners who suddenly found these young conscripts in their midst. On top of that, Bevin Boys weren’t given special uniforms or identifying badges, so were often mistaken for deserters and army dodgers by jeering members of the public. After the war they weren’t formally demobbed or awarded medals, and their importance wasn’t generally known until half a century later, when the Queen mentioned them in a 1995 speech.
The female equivalents of the Bevin Boys were the members of the Women’s Land Army, or land girls. These were the hard-working civilians who ensured farms kept producing food for an island nation under siege. By 1944, it’s estimated over 80,000 land girls were toiling in farms across the country. One of them, Iris M. Newbold, would later recount her experiences to the BBC, describing the rude awakening she experienced when she went from working in a shop to heaving hay bales and scything thistles.
She also described how many land girls even worked alongside Italian POWs. 'They used to sing opera as they worked,' Iris recounted. 'They used to write love notes on toilet paper which they threw at us from their lorries. We would giggle but back away, being half afraid of the situation, and not wanting to be caught fraternising with the enemy.'
Special mention should also be made of the Women's Timber Corps, whose job it was to source wood for telegraph poles and coal pit props. There were around 6,000 of these “lumberjills” who selected trees, chopped timber and operated sawmills, shattering all stereotypes about what a 'female’s role' in the workplace could be.
From the women in the fields and factories to the teenagers in the mines to the men plugging away in the key worker jobs they had before the war, these civilians deserve to have their stories remembered and re-told. By looking on Ancestry, you might uncover what roles your own family played during the darkest but most inspiring years in British history.