The Countess of Wessex has unveiled a memorial to 48,000 miners who helped keep Britain fighting in the Second World War.
The Bevin Boys monument was officially dedicated in glorious spring sunshine in what had been a long-awaited moment of recognition to the former coal miners, both living and dead.
In a touching moment, the Countess tearfully embraced the memorial’s designer Harry Parkes, 87, who along with his peers had waited more than 60 years for what they say is long overdue recognition.
In return he gave her a small brass miner’s gas lantern on a keychain, which she told him she would wear as a necklace.
He said the day had exceeded expectations, also reflecting his delight at the memorial’s location opposite a monument to the fallen of Gallipoli in the First World War.
“Dare I say we are among heroes and it is amazing to think so,” he said.
Of the Countess, he said: “She is just a person, not an HRH to me at all, and her being here was just wonderful recognition for all of us and I told her that.”
The Countess, wearing a colourful print dress, white jacket, and nude heels, seemed genuinely moved by the ceremony as she unveiled the four stone plinths which make up the monument at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire.
The memorial itself is hewn from grey Kilkenny stone imported from the Republic of Ireland, so it will turn black like the coal the miners had to extract said Joan Taylor, chair of the memorial committee.
She said: “It’s been three-and-a-half years hard slog.
“To get to today is a wonderful achievement – not for us but for Bevin Boys.
“The actual recognition these forgotten heroes are going to get is tremendous.
The Bevin Boys’ were named for Ernest Bevin, then Minister for Labour and National Service, who came up with the idea to conscript workers into the mines and supply much-needed coal to the British industry from 1943 to 1948.
During the Second World War conscripts who had signed up believing they would fight the Nazis were instead drafted to work in more than 1,800 coal pits nationwide, selected by an independent lottery.
At the time, none knew why they had been selected for the pits rather than the front line said Mr Parkes.
“If you were left-handed you couldn’t fire a .303 rifle, so they’d say ‘send him down the pits’,” he said.
“The same if you were flat-footed and so it went on – we thought we were almost third-class citizens.”
In wartime, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had said the miners would be able to stand as equals with the fighter pilots, the merchant seamen and the soldiers, for recognition of their efforts.
However, they were viewed as forgotten contributors to the war effort and in some quarters “vilified” as being mistaken for “conchies” – conscientious objectors by the peers, according to Rev Francis Luckcock, the former colliery workers had to wait until 2008 to be honoured with an official badge from the Government.
Rev Luckcock said: “Hopefully this will be the end of the bitterness and they will now have their rightful place.
“Various bodies have restricted the full acknowledgement of their contribution down the years.
“However, today hopefully we draw that to a close.”