Ernest Bevin

“Let’s open up the world and bring light and knowledge in”


Born 1881. After starting life on a farm in Somerset, Ernest Bevin rises through the ranks of the trade union movement, leads Britain’s war effort on the home front and becomes a hugely influential foreign secretary.


  • Attends two village schools from age eight to ten
  • Working in Bristol docks by age 11

Key positions held

  • 1910 – Secretary of the Bristol branch of the Dockers’ Union
  • 1914 – National organiser for the Dockers’ Union
  • 1922-45 – First General Secretary of Transport and General Workers Union
  • 1925-40 – Member of the TUC General Council
  • 1937 – President of the TUC
  • 1940 -–MP for Wandsworth Central
  • 1940-5 – Minister of Labour and National Service
  • 1945-51 – Foreign Secretary
  • 1950 – MP for Woolwich East
  • 1951 – Lord Privy Seal

Career highlights

  • 1922 – unites over 30 disparate unions to create the Transport and General Workers Union. This is a monumental achievement as it requires bringing together and holding together workers from a vast range of jobs into a single, integrated organisation. Ernest is elected as general secretary, where he remains until 1945.
  • 1938 – launches a successful TUC campaign around paid holiday. This leads to the 1938 Holidays with Pay Act, which extends paid holiday to around 11 million working class employees by June 1939.
  • 1940 – joins the wartime coalition government as Minister of Labour and National Service.
  • 1940-45 – transforms Britain’s workforce for the war effort: by 1944, a third of the civilian population are engaged in war work, including over 7,000,000 women. He later masterminds the demobilisation scheme, returning millions of military personnel and civilian war workers into the peacetime economy.
  • 1943 – tackles Britain’s coal crisis by launching the Bevin Boys Scheme. One in ten young men called up to fight are instead given jobs in the mines. The initiative prevents Britain running out of essential fuel.
  • 1948 – as Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s foreign secretary, he builds strong, strategic relations with the US. He plays a key role in forming the Marshall Plan, the US initiative to rebuild Europe after the war.
  • 1949 – plays a central role in the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which unites countries in Western Europe in a military alliance.


David Lloyd George on Ernest, 1919: “He is a powerful fellow, with a bull neck and a huge voice – a born leader…if there is trouble, mark my words! You will hear more of Bevin!”

In his own words

Mobilising the workforce in 1940: “I must interfere with your pleasures and your leisure. The coming weeks are vital…Not a minute of time or an ounce of material must be wasted, as such loss may mean the loss of some of our precious lads.”

Addressing the UN in 1948: “Let’s open up the world and let light and knowledge come in!”