Burston Strike School
The strike began when teachers at the village's Church of England school, Annie Higdon and her husband, Tom Higdon, were sacked after a dispute with the area's school management committee and schoolchildren went on strike in their support. The Higdons set up an alternative school which was attended by 66 of their 72 former pupils. Beginning in a marquee on the village green, the school moved to a local carpenter's premises and later to a purpose-built school financed by donations from the labour movement. Burston Strike School carried on teaching local children until shortly after Tom's death in 1939.
Background to the strike
Annie Katherine Schollick (Kitty) was born on 13 December 1864 in Poolton-cum-Seacombe in Cheshire. They married on 4 July 1896, living first in London before moving to Wood Dalling in Norfolk in 1902. This coincided with publication of an Education Bill in Parliament which offered education to working class children.
Kitty was appointed headmistress at Dalling County School with Tom an assistant teacher. Identifying themselves with the local farm labourers, the Higdons ran up against almost immediate resentment from the school managers, who were mostly farmers. They objected to the cold, insanitary conditions of the school and especially protested at the farmers taking children away to work on the land whenever they were needed. Eventually, after a complete breakdown of relationships, the Norfolk Education Committee gave the Higdons a choice: accept dismissal or transfer to another school. They took up the latter offer and moved to the Burston School in 1911.
Arriving at Burston, the Higdons found conditions were no different. The newly arrived rector, the Reverend Charles Tucker Eland, was appointed chairman of the School Managing Body. Eland intended to recover the powers the Church had lost to the parish councils. He demanded deference and recognition of his right to lead the community. His situation, with an annual salary of £581 and a large comfortable rectory contrasted starkly with the farm labourers and their families, living on average wages of £35 a year in squalid cottages. Their employers, themselves mostly tenants of brewery-owned land, naturally allied with the rector.
In 1913, Tom Higdon successfully stood for election to the parish council, topping the poll with Eland not just being unelected, but coming bottom. However, although the rector and the farm owners had been defeated in the parish council election, they still had control of the school's Managing Body and were determined to use this power to victimise the Higdons. Since their arrival in Burston, the Higdons had complained about conditions in the school, particularly the dampness, inadequate heating and lighting, lack of ventilation and general unhygienic conditions. Looking for a pretext for action, the managers accused Kitty of lighting a fire without their permission - to dry the clothes of children who had walked three miles to school in the rain. She was also accused of gross discourtesy when reprimanded for this act. In addition, Kitty was accused of beating two Barnardo girls. Despite her pacifist principles, the manager found there was "good ground for the complaints of the Barnardo foster mother" and they demanded the Higdons be transferred.
Tom and Kitty also demanded an inquiry which was made by the Education Committee. The inquiry made no mention of the charge of "fire-lighting contrary to instructions" nor Kitty's repeated complaints about conditions at the school. The beating accusation was declared to be not proven. The final accusation of discourtesy to managers was accepted and the Higdons were given three months' notice.
The Strike School
The Higdons' dismissal took effect on 1 April 1914. As the authorities were taking over, the sound of children marching and singing could be heard. 66 of the school's 72 children had gone on strike, marching around the village waving flags. None of them returned to the school, but instead had lessons on the village green. The school was well equipped, maintained a full timetable and observed registrations with the full support of parents. The authorities were in no mood to tolerate this defiance and 18 parents were summonsed to court and fined for failing to ensure their children's attendance at school. Collections outside the court paid the fines, and since the parents were sending their children to the school of their choice, the authorities were soon forced to back down.
Word of the strike quickly spread and it became a central issue for trade unionists and school reformers throughout the country. There were regular visitors of supporters and speakers. With the onset of winter, the school moved in empty workshops. The authorities kept up their intimidation with farmers sacking farm labourers (which also meant eviction from their tied cottages). This could not be maintained, because a shortage of labour during World War I meant that they had to be re-employed. Striking families who rented land from the Rector for growing food were evicted and their crops and property destroyed. The village's Methodist preacher, who held services on the village green on Sundays for families of the Strike School children, was censured by his church.
At the end of the first year of the strike, with the lease on the old workshops due to expire, an appeal was made for funds to build a new school. By 1917, a National Appeal had reached £1250 with donations from miners' and railway workers' unions, Trades Councils, Independent Labour Party branches and Co-operative Societies. The new school was opened on 13 May 1917, with the leader of the 1914 demonstration, Violet Potter declaring, "With joy and thankfulness I declare this school open to be forever a School of Freedom".
The Burston Strike School continued until 1939. Tom Higdon died on 17 August 1939. Kitty, in her seventies, was unable to carry on alone, and the last eleven pupils transferred to the Council School. Kitty died on 24 April 1946. Both are buried in Burston churchyard.
In 1949 The Strike School was registered as an educational charity. There are four self-perpetuating trustees who manage the school and try to develop it as a museum, visitor centre, educational archive and village amenity.
A rally to commemorate the school and the longest strike in UK history has been organised on the first Sunday in September every year since 1984 by the Transport and General Workers' Union and supported by other unions.
The story of the strike was dramatised in 1985 by the BBC. The Burston Rebellion starred Eileen Atkins as Kitty Higdon, Bernard Hill as Tom Higdon, John Shrapnel as the Reverend Charles Tucker Eland and Nicola Cowper as Violet Potter. Other actors to have portrayed the couple include Georgina Robson as Annie and Tom Grace and Justin Eade as Tom Higdon.
- Edwards, Bertram The Burston School strike, ISBN 0-85315-287-X, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1974
- Higdon, Thomas George The Burston Rebellion, Trustees of the Burston Strike School (facsimile of original) 1984
- Philpot, Maurice William The Burston Strike School: the story of the longest strike in history, 1914-1939 ISBN 0-9514688-0-4, Trustees of Burston Strike School, Diss, Norfolk, 1991
- Scobie, Pamela The School that went on Strike, ISBN 0-19-271647-6, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991
- Zamoyska, Betka The Burston Rebellion, ISBN 0-563-20389-7, London, British Broadcasting Corporation, Ariel books, 1985
- Burston Strike School website
- Local newspaper archive
- RMT Union
- National Union of Teachers Cambridge Association
- BBC h2g2 website
- http://blip.tv/?id=286719;s=file "The Burston Rebellion" Puppet film telling the story of the strike school. Made by the children of Burston Primary School with magiclanternlearning.co.uk