Monday, September 03, 2007

Norfolk school for inspiration

THE modest little building in a quiet Norfolk village holds a proud place in British working class history as the centre of a unique struggle. In the forefront were not coal miners, dockers or mill hands, but children. The little building on the green is Burston Strike School, where the village children, supported by their parents, defied squire and parson to stand by their dismissed teachers, attending their own rebel school.
The crowd on the green on Sunday had come from all over to applaud speakers honouring the historic Burston struggle and challenging government policies today -among them Bob Crow of the Rail Maritime and Transport union,RMT. That was appropriate. Stones set into the wall of Burston Strike School record the support that came from many organisations and individuals, but I noticed a lot were from the railway workers, though among those in the picture below are one from the Mountain Ash Deep Duffryn branch of the South Wales Miners Federation, and another - bottom left hand corner - from Leo Tolstoy.
Tom Higdon, the son of a Somerset farm labourer, and his wife Kitty, born in Cheshire, came to Norfolk in 1902. The couple taught at a school at Dalling.
But their identification with the farm workers their complaints about cold and
insanitary conditions in the school
and their objection to farmers taking
children out when they needed extra
hands in the fields, upset the local powers-that-be.
The schools were meant to teach working class
kids to "know their place", and respect their
"betters". ("The Rich Man in his Castle, the poor man at the Gate, He Makes the High and Lowly, and gives them their Estate", as we were still being taught to sing when I was at primary school). The Higdons, who were both Christians and Socialists, thought differently, and set a 'bad example' of behaviour.
They had to move, and in 1911 they started teaching at Burston. Here too they encountered poor conditions, and also came into conflict with a
Church rector who had become head of the school
managers. Taking more than ten times the pay of a farm labourer, he expected deference to go with his God-given authority and privileged, comfortable

In 1913, Tom Higdon successfully stood for election to the parish council, and topped the poll, while the rector came a humiliating bottom. The rector and his farm-owner supporters still ran the school management and wanted to get back at the Higdens. When Kitty lit a fire in the grate to dry the clothes of chidren who had walked to school in the rain, the managers complained that she had done so without permission. What's more she was accused of gross discourtesy when reprimanded. She was also accused of beating two Barnado children.
But it was the heinous offence of "discourtesy" that stuck, and the Higdons were given notice. They were due to go on April 1st, 1914. Then 66 of the 72 children walked out, and marched around the village, singing, and waving flags.
On Sunday, we marched along their circular route (going "candlestick" as it is apparently called in that neck of the woods -you always learn something), and it was a fair old walk, though myself and a fellow Brent trades unionist stepped off parade near the end to sample the local brew, having worked up a thirst to earn it.
The children then had lessons on the village green until they could be found temporary premises as Winter came on. Parents defied summonses, and were fined, but people collected to help them and the law soon had to recognise that the parents were now sending children to the school of their choice. The Strike School, gaining support from trades unionists and socialists around the country, was well-run and equipped, attracting guest speakers. E.Nesbitt, the author of "The Railway Children", wrote a song for the Burston children, Leo Tostoy gave support, and the Soviet trade delegation members in London sent their children to be educated in the Strike School.
The local employers kept up intimidation, sacking workers and evicting families from tied cottages, the rector evicted families who were growing food on church land. But the workers stood their ground, strengthened by the labour shortage caused by the First World War, and by the support from trade unionists around the country. The new school was opened on 13 May, 1917, by the leader of the 1914 demonstration, Violet Potter, who declared, "With joy and thankfulness I declare this school open to be forever a School of Freedom".
It lasted till 1939. Tom Higdon died that year, and Kitty Higdon had to give up due to ill-health.
The Strike School is now a museum run by volunteers, and for some years now the Transport and General Workers Union (which absorbed the National Union of Agricultural Workers) has held a rally at Burston. This was my first trip, indeed my first visit to Norfolk. The green had a good crowd browsing stalls, listening to speakers and a Norfolk group called Huck, and Billy Bragg. Mary Davis spoke about the history of the school, and Sylvia Pankhurst's visit, a union speaker spoke about the anniversary this year of the slave trade's abolition, and pointed ou that slavery and particularly exploitation of child labour was still going on in many parts of the world.
In the afternoon it was standing room only as people thronged to hear and applaud veteran Tony Benn, and Bob Crow, who warned that if Labour persisted with Tory policies of anti-union law and privatisation, workers would seek an alternative. I got the impression one or two union officials were not altogether comfortable with this, but felt they better go with the tide. After all the selection of speakers can't have been by chance.
There were old folk, and families, dogs and kids, of course, and a good time being had by all. Even the little horse, for whom it was a busy working day, seemed proud and in good spirit as he pulled the cart with Tony Benn at the head of the march, later giving children rides.
Among old friends I ran into was Alan, a retired engineering worker from Coventry. I first met him at the 1964 Young Socialists conference, now he's active in the Pensioners' Association, in between he was a shop steward at Rolls Royce, Ansty, for many years. "This is undergoing a revival", he told me this year's rally was much bigger than in some previous years. Several old-timers said much the same. Meanwhile the volunteers keeping refreshments coming (much appreciated BTW, and it was nice to be served my coffee in a proper mug, not polystyrene) were working flat out to cope with the queues.
Hopefully the kids who came and enjoyed the day will come back, and eventually bring their kids too. Maybe while the labour movement struggles to find its way again politically, and the unions to regain their strength, we are seeing a rebirth of what has often seemed lacking in this country, a labour movement culture. As many people commented in the Burston Strike School museum visitors' book, it was "an inspiration". I must thank the TGWU Unite for keeping this annual event going, and for getting me there this year.
Some places for more information:
A charming, and insightful, film made by children:
about Burston today:

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