Sunday, August 11, 2013

Class in the Country

STRIKE SCHOOL at Burston. Its stones record the solidarity which came from far and wide to help build it.

THREE weeks from now I'll be with the crowd celebrating what has been called the longest strike in British history. It happened not in Liverpool or London, Bristol or Birmingham, nor even in the coalfields, but amid the fields of rural Norfolk, and it was started by schoolchildren.

They walked out when their teachers, Tom and Annie Higdon, were sacked from the village school at Burston, near Diss, after a dispute with the area's school management committee.

Already at their previous school the couple had upset the authorities by complaining about damp conditions, and objecting to local farmers pulling children out of school when they wanted them to work on the farm. At Burston they carried on the same. Tom Higden supported the farm workers' union, writing for its magazine, and to make matters worse, he stood successfully for the parish council, in 1913, heavily defeating the local Church of England rector, Reverend Charles Tucker Eland, who came bottom of the poll.

Burston village school was Church of England, and Eland had been appointed chairman of the School Managing Body.  Living in a comfy rectory, on an annual salary of £581, compared to the farm labourers' average £35 a year, he expected the respect and deference to go with it. The village schools were supposed to turn out docile farm labourers and skivvies, with just enough schooling to thank the Almighty for their lot on Sunday. The Higdons were plainly up to something different.

One morning when children had walked three miles to school in pouring rain, Kitty Higdon lit a fire so they could dry their clothes. She was charged with having a fire lit without the management committee's permission. A further charge was raised over a complaint about an alleged beating of two Barnardos' pupils. But in the end, though neither charge could stick, the Higdons were accused of "gross discourtesy" to the management and given notice.

On April 1,1914. as this was due to take effect, and the authorities were taking over, a commotion could be heard. It was the sound of children marching and singing. Some 66 of the school's 72 children walked out on strike, marching around the village waving flags. None of them returned to the school. Instead they began taking their lessons on the village green. A marquee was set up and later when the weather was bad they moved into a carpenters' workshop. This strike school was properly conducted, with a timetable, and orderly lessons.

It had the support of parents. The authorities were not so pleased, and took 18 parents to court 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.

As word spread, the strike school caught the imagination of trade unionists, and the interest of educationalists. Visitors came, and speakers. The authorities kept up their intimidation, and some farmers sacked their labourers, which could also mean eviction from tied cottages. But with the World War I raging both food and workers were in demand. The workers had to be re-employed.  Still, strike 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, 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".

STONES preserve history of donors like the Mountain Ash and Powell Duffryn miners' branches.

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.

Every year since 1984 there have been regular rallies at Burston to commemorate the school strike. Unite the union, which incorporates the old National Union of Agricultural Workers which became part of the T&GWU, is the main organiser, but other unions and organisations are involved.

   This year's rally, on Sunday, September 1, will be chaired by Megan Dobney of the Southern and Eastern Region of the TUC, jointly with Pilgrim Tucker, Unite community organiser. Speakers include Mark Serwotka of the PCS. Entertainment is promised from Leon Rosselson, Red Flags, and the RMT brass band. Transport is being organised from London and other areas.

With the Con Dem coalition's attacks on so many things, from the Agricultural Wages Board to education and schools, the Burston rally and the struggle it commemorates should provide inspiration, and food for thought.

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