The 1914 – 1939 Burston School Strike
Burston is a small and scattered hamlet in south Norfolk, yet it was here that two of the most remarkable people of the last century waged a struggle against injustice that lasted over 25 years. .
Tom and Kitty Higdon arrived in Burston in January 1911 to begin teaching at the local school after being dismissed from their previous post at another Norfolk village, Wood Dalling. This had been the result of a vicious victimisation campaign against the pair, waged against them by the local rector, school managers, landowners and farmers.
The causes of this consisted of Tom Higdon's work over nearly a decade in organising the farm workers of the county into union branches, the result of which was improved wages and conditions, not to mention much greater self-respect amongst farm workers. This resulted in the farm workers seeking political representation and they captured, for the first time, the local Parish Council, where they proceeded to spend money on improving and carrying out long overdue repairs on local tenants' cottages. Tom Higdon was the chair of the Parish Council.
At the same time Mrs Higdon, the Headmistress, waged a highly successful campaign to force the Norfolk Education Committee into improving conditions at the school, and it was virtually re-built at a cost of £400 to £500. This made the school a much better place for local children to be educated in. It prospered and Government inspectors approved it.
The Higdons had refused to conform to the expected norms of behaviour for
teachers in rural areas at that time, which was to be respectful to the point of subservience. They stood in awe of no one and considered no one their 'better' by reason merely of birth and station.
All of this was too much and there were regular conflicts between the Higdons and the managers of Wood Dalling School. In 1910 the farmer-chairman of the school managers complained to the Norfolk Education Committee that Mrs Higdon had called him and another farmer-manager 'liars' at a managers' meeting. There were a number of witnesses to prove otherwise, but an enquiry was held and the Higdons were sacked. As it subsequently transpired there was uproar amongst local villagers and a petition signed by nearly every adult was duly drawn up. It was probably this which led to the Education Committee deciding to transfer them to the Council School at Burston, where they hoped no doubt never to hear of them again. There was little chance of that.
When he arrived in Burston there was no local Agricultural Labourers' Union branch. Tom Higdon quickly rectified this. His urging for workers to take matters into their own hands by capturing political power on Parish, District and County Councils again bore fruit when he led the labourers in a takeover of the Parish Council. They improved footpaths and bridges.
Mrs Higdon went on speaking her mind at managers' meetings. The local vicar who served on the committee of school managers, was a fierce opponent. He expected deference from his parishioners. The Higdons would not attend his Chapel.
Early in 1914, the vicar, by now chairman of the managers, accused Mrs Higdon of unjustly caning two Barnardo's children at the school. This was vigorously denied and easily proved to be untrue. However, another inquiry by Norfolk Education Committee was organised. Whilst the charges remained unproven other matters were introduced and the Higdons were, once again, dismissed.
This time neither the parents nor the children would accept the situation. A Mr George Durbridge, an avowed Tory, helped organise a meeting on Burston Common on March 31" 1914. He was convinced a great injustice had occurred. The mass meeting unanimously agreed that 'parents not to send their children to school before justice was done'. This was just as well, because the children themselves had already organised their own meeting and without seeking their parents' approval had agreed not to go in to the school on April 1st. No fools them!
The following morning, the children gathered together and marched up to the school gates. Some of the school managers and the police were standing there and threw open the gates. The children marched past them singing:-
"Come, cheer up, my lads, 'tis to glory we steer
The prize more than all to an Englishman dear:
'Tis to honour we call you, not press you like slaves
For who are so free as the sons of the waves"'
The Higdons were evicted from the school, but continued teaching in the open air on the village green, in the flowery lanes, and in a tiny vacant cottage, coalsheds and anywhere space could be found to do so. 'A Strike School' had now been set up, in direct competition with the council school, the latter having replaced the Higdons with two new members of staff.
Meanwhile, in order to force the parents into making sure their children returned to the council school, fines were imposed on them. At first these were relatively small, totalling £2 and 5 shillings [£2.25 in today's currency] on April 7 1914, but rose to £8 later the same month. Some parents had wanted to refuse to pay, and to go to jail. However, collections amongst supporters at rallies on the village green raised the money, and fearing they would inflame the situation further the council stopped issuing summonses. In the early days of the dispute up to 1,500 people are reported to have assembled on the village green.
This was not the end of the matter though, schoolboys were to be assaulted by the local policeman and the parson, and there were brutal attacks in which sticks were used. The policeman did not charge or prosecute himself! Others also faced victimisation; the caretaker at the council school was threatened with dismissal for refusing to send his children there. Fortunately, the threat was not carried out. The vicar attempted to evict some of his tenants who were supporting the strike.
Official Inspectors were sent to visit the strike school, which by this time was more 'permanently based' in the Old Carpenter's Shop. In general, they approved of the conditions in which the children were being taught and the quality of education being received. It is probably just as well, because the parents and children were determined to support the strike. Demands for re-instatement, and the re-establishment of the Principles of Freedom and Justice continued to be proclaimed.
Desperate attempts by opponents to get soldiers, recruiting locally, into harassing the Higdons turned into a farce when the soldiers met them and refused to engage in any campaign against them.
Agricultural Labourers' Union and the National Union of Railwaymen [NUR] rallied to the Higdons' cause and so too, eventually, did the National Union of Teachers, who provided financial support, back-dated to the time of their dismissal. Meetings were held over a wide area of Norfolk by the Labourers' Union and in London by the NUR. Teachers and children appeared at all of them. Funds were raised from all over country. Money even came from abroad, a remarkable achievement considering there was a World War going on.
In 1917 a new school was built on the edge of Burston Green and opened with great enthusiasm. There were 50 pupils; the council school had less than half the number. The Strike School prospered over the next ten years. In addition to the normal subjects, the Higdons brought new and invigorating ideas to the children, teaching them about Christian Socialism, Internationalism and the meaning of trade unionism. Children were taken to trade union meetings as part of their education.
The Strike School was also used to host meetings on a whole range of political issues of the day, including Land Reform. The School only closed when Tom Higdon died in 1939, his wife lived on until 1946 and the two are buried side by side in the churchyard of the village they served so well.
Meanwhile, the Strike School still stands on Burston village school. It remains a symbol of working class people's struggles against authority and injustice and, it must also be said, for the rights of children to be properly educated by teachers they respect and love.