Friday, 21 September 2018

The Village in REVOLT - the story of the longest strike in history by Shaun Jeffrey

The Village in REVOLT - the story of the longest strike in history by Shaun Jeffrey

Article from uniteLANDWORKER Summer 2018 

Unite activist Shaun Jeffrey has written a definitive account of Annie and Tom Higdon, the teachers who inspired the 1914 to 1939 Burston School Strike - the longest in history.

How the Higdons ended up in the small South Norfolk village of Burston is a fascinating story charting the economic, political and social changes that changed Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. 

Tom Higdon was born in 1869 in an agricultural dwelling in Huxham, Somerset. There is no indication that his dad, Dennis, who was to be still working in 1911 at aged 78 as a farm labourer, was a trade unionist. This after all was an era when indicating that you were interested in combining with your fellow workers would lead to victimisation by farmers. 

In 1872 Francis George Heath’s investigative account, The “Romance” of Peasant Life in the West of England, recorded the hardship experienced by Somerset agricultural labourers and their families. 

Attempts at establishing an agricultural workers union in 1868 had failed but in 1872 a mass strike wave, started in Warwickshire, led to the founding of Joseph Arch’s National Agricultural Labourers’ Union. (N.A.L.U)  

Annie Schollick, born 1864, was from Cheshire. Her grandfather and father, Samuel, were carpenters. 

Her uncle Edward entered domestic service.  When his employer, the Reverend Dr John Stonard, who had no immediate family, died Edward was made the benefactor of his estate. Edward shared his fortune with his family including Samuel, who became a small ship builder and also paid for private tuition for his daughter. Annie  became an unqualified governess before undertaking formal training as an elementary teacher in a Sussex Church of England school.  

The 1870 Education Act, introduced in an attempt to keep Britain internationally competitive at a time of rapid industrialisation, enshrined universal education in law. Tom Higdon thus received what the Education Act intended; a school place, in a new building, with a certified head teacher. At harvest time, Tom joined other children in helping gather in the crops, alongside their parents. Tom later became a farm labourer like his dad. 

In 1892, Annie Schollick successfully applied for the post of headmistress at East Lydford, just four miles from Huxham. It was a tough post but, at least, she was back in a rural setting. Four years later Annie married Tom, who signed the marriage certificate stating he was a teacher. It is not known how the pair met and why, how and where Tom did his pupil-teacher training. 

In 1899, Tom became assistant master to his wife, headmistress at St James's and St Peter's School, a Church of England school in the poor quarter of Soho. Their combined passion for education and social justice had become a missionary pursuit for them. 

In 1902 the couple returned to a rural setting, this time at Wood Dalling in Norfolk. They found that the schoolhouse urgently needed repairing as very little money had been spent on it in the previous decade. They soon discovered that local farmers would remove pupils from school to work for them. When the Higdons raised these issues with the School Board it caused problems with the authorities and farmers - who practised their own form of class solidarity by always sticking together to keep down wages and conditions and who also did not take kindly to demands to close the school when illnesses such as whooping cough became epidemic. 

But the new teachers became popular with the children and parents who appreciated their hard work, their generosity in spending their own money on boots and clothing for any pupils whose parents could not afford them and the general desire to improve the education and outlook of those under their charge. 

Meanwhile, no one, friend or foe, suggested the Higdons were poor teachers. 

In early 1906 the labourers across Norfolk were to assert their own increased spirit of independence. Led by George Edwards they formed the Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers’ and Small Holders’ Union. Early in 1907 a meeting was held in Wood Dalling and after the new branch was formed Tom Higdon became branch secretary. He then set off by bicycle to establish other branches across South Norfolk. 

As tension increased between the Higdons and the school mangers the Norfolk Education Committee carried out in 1908 an inquiry, the results of which were inconclusive. The following year there were further arguments when Annie and Tom sought to close the school after a diphtheria outbreak. 

Tom’s union work continued and in March 1910 he organised local labourers to win seats on the Parish Council at the expense of local farmers. This direct political challenge was never going to remain unanswered. There soon appeared a series of spurious charges by the school managers against the teachers who after a second inquiry were dismissed. 

Local people were indignant. All but three parents petitioned the Education Committee to reinstate them. The two school managers nominated by the parish council protested strongly and wrote to the Committee resigning their positions. Protest letters were sent from the parish council and from the local branch of the Agricultural Labourers’ Union. 

Whilst these efforts failed to get the Higdons reinstated it did lead to the Education Committee agreeing to offer them new posts. On December 31, 1911 the couple entered the small village of Burston to start work at the local school the following morning. Having failed to properly represent them at the inquiry, the Higdons refused to entertain the National Union of Teachers offer to pay for the transfer of their goods Burston. 

The Higdons found that the school was in a dire strait. The newly arrived rector, whose early life is well covered by Jeffrey, the Reverend Charles Tucker Elland, was an arrogant man whose appointment as chairman of the school management board meant conflict was certain. Tucker demanded deference of his right to lead the community. 

In a desire to restore old footpaths, repair bridges and make improvements to housing, Tom and other agricultural labourers stood against and beat Elland and local farmers at the 1913 parish council election.  

But Elland and his supporters remained in control of the school management board. Annie was falsely accused of many things including lighting without permission a fire - used to children’s wet clothes  - and beating two Barnardo girls, despite her well-established pacifist principles. These two charges were disproved at the inquiry that was held by the Norfolk Education Authority but the Higdons were given three months’ notice after an accusation of discourtesy to the managers was accepted.

If the rector and his supporters were delighted with the outcome the school pupils and their parents were not content to let the Higdons down. 

On 1 April, 1914, 66 of the 72 pupils had gone on strike. Lessons restarted on the village green. 

An old workshop was found, no matter what the weather lessons could continue. Attempts to intimidate parents into sending their children to the official school flopped as their court fines were being paid by donations and they had a legal right to send their children to a school of their choice. 

Once WWI began local farmers could not, thanks to a labour shortage, afford to dismiss farm labourers who sent their children to the new school, which few disputed was a good one. 

As news spread of the strike the labour movement - particularly the National Union of Railwaymen, the Miners’ and the National Union of Agricultural Workers (NUAW) rallied to support the new school. Donations made it possible to pay the Higdons and build a new school with facilities better than the old one. 

Officially opened on May 13, 1917 by Violet Potter, organiser of the original demonstration on April Fool’s Day 1914, the school lasted till 1939 when Tom died and Annie, who died in 1946, was too old to continue on her own. They are buried alongside each other in Burston churchyard. 

The NUAW established the Strike School as a registered educational charity in 1949. In the early 80s when the NUAW merged with the TGWU the school became a museum. An annual rally was initiated in 1984 and in recent years this has attracted large crowds of over 3,000 people on the first Sunday in September. 

Shaun Jeffrey is the secretary of the Burston Strike School and a member of the Great Yarmouth and District branch of Unite. 

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

The Ellen Strange Commemoration Walk 2018

The annual Ellen Strange memorial event that Unite in the NW has promoted with domestic violence campaigners is not your usual trade union occasion. 

It involves a fair old Sunday morning hike up to a pile of stones on a remote moor outside Ramsbottom, Lancashire. The weather has not always been kind. A monsoon in November 2015 was in stark contrast to this July, when, with parts of Lancashire moorland afire, it was blazing hot for the 4-5 mile trek. 

The desire of walkers though to highlight the ongoing need to organise against a crime that effects all parts of society failed to dampen people’s enthusiasm to assemble at what is recognised as the oldest domestic violence commemoration site in the world.

Ellen Strange was murdered by her husband, John Broadley, on Holcombe Moor on 26 January 1761. When Ellen’s strangled and badly disfigured body was discovered her husband was arrested and indicted for her murder. At his trial a number of witnesses were called but as it was not the practice to write down such evidence we don’t know what they said. What we can be sure of is that their evidence was insufficient to convict Broadley. Forensic evidence had not yet been identified and the charged man pleaded not guilty. Almost certainly there were no eye witnesses to the attack.

Afterwards Ellen’s family and/or local people raised a pile of stones in her memory. This was called “Ellen Strange” on the first Ordnance Survey map in 1844-47. However, over time the true story became clouded in mystery until, in 1989, local author John Simpson published the results of his exhaustive research into events on the desolate moor over 200 years earlier.

The Unite Education Rebel Road project catalogues trade union and labour movement heroes who are publicly commemorated in the form of a plaque. When Bolton Trades Union Council were informed about the Ellen Strange story they obtained the backing of the Unite NW regional committee. £2000 was raised to republish Simpson’s book.

In 2015 an annual event was started at the cairn. This year saw speeches by  Unite’s Martin McMulkin and Carole Marsden of the Endeavour Project in Bolton, which supports women and children experiencing domestic violence. (DV) 

Each walker, which included DV survivors, laid a stone and read out the case studies of two people killed because of domestic violence. It was a tearful occasion listening to McMulkin read out names of all the DV murder victims, all killed by men, up to June 9 this year. Sixty female and one male is a shocking statistic. 38% of all violent crime is DV related. A wreath was laid. 

This was followed by a blessing by Mike Burton, reader at Emanuel Church, Holcombe, where free and much needed refreshments were available on the walk’s return. Everyone felt it had been a worthwhile morning. 

“All credit to everyone on this blistering day and especially the DV survivors who have told me they’ve drawn added strength from this occasion. We must celebrate their fortitude whilst also remembering those who have lost their lives. It is also great that a local film maker has recorded events today,” said McMulkin, who also praised those local Unite branches who have independently organised walks to the cairn in the last year. 

Francesca Platt is a Unite member at the Bolton based Videobox, a community interest company that specialises in Film making and Digital Arts. “I will edit down the footage from today for a short video so people can see what happens. I hope it will encourage people to spread the message and increase the attendance next year.”  Trade union branches considering using film to highlight their work and activities can contact Videobox if they are interested. The costs are competitive.

The video, which is excellent, can be viewed at:-


Unite Education has published a 20,000 word biography by Mark Metcalf on Bradford bus driver Mohammad Taj, who is now available to speak at labour movement meetings. Below is the foreword to the book, which can be downloaded for free at:-
Taj can be contacted on 07929 004831 
Mark Metcalf is also available to speak and can be contacted on 07392 852561 ————————————————————————————————————————Foreword to the book by Diana Holland
Unite Assistant General Secretary for Transport and Equalities Executive Board member of the International Transport Workers Federation 
“The powerful story of Mohammad Taj is a true inspiration. I strongly recommend it to everyone. 
Elected TUC President on 11 September 2013, the first Muslim and the first South Asian President, Mohammad Taj’s story is an incredible journey. When thousands of people saw Taj’s photo which featured in a poster campaign by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, it said: 
“My name is Mohammad Taj. I am an immigrant. For 40 years I have been a bus driver and committed trade unionist fighting for the rights of ordinary working people” 
Now, thanks to this excellent booklet, they can find out so much more. 
From his early life in Kunjar Mal, a small agricultural village in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, to life in Bradford working in the textile mills and then the bus industry, active in the TGWU now Unite, Mohammad Taj has exposed shameful exploitation and discrimination, won major advances for equality and justice, and supported workers in struggle everywhere. 
As we elect delegates to the TUC Black Workers Conference and Committee, celebrate the achievements of Unite Regional and National Black, Asian Ethnic Minorities Committees and Conferences, and the vital impact of BAEM shop stewards, reps and delegates at every level of the union, including on the Executive, we can and must pay tribute to Mohammad Taj. His dedication, his experience, his genuine warmth have all played a part, but above all it has been his ability to organise beyond short-term setbacks, ill-informed opposition, outright racism and discrimination, and his ability to build solidarity, unity and alliances within and beyond the workplace, that have in reality made a difference to millions of people’s lives worldwide. 
Mohammad Taj’s time as TUC President encompassed all he has stood for all his life. A TUC President on the picket line supporting so many workers. A TUC President expressing solidarity and support at the TUC Women’s Conference for women’s struggle for equality, in the context of Muslim women’s struggles. A TUC President supporting equality for all and explicitly for disabled workers and LGBT workers. A TUC President addressing the Labour Party Conference as world statesman, bus driver, trade unionist and grassroots Labour activist at every level. A TUC President and a powerful effective black and Asian trade union leader. 

I am proud to pay this tribute to a very special person, who has achieved so much himself. But above all, Mohammad Taj’s legacy is in others – black, Asian ethnic minority men and women workers and trade unionists as a powerful progressive force in the country – and today’s workers having confidence that in the struggle against injustice, they are not alone. Thank you, Taj.” 



Friday 16 November at 5.30pm at Jack Jones House, 2 Churchill Way, Liverpool L3 8JX 

Irishman Edward McHugh (1853-1915) was a radical trade unionist, labour movement activist,  social reformer and land rights organiser. 

Sadly, McHugh, co-founder of the National Union of Dock Labourers, lies in an unmarked grave in Flaybrick Memorial Gardens, Birkenhead. 

If you’d like to get involved in plans to erect a suitable headstone and organise a remembrance event at his burial place then come along on 16 November. 

Rural poverty forced McHugh’s family to emigrate from Co Tyrone to Glasgow where he witnessed urban destitution, particularly amongst the Irish who had fled the Great Famine of the 1840s and Scottish Highlanders who had moved south because of the Clearances.  

McHugh became a firm supporter of Henry George who contended that the unequal distribution of land lay behind all social ills. As secretary of the Glasgow branch of the Irish Land League, McHugh’s talents as a speaker and organiser saw him chosen to lead a Land League mission to the Scottish Highlands were he helped direct the nascent crofters’ agitation along radical lines. 

He later toured Scotland with Henry George himself, helping found the Scottish Land Restoration League, a body seeking to tax land values to their full extent, thereby abolishing landlordism.

McHugh’s talents were then harnessed by the Trades Union movement. He and Richard McGhee established the National Union of Dock Labourers, leading bitter strikes in 1889 in Glasgow and in Liverpool in 1890 and following which he settled in Birkenhead.

He spent the mid 1890s in New York City where he organised the American Longshoreman’s Union and preached George’s ‘Single Tax Gospel.’

In his death, McHugh was buried at Flaybrick Memorial Gardens. His headstone was destroyed by the German bombing of Merseyside in WWII. It is now time to make sure that McHugh’s final resting place is marked by a suitable headstone for a very great man. 

Event organised by Luke Agnew (*), Unite workplace representative at Flaybrick Memorial Gardens and Mark Metcalf, journalist and author. 

Also present at the meeting will be the Helsinki based academic Andrew Newby, an acknowledged expert on the life of McHugh. Invites to the Henry George Foundation and the radical miner Dave Douglass, author of A History of the Liverpool Waterfront 1850-1890, have been extended.

More details? Please contact Mark on 07392 852561 and/or Luke on 07792 110973

* It was Luke Agnew who found McHugh’s unmarked grave. For more on Luke see:-

Mark Metcalf organises the Unite Rebel Road project at:-

Blackpool honours Frank Swift and Jimmy Armfield

It was a privilege to co-ordinate this work on behalf of the PFA. 

Press coverage of 6 September 2018 when Blackpool honoured two of its favourite sons, Frank Swift and Jimmy Armfield 

ITV Granada Reports 

BBC Radio Lancashire 

Sunday Mirror

Here are some additional photographs on what was a really great day. 

Thanks to John Harvey for taking these photographs. 

Harry Gregg and Gordon Taylor

Harry Gregg with Sunday Mirror journalist Simon Mullock

A very proud Armfield family just prior to unveiling the plaque to Jimmy Armfield

The Armfield mural is unveiled

Alex Williams unveils the stunning Frank Swift mural

Interviews and a chance for fans to collect autographs

First ever League goal beautifully recreated by BBC Radio Manchester

First ever League goal recreated by BBC Radio Manchester 

130 Year Anniversary of the Football League and remembering Kenny Davenport.

To mark the 130 year anniversary of the football league BBC Radio Manchester produced this commentary of the first ever league goal which was scored by Kenny Davenport of Bolton Wanderers. The importance of the Davenport goal had remained an unknown fact for over a century until I had a hunch that something wasn’t quite right about the official records. Working with my friend Robert Boyling we hunted for the needle in a haystack that would prove Mark right. In 2013 Robert discovered the all important newspaper advert that proved that the kick-off time of the Bolton match was earlier than historians had previously considered and therefore the time of Davenports goal shifted forward.

Read the full story here

To listen to BBC Radio Manchester recreating Kenny’s goal then click on the image below.

For more on the first season see my book. 

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Support the Working Class Movement Library, Salford

Tony Benn, the late radical Labour MP, called the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) in Salford: "One of the greatest educational institutions." It is internationally recognised for containing one of Britain's most important collections of working class history as embodied in the trade unions and their members, the co-operative movement, organisations of the oppressed and the political parties and campaigns of the left.

The library was established by and built on the personal collection of Ruth and Eddie Frow, who coming from rural Lincolnshire was always delighted to find an item or book on agriculture at the numerous fairs and bookshops that he visited with his wife. 

Consequently, the WCML contains a great collection of materials relating to rural social conditions through the ages and particularly since the second half of the nineteenth century onwards. 

The official reports include the 1843 one by the Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture nationally and which examined wages, working and living conditions and revealed widespread poverty and abuse. The pamphlets include ones by the Socialist Countryside Group, established after a fringe meeting at the 1981 Labour Party conference, examining rural housing, countryside access, national parks and low pay in agriculture. 

Periodicals include Landworker magazines going back to the 1930s. The WCML shelves contain numerous academic books on farming, agriculture, rural industries and communities by University lecturers and professors.  There are also lots of biographies and autobiographies, often written by politicians who have represented rural communities, including Joseph Arch’s, written in 1898. Additionally there are poems and songbooks and posters. 

The collection demonstrates how British rural life and working conditions has economically, socially and culturally changed, often beyond recognition and not always for the best. 

The agricultural collection is a very small part of the huge archive held by the WCML, which includes many newspapers, photographs, artefacts, banners and the papers of past labour movement heroes such as Benny Rothman

Anyone who wants to study in the library should first search through its online catalogue as you would need to ring in advance so that staff can assist in ensuring all relevant materials are available when you visit. 

The WCML has library exhibition space which hosts information displays open to the public. There are also regular talks, lectures and guided tours. A range of pamphlets are published annually and there is a library e-newsletter.

The library only receives a small sum of public money and as an independent charity it largely relies on donations from individuals and trade unions with occasional grants from trusts. Please try and get your branch to affiliate to the WCML as it urgently needs financial support.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

New video featuring the Ellen Strange Commemoration walk in 2018

This has worked out very well.

Booklet at:-

Fears for peace in Colombia - new president in contravention of deal

Unite agricultural rep John Burbidge is fighting on

Dorset general farm worker John Burbidge has followed in the footsteps of the Tolpuddle Martyrs by seeking to unionise agricultural workers in order to win better terms and conditions. John, who chairs the Tolpuddle Unite Food, Drink, Agriculture and Transport branch, covering all of Dorset, is approaching retirement but that is only going to mean more union work in the future! 

John left school at 15 and joined the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers in 1968 when he started attending the Dorset Farm Institute on day release. 

“My parents were tenant farmers, who in 1960 took out a mortgage to buy a 50 acre dairy farm in Yetminster, near Sherborne. I worked part-time at my father’s and my uncle's much larger dairy farm.” 

John later worked for five years at a Yeovil tannery, becoming a shop steward and the stewards ‘convenor. After studying politics at University he was employed at a foundry. He was sacked for trade union activities. Whilst subsequently working at Sterlings, Crewkerne, John became a AUEW shop steward. “I learned lots as the workers held a march as part of the campaign to save Crewkerne NHS Hospital, as well as organising a 2-day successful occupation backing up the national AUEW pay and conditions claim.”

After his marriage, John, who has two daughters and five grandchildren, returned to farming and run the family sheep and cow suckler farm in Yetminster. For almost three decades he also worked  on nearby farms, milking cows and on general farm work. 

“A friend and political / trade union activist persuaded me to join Unite over a decade ago. I was a disempowered NFU member, “ he says - adding some farmers opposed the Agricultural Wages Board abolition. “Many NFU members are part-time farm workers, with most of their income coming from working on other farms or in other industries.  

“I am a Unite trade union representative and a political activist because people need justice and socialism. We will only achieve this when we unite and oppose oppression of all kinds, here and in all countries.”

John has served on the Unite SW regional committee and on the regional and national Industrial sector committee for food drink and agriculture. He is a Unite member of the HSE agricultural advisory committee. 

On drawing his state pension, John quit milking cows in 2017 and began working part-time as a self-employed general farm worker. He principally does fencing and hedging. Over the next 15 months John will be stepping down from some of his Unite positions. Thankfully, his experiences won’t be lost to the labour movement. 

“I've lived in West Dorset virtually all my life. I know many local people.   I intend training as a Unite Companion - an experienced workplace rep prepared to assist the Union in representing individual members in unorganised workplaces.

“The paradox for many farm workers always has been the problem of blacklisting and so many activists have been people who are older. Because of the scourge of blacklisting in farming, many NUAAW branch secretaries were teachers, such as the Higdons at Burston, posties and railway workers.

“Workers in Food, Drink and Agriculture need a strong and good union, now more than ever. That union is Unite.”