Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Burston School strike

by Robert Laurie

A HUNDRED years ago in February 1911 two schoolteachers arrived to take up new posts in the Norfolk Parish of Burston and Shimpling near Diss. This was not the first posting in the agricultural county for the couple Tom and Kitty Higdon. Kitty Higdon married her younger husband, also a teacher, in their native Somerset in 1896.
            For a while they taught at St James's and St Peter's School in London's wealthy Piccadilly. In 1902 they took up joint posts at Wood Dalling, north of Norwich with Kitty as headmistress.
Here they proved popular and effective teachers. Staunch Christian Socialists they did much to improve the harsh lives of their pupils, such as purchasing shoes and footwear out of Kitty’s own pocket and conducting cookery classes in her own kitchen.
The Higdon's were not content with private charity. Soon after arriving in Norfolk Thomas (himself the son of a farm labourer) was fined for assaulting a farmer who employed boys who should have been at school. He also spoke in public and organised for the Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers' and Small Holders' Union, founded in 1906.
 This was no easy task. In the countryside the normal difficulties of getting workers to join unions in the face of employer hostility was heightened by the tied cottage system, which meant a dismissed worker was also made homeless.
In 1910 he and other labourers were elected onto the parish council. This was not to the approval of the farmers who employed the labourers. They were also managers of the school and resented the Higdon's continued demands for improvements to the fabric of the school.
Such a lack of deference did not go unpunished. Norfolk Education Committee launched enquiries into their activities. The threat of sacking was finally lifted but these "troublesome teachers" were transferred to Burston in the south of the county. Defiant to the end Kitty Higdon's final remarks in the school log book were later officially expunged from the record.
            Perhaps wary of the Education Committee, the Higdon's kept a low political profile at first, but they soon started making complaints about the state of their new school. In 1912 Tom published a short pamphlet, Bodies without abodes, a fictional indictment of the tied cottage system.
            The April 1913 Parish Council elections saw Tom Higdon return to the electoral fray. He topped the poll along with many farm labourers who were also elected. The man at the bottom was no less a figure than the Reverend Charles Tucker Eland, Anglican Rector and chair of the school's management committee.
            He was not a man to take electoral defeat gracefully. From a wealthy Essex gentry family he used his remaining post as chair of the school body to launch a barrage of complaints against the Higdons. Enormities such as lighting a fire for pupils to dry their wet clothes and showing gross "discourtesy" were supplemented by trumped up charges of assaulting two pupils.
            His Reverence persuaded the county Education Committee to sack them (despite glowing reports from the inspectors and a rejection of the assault charges) after an inquiry in which the National Union of Teachers failed miserably. Their last day was the 31st March 1914.
As they were about to hand over the next day, 66 of the 72 children refused to attend school. Instead, led by a concertina band they marched around the Village waving banners and cards reading: "We want our teachers back" and "We are out for justice".
As is normal with the bourgeois press The Times understated the support when on the 2nd April it reported that only 25 of the 72 pupils attended the march that day. Dismissed by the Rector as an "April Fool's Joke" the march was repeated in the afternoon and on the following days. Properly organised lessons were given by the Higdons on the Village Green.
Only six pupils remained at the official school. On the 22nd April the parents of the striking children were heavily fined by the magistrates at Diss. Half-a crown each was a severe penalty for farmer labourers earning less than a pound a week. They were further warned of heavier fines if the trouble recurred.
In the words of The Times of the following day: "All the parents demanded a public inquiry as to why the teachers were dismissed. Some of them said they sent their children to school, but the children joined the strikers. One parent said his lad had joined the strikers and dared not break the rules."
 Repeated fines for non-attendance were indeed imposed on the farm labourers, who were in fact sending their children to the school of their own choosing.
The outbreak of the First World War in August with the resulting need for manpower put a stop to farmers sacking labourers for their insubordination but this did not stop the Reverend Eland from evicting labourers from the allotments he rented out to boost his ample stipend.
A national campaign by the labour movement ensured the striking pupils did not lack funds. Just one example of the campaign can be mentioned. In February 1916 the Higdons, some schoolchildren and their parents visited London sponsored by London trade unionists, where they spoke at four large meetings including a musical event at Bermondsey.
The hatred Eland brought upon himself can be seen in the case which took place in early 1917. The father of a former striker who was killed in the war objected to the Rector putting up a memorial tablet in the church as Eland had opposed the strike.
His efforts to have it removed failed so he smashed it with a coal hammer, an action resulting in the bereaved father being imprisoned. Later the diocesan court had it removed more officially. It was not only the established church that incurred the strikers' displeasure. When a Methodist lay-preacher spoke in favour of the Strike School he was rebuked by his church, prompting the departure of most of the village's congregation.
As summer turned to autumn a disused carpenter's workshop was used as a schoolhouse. The launch of national appeal for a more permanent building bore fruit within three years. The building which survives to this day was opened on the 13th May 1917 by Violet Potter, the leader of children three years earlier.
George Lansbury, chair of the national appeal for the school and future Labour Party leader, unveiled the foundation stone while the militant Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst also spoke.
Many branches of the Independent Labour Party, and the National Union of Railwaymen supported the building fund. Coal mining unions gave £401 of the £1662 raised. Many other labour movement bodies such as the Coventry Typographical Society and the Parkstone and Bournemouth Co-operative Society also contributed.
The departure of the Reverend Eland in 1920 was followed by his replacement by a less hostile Rector, who conducted services for the children of both village schools.
That they competed against each other on sports days demonstrates that the Strike School had become an established fixture of village life. Being the focus of a national campaign it was difficult for the powers to be anything but tolerant of the Strike School.
An annual rally was held by the National Agricultural Labourers' Union, which kept the school in the public eye. The Norfolk Education Committee was doubtless glad not to have the "troublesome teachers" on their books.
Thus the school continued for a quarter of a century. Apart from local children a few were sent by members of the Soviet Trade delegation to London. During the 1926 General Strike and lockout six children of Nottingham miners were boarded and taught for free.
The curriculum did not have classes on how to curtsy or forelock tugging to the gentry, but included trips to trade union rallies. When Thomas Higdon died in August 1939, the school had only 11 pupils. Kitty Higdon, then aged 75 was unable to continue and retired soon afterwards. The remaining pupils were transferred to the county school. She died in 1946 and was buried next to her husband in Burston churchyard near the school to which she had devoted her life.
The initial success of the campaign to defend the Higdons and the remarkable endurance of the school was a fine example of trade union solidarity. While Norfolk was one of the better organised areas the agricultural labourers were too weak in themselves to support the school for long.