By Robert Laurie
THIS WEEKEND saw the Norfolk village of Burston celebrate the establishment of the famous Strike School on the village green. In 1914 two popular teachers, the husband and wife team of Tom and Kitty Higdon, were dismissed from their posts at Burston on trumped up charges of assaulting a pupil and “discourtesy to the Managers”. They did not go quietly.
On the day of their departure (1st April) the vast majority of their pupils (66 out of 72) refused to attend school in protest and held a lively procession around the village lanes. What the local Rector airily dismissed as an “April Fool’s day joke” was no flash in the pan. Instead it led to most of the pupils leaving the County Council run school permanently and the establishment of the Burston Strike School, which was to endure for the next quarter of a century.
At first the two teachers taught their pupils on the village green, moving into a disused carpenter’s shop as winter approached. Repeated fines for non attendance at the official school were levied on the parents, who were mostly farm labourers. These punishments, which were of doubtful legality as the parents were actually sending children to a school of their choice, proved no deterrence. Attempts by farmers to sack and evict their rebellious workers were halted by wartime labour shortages.
Press publicity brought nationwide support from trade unionists, first to pay the fines and later to build a new school on the village green, which was opened on the 13th May 1917. 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. Contributions came from many branches of the Independent Labour Party, the National Union of Railwaymen and particularly the coal mining unions, who contributed a quarter of the cost.
The school continued throughout the twenties and thirties. In 1920 the Rector who had been the main opponents of the Higdons left and was replaced by a more agreeable clergyman. Relations with the county school improved after his arrival. By 1930 both schools had equal numbers and had friendly contests on sports days. In addition to local pupils, two members of the Soviet Trade Delegation in London sent their children to be educated at Burston. During the 1926 General Strike children of Nottinghamshire miners were educated and boarded free of charge. The school finally closed in 1939, when it had only 11 pupils, after the death of Tom Higdon. His widow, then aged 75, was unable to continue. The school survives today as a museum.
The real reason for the sacking of the Higdons was not the false allegations of assault. Instead it was their work on behalf of the agricultural labourers’ trade union that incurred the wrath of the farmers and gentry who ruled the roost on the parish and county councils.
By the early 20th century Norfolk had been for long an almost exclusively agricultural county. In the middle ages the county had a large and prosperous textile industry which did not survive the industrial revolution. The county’s flat landscape ruled out water power and the lack of local coal meant a factory-based industry was uncompetitive. The lack of alternative employment meant that agricultural wages in Norfolk were the lowest in England and Wales; only the northernmost part of Scotland was worse. In 1902 the average wage in the county was only 15 shillings and three pence (76 pence or less than £100-a-year today).
The “Great Depression” of 1873-96 hit agriculture particularly hard. Grain imports from the United States and Canada were especially damaging to an arable area such as Norfolk. Low grain prices benefited livestock and dairy farmers. Farmers in the county, many of whom were teetotal Methodists, made ends meet by selling grain to local and London brewers.
Norfolk was a comparative stronghold of agricultural trade unionism. Joseph Arch founded the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union in March 1872, in May of that year a conference of this and other county unions formed the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union with other local unions joining in the coming months. A London Central Aid Committee had been established by London trade unionists in April specifically to assist the agricultural labourers. This did much to encourage the isolated labourers. The next two years saw a great deal of conflict between farmers and the labourers until the labourers were defeated, setting back trade unionism in the fields for decades.
At first the mere existence of trade unions persuaded some farmers to increase wages. Highly localised strikes, particularly at harvest time brought wage increases. Older forms of protest such as rick burning and letting sheep into the cornfields of stubborn farmers took place. Needless to say the farmers fought back. In addition to reducing “slack period” wages after the harvest, troublesome workers could be sacked. Given that farm labourers lived in tied cottages, dismissal equalled homelessness and being forced to leave their village.
Needless to say the law was on the side of the bosses. The Master and Servant Act, which made breaches of contract by employees a criminal offence, while breaches by the employer were merely a civil matter, was much employed to prosecute strikers. Repeal of this Act, was a major goal of the NALU. In one well publicised case an old woman had her parish relief withdrawn for the crime of having a son in the union. The farmers themselves, especially the large owner occupiers formed county-wide Farmers’ Defence Associations binding farmers not to employ trade unionists or concede wage rises. By a combination of lock-outs, mechanisation and selective pay rises for non-unionists in 1874 the farmers were able to claim victory.
In one respect the NALU shot itself in the foot: like many contemporary unions it supported emigration schemes on the grounds that this would raise wages for the remaining workers. This may well have benefited the departing workers who could set up as farmers in Canada or New Zealand but removing trade unionists from the scene does not help building class solidarity. Internal squabbles did not enhance the appeal of the union to the demoralised labourers. Although the NALU did not finally give up the ghost until 1896 membership fell from 86,000 members in 1874 to 20,000 in 1880.
One remaining stronghold was Norfolk. In 1885 Joseph Arch was elected as MP for the county’s North-West seat, the first agricultural labourer to do so. Elected on the “Liberal and labouring class interest” he was defeated the next year by only 20 votes by the Tory son of a local landlord. He was returned at the 1892 election, retaining it in 1895 and retired to hand over to another Radical in 1900. In the 1900 Khaki election, which was won by the Tories, the six rural Norfolk seats returned five Radical MPs and only one Tory.
The term “Radical” was perhaps a misnomer for Arch. Not only did he oppose land nationalisation he was proud of being the MP of the Prince of Wales, whose Sandringham estates were in his constituency. His 1898 autobiography even had a preface by the Countess of Warwick, mistress to the Prince. After the defeats of 1874 farm workers’ hopes focused on extending the franchise. In 1877 the NALU established a Norfolk County Franchise Association which not only played a part in winning the vote but also strengthened the labourers’ links with the Liberal Party.
Once the vote was won, the rural working class vote had to be wooed. The Liberal Party had to come up with policies that appealed to both farmers and their employees. They found one in Joseph Chamberlain’s “Three Acres and a Cow” policy that would allow local authorities to purchase land to provide cheap allotments for farm labourers.
This helped gain the 1885 Liberal victory at little cost: any allotments would be purchased from landowners. Keeping both employers and employed happy was a difficult balancing act. Farmers were staunch Liberals as well and indeed were so long before their workers gained the vote. Nonconformist farmers disliked paying tithes to support the Anglican Church. Tenant farmers often had conflicts with their landlords over rents and they also could be evicted from their farms if they did not vote the right way.
Shortly after the 1906 Liberal landslide The Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers’ and Small Holders’ Union was formed. While the founding meeting was attended by working men, a Liberal MP was elected treasurer. It might seem odd for a bourgeois political party to actually support the formation of a trade union but they were anxious to consolidate their working class support and worried about the losing it to Labour, which had gained 29 MPs.
A long unsuccessful strike involving about 80 farm labourers demonstrated that the Liberals wound up the strike on the grounds that strike funds were running low, rather than broaden it, as the Norwich branch of the Independent Labour Party argued would bring victory. Such a move would have alienated other Liberal voting and funding farmers. At the annual general meeting after the strike the Liberal leadership was replaced by ILP supporters. This comparatively small dispute was one of many where workers became disillusioned by the Liberal Party.
Labour and agricultural trade unionism did not have an easy ride in the countryside after World War One. Of the 203 rural Parliamentary Constituencies only 45 had a District Labour party in 1921. In a by-election at Ludlow in Shropshire caused by the incumbent being promoted to the House of Lords, local activists, against the wishes of party HQ contested the election. Despite an energetic campaign Labour not only lost their deposit, but were pelted with dung by farm labourers who either had never heard of Labour or thought they would nationalise women.
In Norfolk a NALU stalwart, George Edwards, was twice elected for Norfolk South (which included Burston) in 1920 and 1923, but his tenuous hold on the seat demonstrates how weak rural Labour was. In Norfolk North the Noel Buxton who was the Liberal MP 1910-18 regained it in 1922 in the Labour interest. Even those few rural seats held by Labour tended to have a mining population.
“Remember the Ballot is Secret” was a necessary warning on Labour Party cards until the 1930s. Urban Labour supporters canvassing in the countryside were shocked to discover villages listening to loudspeaker messages from behind their curtains rather than risk being seen attending a Labour meeting. Hiring halls, which were owned by farmers, was out of the question. On election day polling stations were often decorated with the Union Flag, the same symbol used by the Tories. When in 1934 the TUC sought to commemorate the centenary of the farmer labourers of the Dorset village of Tolpuddle, who were transported to Australia to organising a trade union, they found it impossible to find any local unionised firms with whom to provide the transport and catering.
It was not until the 1945 landslide did Labour make any inroads into the countryside. Today mechanisation of agriculture has greatly reduced the number of farm workers and rows of cottages have been converted into expensive houses for commuters or second homes.