The other 1914 centenary

© Matt Salusbury

The Burston Strike (left) depicted on the Norwich & District Trades Council banner

AS WELL as being the centenary of the outbreak of World War One (see here for a report on LFB's meeting on this theme), this summer marked 100 years since the start of the longest strike in British history - the Burston Strike School. Naturally, LFB was in attendance for the centenary rally.

On 1 April 1914, pupils from the village school in Burston, Norfolk (just outside the town of Diss) marched around the village in protest at the sacking of their teachers, husband-and-wife team Tom and Annie Higdon (Annie was the headmistress). The couple had been sacked from the local Church of England school on trumped-up charges after runs-in with the school management committee, in particular the new local vicar, the Rev. Charles Tucker Eland - landlord to most of the agricultural workers in Burston.

Tom Higdon - a Methodist lay preacher and trade unionist - had been transferred along with his wife to Burston from another Norfolk school after crossing the local landowners there. Annie were said to have beaten two of the school's Barnado foster children: one appeared to have been pressured into making an accusation, which was eventually dropped as "unproven". There was charges that Annie had lit the school stove and burnt education board coal supplies without permission.

Burston Strike School© Richenda Power

The Burston Strike School, with children from today's Burston Primary School in contemporary costume

Burston Strike School© Matt Salusbury

The Burston Strike School's supporters paid for bricks that bear their names

The real reason behind their sacking was that Tom had been organising local farm labourers into an agricultural workers' union, encouraging them to stand in the elections for the newly-established parish council. And Annie was felt to be "disrespectful," apparently failing to curtsey to the vicar's wife.

The Higdons were very popular teachers. Instead of the very basic county school curriculum, their primary school lessons included foreign languages and photography, with after-school astronomy activities. School pupil Violet Potter organised almost all of the school's 72 pupils to go out on strike in support of their teachers, immediately gaining the support of the parents.

The Strike School started in the open air on the village green, then migrated into a tent, then into a building owned by a retired blind carpenter (until he was evicted). The brick Strike School was built in 1917 by donations from trade unionists, Labour Party and cooperative movement branches and other well-wishers, including Leo Tolstoy (elder and younger),suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and supporters as far away as Australia. Their names appear on the bricks they paid for.

Burston Strike School© Matt Salusbury

Bricks of the Burston Strike School donated by First World War naval torpedo depot workers

Meanwhile, the parents were repeatedly fined for not sending their children to an Education Act-approved school, and their fines escalated. The villagers' trips en masse to Diss Magistrates' Court - ending with the fines being paid by supporters - became a regular social event. Only with the death of Tom Hidgon in 1939 did the strike end. The school building is now a museum, with Violet Potter's great niece on its board of trustees.

The Burston Strike School rally, every first Saturday in September, remains a big day out for trade unionists in the East of England in particular. A NASUWT brass band came all the way from Newcastle at this year's centenary event, said to be four times as big as usual.

After some Greater Anglia replacement bus shenanigans at Ipswich and a long wait at Stowmarket, LFB Committee's contingent finally made it to Diss - on the same delayed train as the Guardian's Owen Jones, it turned out. LFB's Phil Sutcliffe had even brought his accountant along with him.

After the usual speeches and a performance by the current children of the Burston Primary School, dressed in the attire of schoolchildren of 1914, there was a march around the Candlestick, the road around the outskirts of the village taken by the striking schoolchildren 100 years ago.

Trade union march around the Candlestick at Burston© Richenda Power

Burston Strike School© Matt Salusbury

LFB's contingent on the march around the Candlestick, Burston

After so many "A to B" trade union marches along pretty much the same old route in Central London, it was a pleasant change - and a little surreal - to go on a union march that took us through villages, fields and woods.

During the Candlestick march, I came across NUJ Vice-President and NUJ Suffolk Branch Chair Tim Dawson, who was with a contingent from Ipswich. I also spotted two people carrying the banner of Hoxne & North Suffolk Labour Party, who explained that the name of their village is pronounced "Hox'n". One of our number encountered a hazard not usually found on TUC demos - mosquito bites. Late lunch in the garden for LFB visitors with Committee Member Jake Ecclestone followed (he lives in Diss, and has family in Burston.)

As well as a fun day out, the Burston Strike School gig was a reminder that "workplace struggles" don't all happen in the big city, and that some of the more significant episodes of trade union history were rural.

D; Southern and Eastern Region TUC banner; Matt Salusbury

This Southern and Eastern Region TUC banner also features the Burston Strike School (on the left)

Last modified: 03 Oct 2014 - © 2014 contributors
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