This piece below appeared on the Radical English Tradition facebook page in April 2020  – https://www.facebook.com/englishradicaltradition/. It is a fascinating read and deserves a wider circulation.

There is also an interesting interview with Roy Nevitt – https://communitytheatreplaywright.wordpress.com/2017/12/15/an-interview-with-roy-and-maggie-nevitt/

There is much about the school in their archives – https://www.archives.norfolk.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/local-history/the-burston-strike-school

In Roy Nevitt’s play for children based around the events of the Burston School Strike, the character Sutton, a Burston Methodist preacher, praises Mr Carter-an official of the National Union of Railwaymen-who has “brought thousands of Railwaymen here to Burston Green, to boost our efforts and raise our morale”. In turn Mr Carter praised “the first real worker’s elementary school (that) has been provided by the workers themselves”
The Burston School strike of 1914 was a product of its time. It demonstrated that the growing power of the labour movement in Britain reflected a working class seeking to reduce the power of the local squirearchy in rural areas with the same vigour it took on capitalists in industrial cities. The National Union of Railwaymen provided a huge level of solidarity, providing essential financial and organisational support as well as vital promotion of the cause. This role was made possible as a result of the unity achieved through years of industrial struggle, the technological impact of the railway and the particular level of organisation of its workforce. Rail workers of this period were well organised and its activists were very conscious of their strong impact on the existence of the local labour movement-particularly in rural areas.
Transport in its nature, although-essential to-is, nonetheless, separate and distinct from other areas of the economy. Trains transport goods and passengers facilitating the working of other industries. This vital industry and its cohesive workforce proved receptive to union organisation and rail workers enjoyed reasonable terms and conditions. The distinctive nature of rail work affected the character of the union.
Unlike other sections of the labour movement, for instance miners or dockers, rail workers were never concentrated in large enough numbers to have a significant effect on a locality. Exceptions to this rule, towns such as Crewe and Swindon, areas built around large rail works for example Darlington or ports for the transportation of coal for instance Middlesbrough, existed but retained strong links with other industries. Even in areas employing thousands in the industry, rail workers found their voice diluted on a political and industrial level. Parliamentary constituencies incorporated vast territory outside of these towns and rail workers were spread thinly across the nation, where others were more compacted in small areas.
While there were not many areas with a great number of railway workers, there were few places without them. The homogeneity of the pit village was replicated in the small settlements purposely established for the railway, for instance in the case of signal boxes, local stations and small depots. These often consisted of little more than several cottages. Importantly, the workers here would either travel to, or at least meet and communicate with colleagues from many miles away on a day-to-day basis. In an era before high tech communication technology had been developed, and when most people lived and worked within a very small geographical area, this was a profoundly revolutionary workplace.
In many rural areas railwaymen were the only representatives of the organised ndustrial working class. Their role in maintaining trades councils proved vital to the organisation of other sections of the working class. “In many small towns and country districts railway workers were crucial in the development of labour political organisation” and the labour movement as a whole. This phenomenon occurred among rail workers of other nations. For instance, it was the very fact of their free travel that many railwaymen helped to form the first militias in Barcelona at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. This benefit had seen them overrepresented as delegates to the Popular Olympiad in Barcelona in 1936 which was cancelled as a result of the fascist coup.
The nature of the employment of rail workers was idiosyncratic in comparison with other sections of the working class; Higher levels of job security, benefits such as free travel, and the specific working pattern-working in close quarters with their colleagues at anti-social hours while hurtling around the country. Rail workers often lived in company houses and worked their way up through the ranks in a career that was generally inherited. In this sense “the imperatives of the railway operation widened their consciousness”. Although these conditions also bred paternalism resulting high expectations from employers, backed up by strict discipline measures, encouraged organisation. Ultimately loyalty to each other proved to be stronger than loyalty to the company and the National Union of Railwaymen proved to be one of the strongest unions in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. A union at the centre of the entire labour movement with a strong “awareness of interdependence”.
At the turn of the twentieth century the working class increasingly turned to the labour movement in protest at conditions of dire poverty. In popular memory Edwardian Britain is synonymous with inequality, the extravagance of aristocratic country mansions and the millions condemned to slums in order to concentrate the nation’s wealth in such a small number of hands.
The transport strike of 1911 provides a taste of the growing confidence of the organised working class in this era. A seamen’s strike that started in Merseyside was successful in part because of solidarity action by other transport workers. A general transport strike was declared on the basis of this unity. In Liverpool the strike committee was chaired by the notorious trade unionist Tom Mann, who would later speak at Burston. The army was mobilised and fought with pickets in towns and cities across the length of Britain. In August two protestors were killed by troops in Liverpool in a deadly incident known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ and, just a week later in Llanelli, south Wales, troops fired on crowds that had gathered to persuade working railwaymen to cease work. Two more innocent workers were killed. The National Union of Railwaymen was formed as a direct result of the unity created during the strike and its membership grew to 273 000 in 1914. A trend repeated across the entire Labour movement. Indeed the wave of industrial action in the years immediately before the outbreak of the First World War “inspired greater cooperation and unity between the major industrial unions in Britain”. This was formalised in 1913 by the signing of the ‘triple alliance’ of the Miner’s federation of Great Britain, the NUR and the Transport Workers Federation.
It was in this climate in 1911 that two Christian Socialist teachers, the Higdons, were forcibly transferred to Burston, having upset the local gentry in their last school by standing up for the rights and welfare of the farm labourers and their children. In Burston, Tom and Annie ‘Kitty’ Higdon refused to turn a blind eye to injustice and dared to take on the local reactionaries and the feudal conditions they perpetuated.
At the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century Britain was the richest country in the world with a vast global empire, but during this time the conditions that agricultural labourers lived in were not dissimilar to those experiences by their feudal ancestors. Across the country agricultural labourers’ wages provided insufficient cover in order for the “serfs of the soil” to feed and clothe their families properly. They lived in tied cottages, a privilege that required them to hand back their earnings to their employer, and left them susceptible to eviction. They were shackled to their occupation, often being part-paid in addictive, poor quality cider that they drank while they worked. The conditions lived in by these ‘skeletons at the plough’ made organising a difficult task.
Tom Higdon, the son of Somerset labourers, continued to organise for the Agricultural Labourers union when he arrived in Burston. He was a member of the union’s executive from 1914-1938 and he took the plight of the labourers to his heart. Throwing himself into their fight for dignity, he helped establish the first branches of the union in the locality. Tom’s passion inspired a rapid organisation of the labourers, whose conditions quickly improved. Unsurprisingly this provoked the ire of the local landlords. A contemporary recalled in the 1970s:
“He used to take up the grievances of the farm workers-if a man was a shilling short in his wages-things like that. He was pretty forceful. The farmers didn’t like that.”
These efforts proved to be successful. The report of the General Secretary of the National Agricultural Labourers union for the year ending December 31st 1914 reported that massive recruitment and organisation had resulted in 23 new branches in Norfolk with wages there “high as ever” Wages continued to rise for years afterwards despite the outbreak of WW1.
The Higdons ideological commitment made them ardent educators. They set out to inspire creativity and self-confidence from their children. Their non-conformist interpretation of Christianity formed an ethos that set their progressive teaching methods apart from traditional emphasis on discipline and deference. Kitty Higdon made repeated complaints about the lack of resources and the cold, dirty conditions in which she taught the children.
In rural areas, during the summer, local children were expected to skip school in order to help with the harvest. The landlords rewarded the community for their generosity with poverty pay and threats of eviction. This tradition was strongly opposed by the Higdons, who courted further controversy by refusing to let the children assist in the fields.
Hostilities began when in 1913 Tom Higdon dared to stand against the Reverend and was elected to the parish council with the assistance of local labourers. The farm owners and Reverend retaliated by using their control of the local school’s management committee to sack Kitty for the outrageous crime of lighting a fire to keep the children warm.
The Higdon’s dismissal took effect on the 1st April 1914. The management committee led a new teacher into an empty school. Writing on the blackboard read “We are going on strike tomorrow”. Singing echoed throughout the sleepy village. A group of children led by Violet Potter marched with instruments and placards decorated with the words ‘justice’ and ‘we want our teachers back’. A meeting on the green with the children’s parents agreed that they all preferred the Higdons as the children’s teachers. Out of 72 children, 66 were out on strike.
18 parents were summoned to Diss court and fined for allowing their children to go to the strike school. They were unrepentant and defiant. They laughed as the charges were given and marched to and from the court in a large procession.
The strike and union activities were punished by the Rector who withdrew Glebe lands, plots rented cheaply by labourers to grow food, from striking workers. Farm owners responded with the eviction of union activists, striking children and their families.
In Tom Higdon’s 1917 account of the school strike he describes the scenes at the court:
“The weather on court day, too, was ideal, and never a light-hearted merrier throng, ‘twixt flowery banks and budding hedgerows wert than that pedestrian rustic band that walked with mirth and laughing jest and scraps of song, as unto pageant gala, fete or fair, to answer to those summonses at Diss”.
His account reads of a happy Christian socialist ideal community. The fabled ‘Merry England’ before the Norman yoke was established and the commons were enclosed made a reality. A settlement of “work-a-day rustics”, “comely Norfolk women with set face, brave and determined, yet withal smiling and sympathetic, children clinging to their skirts or locked in the mother’s hand, men with brawny arm, hard hand and rustic beard, eager groups of boys and girls who had made their minds to go on strike tomorrow, in much too deadly errest for laughter and play now, but chatting together like old heads.”
Norfolk has long been a hotbed of agricultural trade unionism. George Edwards was born in Marsham in 1850, his father had been blacklisted for speaking out publicly about the poverty of his fellow agricultural labourers. George joined Joseph Arch’s National Agricultural Labourers’ Union and, after this collapsed, he continued to organise. He was elected as a local Councillor and in 1906 at the Angel pub in North Walsham he founded the Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers’ and Small Holders’ Union with just 122 members. George conducted the administration of the union from his cottage and cycled all over Norfolk organising meetings and supporting strikes. The union grew spread into Lincolnshire and Dorset and was renamed the National Agricultural Labourers’ and Rural workers Union. By 1918 it had over 170 000 members. George was elected the Labour member of Parliament for South Norfolk in 1920.
There was a religious aspect to class conflict in the English countryside. The established Church of England retained a semi feudal level of control on the rural population, supporting the local landowner. The rise of nonconformist chapels threatened the power of the parson and squire. In 1830 the introduction of new threshing machines that resulted in job cuts inspired agricultural labourers to rise up in revolt together with other greviances about low pay and tithes to the church of England. Threatening letters were written to farmers signed captain swing, if the new machines were kept on and wages kept low, the property of the farmers were often burnt to the ground. Eric Hobsbawm observed that the North Walsham circuit of the primitive methodist Church was the biggest in East Anglia and that this was also the area where the swing riot started, and that the areas of nonconformist growth after this were strongest in riot areas. Given the emphasis on lay preaching and administration of the local Methodist Chapels it is no surprise that the skill and confidence this provided helped the rural poor to organise. Generations of agricultural trade union leaders were Methodist lay preachers from the Tolpuddle martyrs to Joseph Arch and George Edwards.
Wilf Page was born in Catton in 1913. In his local Methodist Chapel as a boy he listened to George Edwards preach. Wilf’s Sunday school teacher Billy Furness was a leader of the 1923 farm workers strike. Wilf said:
“It was soon apparent to me that Methodist teachings and trade unionism went hand in hand, whereas the Church of England or High Church were associated with the squires, farmers and moneyed people generally.”
Wilf became a union organiser and was elected onto the executive of the National Union of Agricultural workers in 1969, later becoming president of the European agricultural workers federation. He was elected a Councillor in 1946 for Erpington, where George Edwards had been elected. Wilf helped to found the annual Burston school strike rally in 1984 with Tom Potter, brother of school striker Violet, who like Wilf was also a communist Councillor in rural Norfolk.
The Higdon’s empowerment of the village children had an effect on the adults. The green became a public space, with confidence adults and children singing the red flag, the international and England Arise. A “centre of rural democracy” with meetings organised in support of the Russian revolution, for land restoration and against the legalised murder of Sacco and Vanzetti in America-the famous miscarriage of justice where the sole ‘evidence’ that led to their execution was their revolutionary political convictions.
Yet spontaneous organisation on the village green couldn’t last forever. The Higdons maintained a strict timetable of lessons, but outside help was required. It was here that the railwaymen at the village station played a vital role.
While the majority of the village were employed as agricultural workers the “luckier ones worked on the railway”. These union men were “already benefitting from the improved pay and working conditions brought about by the NUR.” They were able to provide much needed support for the school strike as they “were independent of the local farmers, more secure in their jobs, and better off.” Word rapidly spread to local branches and then to London and the rest of the country. The London district of the NUR were responsible for the bulk of the funding and publicity required to keep the school strike going.
On Sunday July 15th, 1914, a large meeting was held in Burston. This show of strength was bolstered by the presence of outside supporters:
“No less than eighteen trade union banners were ranged around the green; a brass band came from Norwich, and a special train brought down another brass band and hundreds of Railwaymen, who had taken the cause of Burston to their hearts.”
The NUR continued to mobilise in support of the school strike. The Daily Mirror reported on the first anniversary of the strike on 3rd April 1915 that the NUR sent “four dozen chairs” for the strike school. On November 10th 1915 nine London branches of the NUR were represented at Burston by banners.
W. H. Williams, chairman of West Ham NUR writing in Railway Review on the 21st January 1916 declared:
“The facts concerning the Burston School strike are of such a character that all trades unionists must rally to their cause.”
The NUR mobilised the labour movement in both London and nationally in support of the school strike. Over 200 collections were organised in London alone by the NUR, at union branches, public meetings, at meetings of women’s organisations and trades councils. NUR branches in Paddington, Stratford and Kentish Town transformed their branch meetings into public assemblies in support of the school strike. The Higdons, their pupils and some of their parents were taken to speak to an exhaustive number of such meetings around the capital to raise money and awareness for the strike school. It was not all work however; W. H. Williams promised in Railway Review that the NUR would “give the kiddies some fun during the daytime-the zoo, pantomines…etc.” It must have been a novelty for the poor offspring of rural labourers. The delegation from Burston was received with celebrity. On March 4th 1916 The Herald reported:
“The Burston Strike school children have had a great time in London. The children, with their parents and Mr and Mrs Higdon, have been guests of the London District of the National Union of Railwaymen and right royally have they been cared for!”
As a result of these meetings the Burston school strike accumulated enough funds to be able to construct a new building.
In 1917 a huge crowd gathered in Burston for the opening of the strike school. The Great Eastern railway granted a special train to bring Sylvia Pankurst and hundreds of NUR members from London.
The Norwich Mercury reported on the 4th December 1917:
“Some 200 NUR union branch officials and delegates from London, Colchester, Ipswich, Southsea, Bury St Edmunds, Norwich, Beccles, Diss and other places attended with handsome silk banners representing their various branches.”
A NUR delegation of hundreds led by Mr Carter, a NUR organising secretary, one of the main organisers of the demonstration and treasurer of the Burston School fund, were greeted at the station by a parade. Sylvia Pankhurst, who was among the crowd wrote in the Workers dreadnaught about greeting the NUR at Burston Station, describing “the men of the Bethnal Green NUR band, out to play for the first time.”
The Bethnal Green NUR brass band was joined by the Bermondsey railway drum and fife band in a sea of banners. Mr Carter made a speech promising in the delightful language of the era a “jolly row” if the teachers were not reinstated. The men whose service on the railway had transformed them into members of the industrial working class were determined to show their solidarity with the rural working class, and vice versa. An example of the sentiments came from Mr Coe of the agricultural Labourers union who advocated linking up with the NUR as “our interests are inseparable”
Tom Higdon paid tribute to Mr Carter “who, with his noble band of railwaymen, has done wonders in popularising the strike” To give a taste of just how much support the NUR gave the strike school, according to the balance sheet of the Burston School Strike and evicted glebe tenants fund for April 8th 1916-December 31st 1917 the NUR contributed a total of 288 pounds and 11 shillings-a sizable chunk of the entire collection and a vast sum at that time. The new strike school was decorated on the outside by inscribed bricks, representing donations, that can be seen today from cooperative societies, trades councils, NUR branches from Bridgwater to Paddington, and Independent Labour Party branches from Yeovil to Gainsborough, including one from the famous writer Leo Tolstoy. On the inside a shield presented by the Bermondsey branch of the NUR sits on the mantelpiece.
In the 1920s two members of a Russian trade delegation organised for their children to be educated in Burston. This pattern was repeated as well as many children from mining families around Britain were also sent to Burston, especially after the Miners defeat in the General Strike.
The NUR had played a major role in making this possible. The school strike was renowned so much so that G. C. T Giles, who became the first communist president of the National Union of Teachers and sent his son to the school, recalled;
“If you bought a ticket to Burston at Liverpool Street station the porter who let you through on to the platform would look at you and start talking about the strike and the meeting on the green”
The strike school continued until 1939 when Tom died and Kitty, now in her seventies, was unable to continue alone. It is known as the longest strike in Britain and its legacy lives on today.
Contemporary commentators might dub Burston as the first free school. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s free schools play the role of restoring the domination of employers over education. Burston was a struggle by ordinary working people to empower themselves. It took place during a time when the labour movement was asserting itself nationally and it proved its commitment to solidarity. Due to strength of organisation and specific aspects of their employment railwaymen played a vital role in making the strike possible. It is an achievement today’s transport workers can be proud of. Nothing could pay more tribute to these brave pioneers than joining the labour movement celebration in Norfolk held every year on the first Sunday in September.

, the character Sutton, a Burston Methodist preacher, praises Mr Carter-an official of the National Union of Railwaymen-who has “brought thousands of Railwaymen here to Burston Green, to boost our efforts and raise our morale”. In turn Mr Carter praised “the first real worker’s elementary school (that) has been provided by the workers themselves”

The Burston School strike of 1914 was a product of its time. It demonstrated that the growing power of the labour movement in Britain reflected a working class seeking to reduce the power of the local squirearchy in rural areas with the same vigour it took on capitalists in industrial cities. The National Union of Railwaymen provided a huge level of solidarity, providing essential financial and organisational support as well as vital promotion of the cause. This role was made possible as a result of the unity achieved through years of industrial struggle, the technological impact of the railway and the particular level of organisation of its workforce. Rail workers of this period were well organised and its activists were very conscious of their strong impact on the existence of the local labour movement-particularly in rural areas.
Transport in its nature, although-essential to-is, nonetheless, separate and distinct from other areas of the economy. Trains transport goods and passengers facilitating the working of other industries. This vital industry and its cohesive workforce proved receptive to union organisation and rail workers enjoyed reasonable terms and conditions. The distinctive nature of rail work affected the character of the union.
Unlike other sections of the labour movement, for instance miners or dockers, rail workers were never concentrated in large enough numbers to have a significant effect on a locality. Exceptions to this rule, towns such as Crewe and Swindon, areas built around large rail works for example Darlington or ports for the transportation of coal for instance Middlesbrough, existed but retained strong links with other industries. Even in areas employing thousands in the industry, rail workers found their voice diluted on a political and industrial level. Parliamentary constituencies incorporated vast territory outside of these towns and rail workers were spread thinly across the nation, where others were more compacted in small areas.
While there were not many areas with a great number of railway workers, there were few places without them. The homogeneity of the pit village was replicated in the small settlements purposely established for the railway, for instance in the case of signal boxes, local stations and small depots. These often consisted of little more than several cottages. Importantly, the workers here would either travel to, or at least meet and communicate with colleagues from many miles away on a day-to-day basis. In an era before high tech communication technology had been developed, and when most people lived and worked within a very small geographical area, this was a profoundly revolutionary workplace.
In many rural areas railwaymen were the only representatives of the organised ndustrial working class. Their role in maintaining trades councils proved vital to the organisation of other sections of the working class. “In many small towns and country districts railway workers were crucial in the development of labour political organisation” and the labour movement as a whole. This phenomenon occurred among rail workers of other nations. For instance, it was the very fact of their free travel that many railwaymen helped to form the first militias in Barcelona at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. This benefit had seen them overrepresented as delegates to the Popular Olympiad in Barcelona in 1936 which was cancelled as a result of the fascist coup.
The nature of the employment of rail workers was idiosyncratic in comparison with other sections of the working class; Higher levels of job security, benefits such as free travel, and the specific working pattern-working in close quarters with their colleagues at anti-social hours while hurtling around the country. Rail workers often lived in company houses and worked their way up through the ranks in a career that was generally inherited. In this sense “the imperatives of the railway operation widened their consciousness”. Although these conditions also bred paternalism resulting high expectations from employers, backed up by strict discipline measures, encouraged organisation. Ultimately loyalty to each other proved to be stronger than loyalty to the company and the National Union of Railwaymen proved to be one of the strongest unions in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. A union at the centre of the entire labour movement with a strong “awareness of interdependence”.
At the turn of the twentieth century the working class increasingly turned to the labour movement in protest at conditions of dire poverty. In popular memory Edwardian Britain is synonymous with inequality, the extravagance of aristocratic country mansions and the millions condemned to slums in order to concentrate the nation’s wealth in such a small number of hands.
The transport strike of 1911 provides a taste of the growing confidence of the organised working class in this era. A seamen’s strike that started in Merseyside was successful in part because of solidarity action by other transport workers. A general transport strike was declared on the basis of this unity. In Liverpool the strike committee was chaired by the notorious trade unionist Tom Mann, who would later speak at Burston. The army was mobilised and fought with pickets in towns and cities across the length of Britain. In August two protestors were killed by troops in Liverpool in a deadly incident known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ and, just a week later in Llanelli, south Wales, troops fired on crowds that had gathered to persuade working railwaymen to cease work. Two more innocent workers were killed. The National Union of Railwaymen was formed as a direct result of the unity created during the strike and its membership grew to 273 000 in 1914. A trend repeated across the entire Labour movement. Indeed the wave of industrial action in the years immediately before the outbreak of the First World War “inspired greater cooperation and unity between the major industrial unions in Britain”. This was formalised in 1913 by the signing of the ‘triple alliance’ of the Miner’s federation of Great Britain, the NUR and the Transport Workers Federation.
It was in this climate in 1911 that two Christian Socialist teachers, the Higdons, were forcibly transferred to Burston, having upset the local gentry in their last school by standing up for the rights and welfare of the farm labourers and their children. In Burston, Tom and Annie ‘Kitty’ Higdon refused to turn a blind eye to injustice and dared to take on the local reactionaries and the feudal conditions they perpetuated.
At the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century Britain was the richest country in the world with a vast global empire, but during this time the conditions that agricultural labourers lived in were not dissimilar to those experiences by their feudal ancestors. Across the country agricultural labourers’ wages provided insufficient cover in order for the “serfs of the soil” to feed and clothe their families properly. They lived in tied cottages, a privilege that required them to hand back their earnings to their employer, and left them susceptible to eviction. They were shackled to their occupation, often being part-paid in addictive, poor quality cider that they drank while they worked. The conditions lived in by these ‘skeletons at the plough’ made organising a difficult task.
Tom Higdon, the son of Somerset labourers, continued to organise for the Agricultural Labourers union when he arrived in Burston. He was a member of the union’s executive from 1914-1938 and he took the plight of the labourers to his heart. Throwing himself into their fight for dignity, he helped establish the first branches of the union in the locality. Tom’s passion inspired a rapid organisation of the labourers, whose conditions quickly improved. Unsurprisingly this provoked the ire of the local landlords. A contemporary recalled in the 1970s:
“He used to take up the grievances of the farm workers-if a man was a shilling short in his wages-things like that. He was pretty forceful. The farmers didn’t like that.”
These efforts proved to be successful. The report of the General Secretary of the National Agricultural Labourers union for the year ending December 31st 1914 reported that massive recruitment and organisation had resulted in 23 new branches in Norfolk with wages there “high as ever” Wages continued to rise for years afterwards despite the outbreak of WW1.
The Higdons ideological commitment made them ardent educators. They set out to inspire creativity and self-confidence from their children. Their non-conformist interpretation of Christianity formed an ethos that set their progressive teaching methods apart from traditional emphasis on discipline and deference. Kitty Higdon made repeated complaints about the lack of resources and the cold, dirty conditions in which she taught the children.
In rural areas, during the summer, local children were expected to skip school in order to help with the harvest. The landlords rewarded the community for their generosity with poverty pay and threats of eviction. This tradition was strongly opposed by the Higdons, who courted further controversy by refusing to let the children assist in the fields.
Hostilities began when in 1913 Tom Higdon dared to stand against the Reverend and was elected to the parish council with the assistance of local labourers. The farm owners and Reverend retaliated by using their control of the local school’s management committee to sack Kitty for the outrageous crime of lighting a fire to keep the children warm.
The Higdon’s dismissal took effect on the 1st April 1914. The management committee led a new teacher into an empty school. Writing on the blackboard read “We are going on strike tomorrow”. Singing echoed throughout the sleepy village. A group of children led by Violet Potter marched with instruments and placards decorated with the words ‘justice’ and ‘we want our teachers back’. A meeting on the green with the children’s parents agreed that they all preferred the Higdons as the children’s teachers. Out of 72 children, 66 were out on strike.
18 parents were summoned to Diss court and fined for allowing their children to go to the strike school. They were unrepentant and defiant. They laughed as the charges were given and marched to and from the court in a large procession.
The strike and union activities were punished by the Rector who withdrew Glebe lands, plots rented cheaply by labourers to grow food, from striking workers. Farm owners responded with the eviction of union activists, striking children and their families.
In Tom Higdon’s 1917 account of the school strike he describes the scenes at the court:
“The weather on court day, too, was ideal, and never a light-hearted merrier throng, ‘twixt flowery banks and budding hedgerows wert than that pedestrian rustic band that walked with mirth and laughing jest and scraps of song, as unto pageant gala, fete or fair, to answer to those summonses at Diss”.
His account reads of a happy Christian socialist ideal community. The fabled ‘Merry England’ before the Norman yoke was established and the commons were enclosed made a reality. A settlement of “work-a-day rustics”, “comely Norfolk women with set face, brave and determined, yet withal smiling and sympathetic, children clinging to their skirts or locked in the mother’s hand, men with brawny arm, hard hand and rustic beard, eager groups of boys and girls who had made their minds to go on strike tomorrow, in much too deadly errest for laughter and play now, but chatting together like old heads.”
Norfolk has long been a hotbed of agricultural trade unionism. George Edwards was born in Marsham in 1850, his father had been blacklisted for speaking out publicly about the poverty of his fellow agricultural labourers. George joined Joseph Arch’s National Agricultural Labourers’ Union and, after this collapsed, he continued to organise. He was elected as a local Councillor and in 1906 at the Angel pub in North Walsham he founded the Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers’ and Small Holders’ Union with just 122 members. George conducted the administration of the union from his cottage and cycled all over Norfolk organising meetings and supporting strikes. The union grew spread into Lincolnshire and Dorset and was renamed the National Agricultural Labourers’ and Rural workers Union. By 1918 it had over 170 000 members. George was elected the Labour member of Parliament for South Norfolk in 1920.
There was a religious aspect to class conflict in the English countryside. The established Church of England retained a semi feudal level of control on the rural population, supporting the local landowner. The rise of nonconformist chapels threatened the power of the parson and squire. In 1830 the introduction of new threshing machines that resulted in job cuts inspired agricultural labourers to rise up in revolt together with other greviances about low pay and tithes to the church of England. Threatening letters were written to farmers signed captain swing, if the new machines were kept on and wages kept low, the property of the farmers were often burnt to the ground. Eric Hobsbawm observed that the North Walsham circuit of the primitive methodist Church was the biggest in East Anglia and that this was also the area where the swing riot started, and that the areas of nonconformist growth after this were strongest in riot areas. Given the emphasis on lay preaching and administration of the local Methodist Chapels it is no surprise that the skill and confidence this provided helped the rural poor to organise. Generations of agricultural trade union leaders were Methodist lay preachers from the Tolpuddle martyrs to Joseph Arch and George Edwards.
Wilf Page was born in Catton in 1913. In his local Methodist Chapel as a boy he listened to George Edwards preach. Wilf’s Sunday school teacher Billy Furness was a leader of the 1923 farm workers strike. Wilf said:
“It was soon apparent to me that Methodist teachings and trade unionism went hand in hand, whereas the Church of England or High Church were associated with the squires, farmers and moneyed people generally.”
Wilf became a union organiser and was elected onto the executive of the National Union of Agricultural workers in 1969, later becoming president of the European agricultural workers federation. He was elected a Councillor in 1946 for Erpington, where George Edwards had been elected. Wilf helped to found the annual Burston school strike rally in 1984 with Tom Potter, brother of school striker Violet, who like Wilf was also a communist Councillor in rural Norfolk.
The Higdon’s empowerment of the village children had an effect on the adults. The green became a public space, with confidence adults and children singing the red flag, the international and England Arise. A “centre of rural democracy” with meetings organised in support of the Russian revolution, for land restoration and against the legalised murder of Sacco and Vanzetti in America-the famous miscarriage of justice where the sole ‘evidence’ that led to their execution was their revolutionary political convictions.
Yet spontaneous organisation on the village green couldn’t last forever. The Higdons maintained a strict timetable of lessons, but outside help was required. It was here that the railwaymen at the village station played a vital role.
While the majority of the village were employed as agricultural workers the “luckier ones worked on the railway”. These union men were “already benefitting from the improved pay and working conditions brought about by the NUR.” They were able to provide much needed support for the school strike as they “were independent of the local farmers, more secure in their jobs, and better off.” Word rapidly spread to local branches and then to London and the rest of the country. The London district of the NUR were responsible for the bulk of the funding and publicity required to keep the school strike going.
On Sunday July 15th, 1914, a large meeting was held in Burston. This show of strength was bolstered by the presence of outside supporters:
“No less than eighteen trade union banners were ranged around the green; a brass band came from Norwich, and a special train brought down another brass band and hundreds of Railwaymen, who had taken the cause of Burston to their hearts.”
The NUR continued to mobilise in support of the school strike. The Daily Mirror reported on the first anniversary of the strike on 3rd April 1915 that the NUR sent “four dozen chairs” for the strike school. On November 10th 1915 nine London branches of the NUR were represented at Burston by banners.
W. H. Williams, chairman of West Ham NUR writing in Railway Review on the 21st January 1916 declared:
“The facts concerning the Burston School strike are of such a character that all trades unionists must rally to their cause.”
The NUR mobilised the labour movement in both London and nationally in support of the school strike. Over 200 collections were organised in London alone by the NUR, at union branches, public meetings, at meetings of women’s organisations and trades councils. NUR branches in Paddington, Stratford and Kentish Town transformed their branch meetings into public assemblies in support of the school strike. The Higdons, their pupils and some of their parents were taken to speak to an exhaustive number of such meetings around the capital to raise money and awareness for the strike school. It was not all work however; W. H. Williams promised in Railway Review that the NUR would “give the kiddies some fun during the daytime-the zoo, pantomines…etc.” It must have been a novelty for the poor offspring of rural labourers. The delegation from Burston was received with celebrity. On March 4th 1916 The Herald reported:
“The Burston Strike school children have had a great time in London. The children, with their parents and Mr and Mrs Higdon, have been guests of the London District of the National Union of Railwaymen and right royally have they been cared for!”
As a result of these meetings the Burston school strike accumulated enough funds to be able to construct a new building.
In 1917 a huge crowd gathered in Burston for the opening of the strike school. The Great Eastern railway granted a special train to bring Sylvia Pankurst and hundreds of NUR members from London.
The Norwich Mercury reported on the 4th December 1917:
“Some 200 NUR union branch officials and delegates from London, Colchester, Ipswich, Southsea, Bury St Edmunds, Norwich, Beccles, Diss and other places attended with handsome silk banners representing their various branches.”
A NUR delegation of hundreds led by Mr Carter, a NUR organising secretary, one of the main organisers of the demonstration and treasurer of the Burston School fund, were greeted at the station by a parade. Sylvia Pankhurst, who was among the crowd wrote in the Workers dreadnaught about greeting the NUR at Burston Station, describing “the men of the Bethnal Green NUR band, out to play for the first time.”
The Bethnal Green NUR brass band was joined by the Bermondsey railway drum and fife band in a sea of banners. Mr Carter made a speech promising in the delightful language of the era a “jolly row” if the teachers were not reinstated. The men whose service on the railway had transformed them into members of the industrial working class were determined to show their solidarity with the rural working class, and vice versa. An example of the sentiments came from Mr Coe of the agricultural Labourers union who advocated linking up with the NUR as “our interests are inseparable”
Tom Higdon paid tribute to Mr Carter “who, with his noble band of railwaymen, has done wonders in popularising the strike” To give a taste of just how much support the NUR gave the strike school, according to the balance sheet of the Burston School Strike and evicted glebe tenants fund for April 8th 1916-December 31st 1917 the NUR contributed a total of 288 pounds and 11 shillings-a sizable chunk of the entire collection and a vast sum at that time. The new strike school was decorated on the outside by inscribed bricks, representing donations, that can be seen today from cooperative societies, trades councils, NUR branches from Bridgwater to Paddington, and Independent Labour Party branches from Yeovil to Gainsborough, including one from the famous writer Leo Tolstoy. On the inside a shield presented by the Bermondsey branch of the NUR sits on the mantelpiece.
In the 1920s two members of a Russian trade delegation organised for their children to be educated in Burston. This pattern was repeated as well as many children from mining families around Britain were also sent to Burston, especially after the Miners defeat in the General Strike.
The NUR had played a major role in making this possible. The school strike was renowned so much so that G. C. T Giles, who became the first communist president of the National Union of Teachers and sent his son to the school, recalled;
“If you bought a ticket to Burston at Liverpool Street station the porter who let you through on to the platform would look at you and start talking about the strike and the meeting on the green”
The strike school continued until 1939 when Tom died and Kitty, now in her seventies, was unable to continue alone. It is known as the longest strike in Britain and its legacy lives on today.
Contemporary commentators might dub Burston as the first free school. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s free schools play the role of restoring the domination of employers over education. Burston was a struggle by ordinary working people to empower themselves. It took place during a time when the labour movement was asserting itself nationally and it proved its commitment to solidarity. Due to strength of organisation and specific aspects of their employment railwaymen played a vital role in making the strike possible. It is an achievement today’s transport workers can be proud of. Nothing could pay more tribute to these brave pioneers than joining the labour movement celebration in Norfolk held every year on the first Sunday in September.
Burston Strike School Rally 2019
Burston Strike School Rally 2019
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