The school that went on strike

15th September 2000 at 01:00
More than 80 years ago, children in a rural Norfolk village downed pencils and walked out in support of their sacked teachers in a dispute that was to last a quarter of a century. They continued their learning in a tiny building that stands today as a rare monument to socialist educational principles. David Newnham reports.

Turn off the main road north of Diss and you find yourself in working countryside. Not much here for the lover of chocolate box scenery, perhaps, but charming enough with its beanfields and stubble, its high hedges and its signposts bearing names such as Shimpling and Dickleburgh, Winfarthing and Shelfanger.

Over the railway, where mainline trains hammer out the last few miles to Norwich, the road enters the village of Burston. There is a primary school with a temporary classroom, a medieval church without a tower, and about as much peace among the pantiles as you could wish for, provided you ignore the occasional animal feed lorry and the distant clatter of express trains.

But what's this strange little building on the village green? Some sort of chapel, perhaps? Not another school, surely?

Wind down your window and take a closer look. The entire front of the building is faced with stone, and on each block there is an inscription. Is it some kind of war memorial?

Some would call it precisely that, although whether it's the sort of war you'd expect to find commemorated in the middle of a Norfolk village is another matter. For the stones speak not of military action but of class conflict, and the people who paid for them were clearly not from round here.

"Sunderland Socialist Sunday School", says one, and another bears greetings from the Optical Glass Workers Society. Up there is the Portmanteau and Trunk Makers Society, and the Parkstone and Bournemouth Co-operative Society paid for this one.

There are Welsh miners and London railwaymen at every turn. George Lansbury, the radical Labour politician, laid the foundation stone, and the inscription "Leo Tolstoi" appears on another. Across the top of the building are the words "Burston Strike School". This, then, is something rare in the British landscape - a socialist monument.

But what strike does it refer to, and what part did this little building play? Step inside the former schoolroom that now serves as a museum and you will learn that here was fought not just a strike, but by some distance the longest strike in British history. And if that's not astonishing enough, then chew on this: the strikers were not miners or locomen or even portmanteau makers; they were Norfolk schoolchildren.

It was 1911 when Tom and Annie Higdon took up their posts at Burston school - Annie as headmistress and her husband as assistant teacher. And, by all accounts, they were determined to keep a low profile.

Norfolk education committee described the couple as "troublesome" and had as good as sacked them after they fell out repeatedly - violently, even - with the managers of their previous school, at Wood Dalling in the north of the county. Now they needed to keep their heads down.

But as Christian Socialists who cared passionately about the miserable condition of the rural working class, the Higdons could not sit back for long while the farmers and the clergy trampled on the agricultural labourers and dragged their poor, half-starved children out of school to pick stones in the fields.

In Burston, the situation was particularly bad, as the village had just acquired a reactionary new rector, the Rev Charles Tucker Eland. The embodiment of a Victorian parson, he lived on a handsome annual income of pound;581 and was determined that, no matter what was happening elsewhere in the country, in Burston the Church would lose not one ounce of the power and influence to which it had been accustomed.

Accordingly, the rector sat on the parish council, and chaired the school managing body - which quickly brought him into conflict with the Higdons, who complained repeatedly about the cold, damp, unventilated school and the conditions the children had to endure.

The turning point came in 1913, when Tom Higdon broke cover and accepted an invitation to run for the parish council. He and several other like-minded candidates trounced the old order, and even ousted the rector from his seat. It was a declaration of war, and Burston school was to be the battlefield.

It took the Rev Eland a year to gather enough evidence to have the Higdons sacked, evidence acquired by leaning heavily on those in the village whose livelihoods depended on his patronage. Even so, he failed to convince an education committee inquiry that Mrs Higdon, well known as a pacifist, had caned two Barnardo girls fostered in Burston, or even that she had lit a fire to dry children's rain-soaked clothes "contrary to instructions".

In the end, the couple were found guilty only of discourtesy to the school managers. But this was enough. Despite a token defence of its members by the National Union of Teachers, the education committee gave them notice to quit. On April 1, 1914, the Higdons said farewell to Burston school.

At which moment, children could be heard singing and marching. Led by 13-year-old Violet Elizabeth Potter (she was born in the same year as the Queen Mother), 66 of the school's 72 pupils paraded around the village carrying placards proclaiming, "We want our teachers back". They were, they announced, striking "for justice".

The rector and his chums thought it was an April fool's joke. In fact it was the start of a protest that was to outlast the coming world war and would not be abandoned until the outbreak of the next one, a quarter of a century later.

And nor was the Burston rebellion ever a joke, or a mere diversion for the village kids. When the Higdons set up their "strike school", first on the green, and then in a succession of buildings lent or built for the purpose, the parents of pupils who attended it in preference to the council school suffered prosecution, sacking and eviction.

It was war all right. And very soon - witness those inscriptions in the stonework of the little schoolroom built with money that poured in from the labour movement - Burston became a beacon for the Left, here and abroad.

In 1917, the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst visited Burston to open a building for the school which she hailed as "a lasting memorial" to "freedom and justice". Money is said to have come from Leo Tolstoy, although the exact method of payment isn't clear, given that he died in 1910. It's certain, however, that in the 1920s members of the Russian trade delegation in London sent their children to be educated in this Norfolk village (they donated a huge print of Daniel in the lions' den, which still dominates the little schoolroom).

By 1930, the council school had recovered somewhat, and equal numbers of children were attending Burston's two educational establishments. But not until Tom Higdon died in 1939 did the Strike School finally close and the last of its pupils return to the council fold. When Annie died in 1946 (the couple are buried in the village churchyard), peace and quiet returned to Burston for a while. Then, in the early Seventies, the story was discovered by Bert Edwards, a school teacher from Hitchin, in Hertfordshire. He traced 20 former pupils of the Strike School and in 1974 wrote a book, The Burston School Strike (Lawrence and Wishart).

A decade later, the BBC made a film, and the Strike School became the focus for annual rallies that continue to draw hundreds of people from all sections of the labour movement every September. But today the green is empty of coaches and stalls. There are no megaphones to be heard, and the key to the museum hangs on a post outside The Firs, the home of Martyn and Judith Welch, just across the road.

Judith, an advisory teacher for the deaf, works in neighbouring Suffolk, while Martyn lectures in the sculpture department at Norwich School of Art. Both are from the north-east, and neither of them had heard of the Burston rebellion when they moved to the village 25 years ago. "We thought, 'What's that funny building on the green?' " says Martyn. "Then we went over and had a closer look."

At that time, a few of the original strikers and their families still lived in the village. Tom Potter, an ex-pupil and younger brother of Violet, ran the local shop, and it was he who gradually got the Welches involved with restoring that "funny building" as a museum.

"Tom was a wonderful character," says Judith, "and we were drawn in because we had an affinity with him."

If the Higdons were sworn enemies of an education system designed to turn girls into domestic servants and boys into labourers, they must have been proud of Tom Potter. A member of the Communist Party until his death in 1985, he served on the parish and district councils.

"Everyone voted for him," says Martyn Welch. "Even people who were Conservatives. And in his shop he used to sell more Morning Stars than Daily Expresses. Imagine - 50 copies of a communist newspaper being sold in a little village." The BBC film (Tom appeared as an extra) did much to revive interest in the story, and these days it even crops up on a GCSE syllabus, with a playscript published by OUP*, while the museum is a regular haunt of Dip Ed students and classes from local schools. "In an area where many people are Conservative with a capital C," says Martyn Welch, "Burston was for a long time a little red pimple on the landscape."

And is all forgotten and forgiven, now that the last of the strikers has passed on? Possibly - although you might ask yourself, as you turn off the main road just north of Diss, why officialdom still cannot bring itself to erect a brown heritage sign at the junction, directing motorists to the home of the Burston rebellion.

* The Burston SchoolStrike by Roy Nevitt (OUP) pound;5.80. The Burston Strike School museum is open all year, admission free. For further information tel: 01379 741565

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