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Aug
2014
Thursday 21st
posted by Morning Star in Britain

In the centenary year of the longest-running strike in British history, SUE TURNER looks back on how events unfolded


THE charm of the windmill, the bridge over the stream and the pink-washed cottages of Burston hid lives of grinding poverty. 

Rural Norfolk was under the control of large landowners and the church, with agricultural labourers raising their families in squalid tied cottages on a weekly wage of 12s 6d.

Teachers Kitty and Tom Higdon had been removed from their previous school because of clashes with the authorities over Tom’s work organising for the Agricultural Labourers Union, and Kitty’s demands for better maintenance of the school. 

Having transferred unwillingly to Burston in 1911, they faced the same problems and dealt with them in the same way. 

Tom continued his union work and in 1913 encouraged labourers to stand for the parish council elections. The result was a landslide victory for them with Tom top of the poll and the rector at the bottom. 

Kitty too fell foul of the rector, a bigot, who told her: “The place of the schoolmistress is in church and her children with her,” despite the fact that the school was not a church school, and Kitty, like most of her pupils, was a Methodist. 

She failed to show the correct level of subservience to the gentry and put the needs of her pupils first. 

For example, she would light fires without permission to dry the children’s clothes before their long walk home. 

At that time education for working-class children meant indoctrinating them to accept their place in society as manual workers and to support church, king and country, but as Christian socialists the Higdons believed that education was a way of improving life for the next generation, and that children have individual talents to develop. 

They took their pupils on rambles and taught them French, Spanish and esperanto. 

They showed them how to use a typewriter and sewing machine and bought them clothes and regular treats.

This was all too radical and subversive to allow, so trumped-up charges were brought against the Higdons and they were sacked, amid campaigns and protests on their behalf. 

The children, with their parents’ backing, decided to strike and the night before there was a rousing meeting on the village green chaired by one George Durbridge, fish-seller, poacher and Tory, who exhorted the crowd to stand firm with the Higdons with these unforgettable words: “Stick like bloody shit to a blanket!” 

The next morning the children marched around the village with banners aloft and lessons were held on the green until a carpenter’s shop became available. 

The year 1911 was a period of general industrial unrest, with dockers, miners and railwaymen fighting against wage reductions. 

In this context a wave of school strikes had swept across Britain affecting over 60 towns and cities. Children abandoned their lessons and marched through the streets and held picket lines to protest against caning, homework and school fees so the children’s action in Burston was not so surprising.

Support for the Strike School snowballed, with national fundraising, publicity in the radical press and rallies in the village attended by Tom Mann, Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury. 

The NUR, miners’ unions, trades councils and co-operative societies raised funds and a new Strike School was built.

Parents were fined 2s 6d for their children’s non-attendance at the council school but these costs were easily met by collections outside the court. 

Families were evicted from their allotments to try to break the strike, but to no avail. 

Only six pupils attended the council school with 66 in the Strike School.

Tom said: “The strike has come into tangible grip with all the petty tyrannies, oppressions, religious hypocrisies and class privileges which exist in country districts.”

The Strike School continued until his death in 1939. It had given the children of Burston the usual curriculum plus some unusual extras — trips to trade union rallies, May Day celebrations, protests against the execution of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti and the company of six Nottinghamshire miners’ children during the 1926 general strike.

The solidarity of the villagers and their supporters against the politically motivated dismissal of their teachers was impressive. 

They challenged the old rural order — the authority of landowners, the Church of England and the judiciary.

The struggle continues today for trade union rights, meaningful education and international solidarity.

 

This year’s Burston strike school rally will be held on Sunday September 7 at 10.45am, Church Green, Burston, near Diss, Norfolk.




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