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Book Review Welcome new light shed on longest strike in English history

The Village in Revolt
by Shaun Jeffery
(Higdon Press, £14.99)

THERE are numerous accounts of the Burston school strike, which is the longest in English history, running from 1914 to 1939. Among them is The Burston Rebellion, the personal account by Tom Higdon whose unfair dismissal along with his wife led to the children striking on their behalf.

Yet many of those accounts are at best partial and at worst lacking in crucial detail and accuracy and none provides as comprehensive nor as overtly socialist an account in their analysis and detail as this new work by Shaun Jeffery. Its synthesis of in-depth secondary research and lived experience make it a compelling account and point of reference.

Jeffery distils both his longstanding association with the Burston Strike School as a trustee and his first-hand knowledge as a member of the rural proletariat to produce a model socialist historical study that instructs and inspires.

By considering the ebbs and flows of the long history of rural radicalism, he not only successfully contextualises the events leading up to the children of Burston striking in support of their persecuted teachers on the basis of utterly trumped-up charges but also intertwines the snaking personal paths of the three main characters as they edge towards their ultimate encounter.

Jeffery looks at how the utter degradation of rural life in Somerset and the rise of the National Agricultural Labourers Union (NALU) in response shaped Higdon’s views, as much as how that of his wife-to-be Kitty Schollick’s slightly more elevated, but still precarious, existence gave her a sense of determined social morality.

And then there’s the pampered trajectory of the Revd Charles Tucker Eland, an almost Trollopian character, drawing together in his own person the ecclesiastical arrogance and sense of entitlement of the Anglican rural priestly caste.

This approach means that the account, while focusing on the specific individuals who ignited the Burston strike, also offers a sense of how rural workers across the land were reaching their breaking point in terms of poor housing, insecure employment and an economic system that denied their children even basic education in favour of their working on the land.

There is so much here that I was unaware of — Higdon meeting the great Joseph Arch of the NALU, the Higdons teaching in Soho for a time and the vicious retaliatory evictions of tenants from their modest glebe holdings by Eland.

If the last was designed to intimidate the children and their parents, it backfired. The Higdons and their supporters set up a new school on the village green which was paid for by subscriptions from trade union branches and leftists across the country. The trains even stopped at Burston — they failed to do so when the Higdons first arrived.

The Strike School operated until 1939 and the last years of the Higdons are movingly recorded in what is a model of socialist history in content, style, research and reference. There are shades of EP Thompson here.

The annual Burston School Strike Rally takes place on September 2, details: burstonstrikeschool.co.uk

 

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