The Burston Strike School protest in 1914
Burston Strike School centenary: The sickle stays sharp
The Burston School Strike was the longest strike in British history, running from 1914 to 1939. The children of the school in the Norfolk village of Burston went on strike after their teachers, Annie and Tom Higdon, were dismissed by the school’s management committee. Annie Higdon was headmistress and a progressive educator. She objected to the conditions in the school and the landowners’ continuing claiming of the children for farmwork. Tom Higdon was assistant teacher and an organiser for the agricultural workers’ trade union.
When their teachers were sacked the children marched round the village with placards saying “we want our teachers back” and refused to return to the school. The Higdons established, with the support of the children’s parents, an alternative school on the Green. By 1917 the labour and trade union movement had raised enough money for a new school building (now a museum).
Every September the Burston Strike School Rally Committee, made up of trade unionists and community activists, organises a celebration of the strike on the first Sunday in September.
So why is this celebration so important?
The treatment of the Higdons by the squirearchy united the working class community – first in Burston and the surrounding area, but soon the solidarity spread throughout the land. Money was collected, public meetings were held all over England, and labour movement heroes, including Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury, came to Burston to demonstrate their support.
The dismissal of the Higdons was closely related, in time and cause, to the growth of the agricultural workers’ union that challenged the appalling working and living conditions of farm labourers and their families across the East of England.
Not only was Annie Higdon teaching the children their true worth – equal to the gentry – she also taught them to think and to speak up. Tom Higdon worked tirelessly as an organiser for the union. Naturally this did not endear them to the rural ruling class.
So the watchwords of Burston are trade union organising, progressive education, and solidarity to those in struggle. We also believe that it’s important to remember that not all working class progress was based in the industrial heartlands, but that the rural struggle was central.
This Sunday (7 September) is the culmination of a year’s celebrations of the centenary of the start of the strike. This celebrations have so far included an April event with a recreation of the children’s first march, a specially written play, trade union education films, publications, exhibitions, lectures and walks.
The Rally this weekend is a mixture of music and speeches, with a march at midday following the children’s route (the Candlestick, a Norfolk circular walk) and the Green is packed with trade union and labour movement stalls.
Lara Norris (Labour PPC for Great Yarmouth) and I will be chairing the Rally and we will be welcoming Peter Kavanagh (Unite Regional Secretary), Owen Jones (columnist and author), Geoff Revell RMT, and Jeremy Corbyn MP – along with the NASUWT brass band, Red Flags, Thee Faction, Roy Bailey, and TheatreTrain, a children’s theatre company that brings together young people from across the East of England.
We’d love to see you there too, to share the celebration. You are welcome to bring a picnic or to enjoy the Burston school PTA’s food and drink, and there is, of course, a beer tent provided by the local pub. We kick off at 10.45am – see the school website for more information