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Norfolk book honours memory of school’s justice fight

PUBLISHED: 15:39 01 September 2014 | UPDATED: 15:39 01 September 2014

Anne May, niece of Burston pupils' strike leader Violet Potter, outside the Strike School with the new book

Anne May, niece of Burston pupils' strike leader Violet Potter, outside the Strike School with the new book

Archant

A new book on an extraordinary event which took place in a small Norfolk village 100 years ago will be launched at a unique rally which illustrates how a good and honest cause still deserves to be remembered in the 21st Century.

Violet Potter, who led the pupils of Burston to strike in support of popular teachers Tom and Kitty Higdon.Violet Potter, who led the pupils of Burston to strike in support of popular teachers Tom and Kitty Higdon.

Trade unionists, MPs, MEPs and of course members of the public, will head to Burston, near Diss, this Sunday to honour those involved in what was the longest strike in history – as far as we know.

It was in April 1914 (before the start of the First World War) that the school children went on strike and their non-attendance at the approved council school was to stretch, without a break, until 1939 (the start of the Second World War) – no less than 25 years.

This extreme action was prompted by the sheer determination of most of the villagers to achieve justice for their much-loved council school teachers Tom and Kitty Higdon.

Although adored by their pupils and highly respected by their parents, they were shamefully treated by an oppressive Rector, the Rev Charles Tucker Eland, who saw to it that the Higdons were harried unmercifully, and eventually sacked from their true vocations, via a trail of deceitful actions. They were accused of being cruel and unkind to their pupils and whatever they did was wrong.

Annie 'Kitty' Higdon, of Burston Strike SchoolAnnie 'Kitty' Higdon, of Burston Strike School

For example: They were said to have shown disrespect to the school governors because they lit a fire one day to dry the clothing of children soaked by rain while walking a long way to school; their charge was that they did not seek official sanction to use the coal.

Other evidence of their disrespect for their ‘superiors’ was that Kitty Higdon had not curtsied to the rector’s wife one day in the village.

The Higdons were good, kind people, with forthright views on the realistic wages and conditions for labourers and farm workers.

When they were sacked Violet Potter, then a 13-year-old pupil, led the children out on strike. She declared that the children and parents wanted justice and their teachers re-instated.

Tom Higdon, of Burston Strike SchoolTom Higdon, of Burston Strike School

What followed proved without doubt that Norfolk folk are a determined and stubborn bunch. The spirit of Kett’s Rebellion lived on in 20th Century Burston.

Although dismissed as teachers the Higdons were implored to carry on instructing the 66 children on strike. They were at least 20 years ahead of their time, teaching children to type, read the stars at night, learn photography and even the international language Esperanto – all in addition to the normal three Rs.

“The Higdon method” was way ahead of its time. Quite brilliant, especially for a small school in rural Norfolk, and all the official school inspectors – even during the strike, credited them with excellent standards.

Under the Higdons’ way of teaching, going to school was fun and thrilling – no wonder the children loved them. The children ended up both clever... and happy.

Within three years of the strike starting, a new school building was erected and it opened in May 1917. Even leading Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst turned up to give her support at the opening.

But pride of place was given to young Violet who had the enormous satisfaction and pleasure of officially declaring the new school open.

She said: “With joy and thankfulness I declare this school open – to be forever a School of Freedom.”

The building still stands today as a much-loved museum, accessible every day and visited by hundreds of people from around the world each year.

The money needed to build it – £1,250, a massive amount in those days – came from people across the country, including the son of Leo Tolstoy. It certainly put Burston on the map.

Now, all this and more, has been turned into a fascinating new book, written by famous Violet Potter’s niece, Anne May (nee Potter) who was brought up in the village.

In fact her father was named Tom, after Tom Higdon, went to the strike school and then became a leading parish councillor and the main instigator of the Annual Rally Day being revived in the 1980s.

So it is that every September, on the first Sunday, a memorial rally is held on the village green. It is a wonderful event which the whole of Norfolk can be proud of.

This new book called The School of Freedom, commissioned by Norwich historian David Berwick, sets the whole amazing story against the social and economic realities of Burston and elsewhere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

David, who has edited, designed and published the new book, says this compelling account is up to date and includes a chapter on the magnificent centenary celebrations earlier this year on April 1.

At first the book will only be available at the rally on Sunday. If you’ve never been before – give it a try and experience a truly unique Norfolk event. It has a real carnival atmosphere about it. Money raised goes to the trustees, as all writing, publishing, editing and printing costs have been generously donated.

• David tells me that any copies not sold on the day can be bought from him after Sunday priced at £11.50 (collector’s edition) and £8 (monochrome version). Both prices include p&p. Contact davidaberwick@gmail.com

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