Class wars - and a striking political fight

Ian CollinsOne of Norfolk's most famous political battles centred on a village school and it prompted the longest strike in British history. In the second in a series on our electoral history Ian Collins looks back on the Burston rebellion.Ian Collins

One of Norfolk's most famous political battles centred on a village school and it prompted the longest strike in British history. In the second in a series on our electoral history Ian Collins looks back on the Burston rebellion.

Elderly people can still recall when our villages were broadly split between Liberal and then Labour-voting attenders of chapel and the Tory assemblies in church.

The chasm - also between labourers and farmers - could be just as deep among infants as rural East Anglians divided between two tribes.

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Children were famously the foot soldiers in a political battleground on a Norfolk village green, as the years 1914 and 1939 marked the start of two world wars and the longest strike in British history.

At the turn of the 20th century East Anglia was in the grip of an agricultural recession already lasting three decades. Parsons and squires controlled everything from jobs, housing and education to grants of charity and allotment land.

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But Primitive Methodist chapels were emboldening working people to stand for the parish councils created in 1894 to take powers from the church. George Edwards revived the farm-workers' union in Norfolk in 1906 - with one tireless recruiter being a Christian Socialist teacher from Wood Dalling named Tom Higdon.

The headmistress he nominally assisted was his wife, Kitty, who shared his political beliefs but was engrossed in schooling. She reserved for her pupils a spirit of generosity and kindliness which she seldom extended to adults.

In their different ways both the Higdons were asking for trouble. In 1911 they were duly sent packing.

They found posts in the school at Burston - a village near Diss then acquiring a new rector, the reactionary Charles Tucker Eland (with an annual income of �581, compared with labourers' wages of barely �35). Battle lines were drawn.

In 1913 Tom Higdon and fellow radicals took the council. The teacher topped the poll, the rector came bottom.

Still managing the school, rector and tenant farmers were bombarded with complaints about poor conditions. They in turn censured Mrs Higdon for lighting the school fire without permission and 'gross discourtesy'.

Then came a claim that the pacifist headmistress had hit two Barnardo girls for false accusation against another pupil. The managers wanted shot of the troublesome teachers, and persisted when an inquiry found the caning charge 'not proven'.

On April 1 1914, as the Higdons were being ejected, the sound of singing and chanting children broke the tense air. Of 72 pupils, 66 had gone on strike.

Led by Violet Potter - playing her concertina, and waving Union flags behind a banner bearing the words 'Justice. We Want Our Teachers Back.' - the youngsters circled the village.

The march was repeated that afternoon and on following days. The Higdons then taught on the village green before taking over an empty carpenter's shop.

Fines for fathers were met by supporters as the strike became a national sensation. In World War One it was unpatriotic to sack and evict farm workers, but families hiring land from the rector for growing vegetables, fattening a pig and keeping chickens had their crops destroyed.

The Higdon assembly needed a proper school and labour, trade union and women's suffrage movements duly raised �1,250 for a building on the green, whose foundation stone was laid by Socialist pioneer George Lansbury.

On May 13 1917 1,000 people heard Violet Potter declare 'With joy and thankfulness I declare this school open to be forever a school of freedom.'

The front wall of what is a now a free museum is inscribed with donor names - mining and railway union branches and Torpedo Depot Devonport Dockyard. Leo Tolstoi is honoured alongside Brother Bill and Blind Ambrose.

A plaque inside salutes 'scholars' from 26 families - from Potter (Violet, Elsie, Tottie, Annie, Stanley, Tommy, Reggie) to Wilby (William, Lily, Albert, Dolly, Nancy, Hettie, May, Emily, Percy, Dick).

In the 1920s two members of the Russian Trade Delegation in London sent their children to the strike school, and during the 1926 General Strike the offspring of six Nottinghamshire miners were taught and boarded free of charge.

The strike school continued through the 1930s as a rival to the council school, closing on the eve another war after the death of Tom Higdon. Since 1984 commemorative rallies have been held in Burston every September.

Tom Potter, keeping a shop on the village green opposite the old school, declared himself a Communist and served during post-war decades on the local council as a left-leaning independent. Old wounds had largely healed.

When Burston expanded and incoming Tory activists insisted on challenging the veteran leftie hard at the polls, several members of the Conservative association resigned, complaining that this was taking politics too far.

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