Tales from the archives – July 2019

This month’s article is thanks to a suggestion by local resident Geoff Poole, following the article about Rebellious Norfolk. He is quite correct that I missed this one out (he pointed out a few others too) and I confess this piece of our history is new to me. I’ve not been able to do it justice, so may I suggest you go to the website https://burstonstrikeschool.co.uk/history/ where you will find this lovely story in more detail.

The Burston Strike School is the story of the country’s longest ever strike, over 25 years, and one started by children.

Back in 1902 an Education Bill was introduced where working-class children would be offered education. But this education was simply teaching them their place in society and preparing them for labour and agricultural work. In 1911 new teachers Kitty and Tom Higdon arrived at Burston, near Diss. The Higdons came into conflict with the school committee. The committee wanted the children to be educated as to “the way things are” whilst the Higdons were Socialists and wanted education to be the means of making a better life. They found the school building to be in a poor state of repair and “Kitty Higdon was surprised to be criticised by the school management for not seeking their permission before lighting a fire in the schoolroom’s grate with which to dry the clothes of children who had walked miles through the rain, or to prepare hot water for bathing those children whose hair was infested with lice.”

Despite the conflicts with the school committee the Higdon’s became popular with the children and their parents. Tom Higdon had previously given up his active role in politics but decided to stand for election for the parish council and encouraged other villagers to do the same. With a “soaring majority” Tom and his friends were elected and at the same time ousted the old guard, shifting the balance of power in the village.

This change made the old guard decide to do something, so they had the Higdons dismissed. The Higdons left at the end of March 1914. The new teacher, who started on 1 April, was greeted by a group of children outside the school, marching down the street, playing instruments and carrying placards saying “We want our teachers back”. Eventually they arrived at the centre of the village and it was decided by the parents that they wanted their children to be taught by the Higdons whom they trusted and respected. So using a make-shift marquee, a new school was set up on the village green where 66 out of 72 children continued their schooling. As the months went on, it became clear that the school could not continue like this so it moved to an unused workshop.

The school committee “attacked “ the parents by having them fined for not sending their children to school. But this happened so many times that it became obvious that if they continued it would only make the judicial system look ridiculous. The local land owners also tried sacking their workers but at a time of war workers were a very valuable resource and they could not manage without them.
Eventually on 13 May, 1917, a brand new purpose-built school, paid for from donations, was opened by Violet Potter, the leader of the strike, and Burston now had 2 schools.

Unfortunately, Tom Higson died in August 1939 and Kitty, at 75 years old, could not continue on her own. The Strike School closed a few months later and its pupils, the children and grandchildren of the original strikers, went to the council school, and this ended the strike. Kitty died in 1946 and she and Tom are buried in Burston’s churchyard.

Until next time,
Rebecca Domek, Three Score

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