The Village in REVOLT – the story of the longest strike in history by Shaun Jeffrey 

Friday, 21 September 2018

The Village in REVOLT – the story of the longest strike in history by Shaun Jeffrey

Article from uniteLANDWORKER Summer 2018

Unite activist Shaun Jeffrey has written a definitive account of Annie and Tom Higdon, the teachers who inspired the 1914 to 1939 Burston School Strike – the longest in history.

How the Higdons ended up in the small South Norfolk village of Burston is a fascinating story charting the economic, political and social changes that changed Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.

Tom Higdon was born in 1869 in an agricultural dwelling in Huxham, Somerset. There is no indication that his dad, Dennis, who was to be still working in 1911 at aged 78 as a farm labourer, was a trade unionist. This after all was an era when indicating that you were interested in combining with your fellow workers would lead to victimisation by farmers.

In 1872 Francis George Heath’s investigative account, The “Romance” of Peasant Life in the West of England, recorded the hardship experienced by Somerset agricultural labourers and their families.

Attempts at establishing an agricultural workers union in 1868 had failed but in 1872 a mass strike wave, started in Warwickshire, led to the founding of Joseph Arch’s National Agricultural Labourers’ Union. (N.A.L.U)

Annie Schollick, born 1864, was from Cheshire. Her grandfather and father, Samuel, were carpenters.

Her uncle Edward entered domestic service.  When his employer, the Reverend Dr John Stonard, who had no immediate family, died Edward was made the benefactor of his estate. Edward shared his fortune with his family including Samuel, who became a small ship builder and also paid for private tuition for his daughter. Annie  became an unqualified governess before undertaking formal training as an elementary teacher in a Sussex Church of England school.

The 1870 Education Act, introduced in an attempt to keep Britain internationally competitive at a time of rapid industrialisation, enshrined universal education in law. Tom Higdon thus received what the Education Act intended; a school place, in a new building, with a certified head teacher. At harvest time, Tom joined other children in helping gather in the crops, alongside their parents. Tom later became a farm labourer like his dad.

In 1892, Annie Schollick successfully applied for the post of headmistress at East Lydford, just four miles from Huxham. It was a tough post but, at least, she was back in a rural setting. Four years later Annie married Tom, who signed the marriage certificate stating he was a teacher. It is not known how the pair met and why, how and where Tom did his pupil-teacher training.

In 1899, Tom became assistant master to his wife, headmistress at St James’s and St Peter’s School, a Church of England school in the poor quarter of Soho. Their combined passion for education and social justice had become a missionary pursuit for them.

In 1902 the couple returned to a rural setting, this time at Wood Dalling in Norfolk. They found that the schoolhouse urgently needed repairing as very little money had been spent on it in the previous decade. They soon discovered that local farmers would remove pupils from school to work for them. When the Higdons raised these issues with the School Board it caused problems with the authorities and farmers – who practised their own form of class solidarity by always sticking together to keep down wages and conditions and who also did not take kindly to demands to close the school when illnesses such as whooping cough became epidemic.

But the new teachers became popular with the children and parents who appreciated their hard work, their generosity in spending their own money on boots and clothing for any pupils whose parents could not afford them and the general desire to improve the education and outlook of those under their charge.

Meanwhile, no one, friend or foe, suggested the Higdons were poor teachers.

In early 1906 the labourers across Norfolk were to assert their own increased spirit of independence. Led by George Edwards they formed the Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers’ and Small Holders’ Union. Early in 1907 a meeting was held in Wood Dalling and after the new branch was formed Tom Higdon became branch secretary. He then set off by bicycle to establish other branches across South Norfolk.

As tension increased between the Higdons and the school mangers the Norfolk Education Committee carried out in 1908 an inquiry, the results of which were inconclusive. The following year there were further arguments when Annie and Tom sought to close the school after a diphtheria outbreak.

Tom’s union work continued and in March 1910 he organised local labourers to win seats on the Parish Council at the expense of local farmers. This direct political challenge was never going to remain unanswered. There soon appeared a series of spurious charges by the school managers against the teachers who after a second inquiry were dismissed.

Local people were indignant. All but three parents petitioned the Education Committee to reinstate them. The two school managers nominated by the parish council protested strongly and wrote to the Committee resigning their positions. Protest letters were sent from the parish council and from the local branch of the Agricultural Labourers’ Union.

Whilst these efforts failed to get the Higdons reinstated it did lead to the Education Committee agreeing to offer them new posts. On December 31, 1911 the couple entered the small village of Burston to start work at the local school the following morning. Having failed to properly represent them at the inquiry, the Higdons refused to entertain the National Union of Teachers offer to pay for the transfer of their goods Burston.

The Higdons found that the school was in a dire strait. The newly arrived rector, whose early life is well covered by Jeffrey, the Reverend Charles Tucker Elland, was an arrogant man whose appointment as chairman of the school management board meant conflict was certain. Tucker demanded deference of his right to lead the community.

In a desire to restore old footpaths, repair bridges and make improvements to housing, Tom and other agricultural labourers stood against and beat Elland and local farmers at the 1913 parish council election.

But Elland and his supporters remained in control of the school management board. Annie was falsely accused of many things including lighting without permission a fire – used to children’s wet clothes  – and beating two Barnardo girls, despite her well-established pacifist principles. These two charges were disproved at the inquiry that was held by the Norfolk Education Authority but the Higdons were given three months’ notice after an accusation of discourtesy to the managers was accepted.

If the rector and his supporters were delighted with the outcome the school pupils and their parents were not content to let the Higdons down.

On 1 April, 1914, 66 of the 72 pupils had gone on strike. Lessons restarted on the village green.

An old workshop was found, no matter what the weather lessons could continue. Attempts to intimidate parents into sending their children to the official school flopped as their court fines were being paid by donations and they had a legal right to send their children to a school of their choice.

Once WWI began local farmers could not, thanks to a labour shortage, afford to dismiss farm labourers who sent their children to the new school, which few disputed was a good one.

As news spread of the strike the labour movement – particularly the National Union of Railwaymen, the Miners’ and the National Union of Agricultural Workers (NUAW) rallied to support the new school. Donations made it possible to pay the Higdons and build a new school with facilities better than the old one.

Officially opened on May 13, 1917 by Violet Potter, organiser of the original demonstration on April Fool’s Day 1914, the school lasted till 1939 when Tom died and Annie, who died in 1946, was too old to continue on her own. They are buried alongside each other in Burston churchyard.

The NUAW established the Strike School as a registered educational charity in 1949. In the early 80s when the NUAW merged with the TGWU the school became a museum. An annual rally was initiated in 1984 and in recent years this has attracted large crowds of over 3,000 people on the first Sunday in September.

Shaun Jeffrey is the secretary of the Burston Strike School and a member of the Great Yarmouth and District branch of Unite.

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