Longest strike in British history, a century ago

This video from England says about itself:

8 April 2014

A video to record the centenary events at the Burston Strike School in April 2014. The strike was the longest in history (1914-1939).

By Sue Turner in Britain:

Remembering the Burston strike

Thursday 21st August 2014

In the centenary year of the longest-running strike in British history, SUE TURNER looks back on how events unfolded

THE charm of the windmill, the bridge over the stream and the pink-washed cottages of Burston hid lives of grinding poverty.

Rural Norfolk was under the control of large landowners and the church, with agricultural labourers raising their families in squalid tied cottages on a weekly wage of 12s 6d.

Teachers Kitty and Tom Higdon had been removed from their previous school because of clashes with the authorities over Tom’s work organising for the Agricultural Labourers Union, and Kitty’s demands for better maintenance of the school.

Having transferred unwillingly to Burston in 1911, they faced the same problems and dealt with them in the same way.

Tom continued his union work and in 1913 encouraged labourers to stand for the parish council elections. The result was a landslide victory for them with Tom top of the poll and the rector at the bottom.

Kitty too fell foul of the rector, a bigot, who told her: “The place of the schoolmistress is in church and her children with her,” despite the fact that the school was not a church school, and Kitty, like most of her pupils, was a Methodist.

So, not Church of England, like the rector.

She failed to show the correct level of subservience to the gentry and put the needs of her pupils first.

For example, she would light fires without permission to dry the children’s clothes before their long walk home.

At that time education for working-class children meant indoctrinating them to accept their place in society as manual workers and to support church, king and country, but as Christian socialists the Higdons believed that education was a way of improving life for the next generation, and that children have individual talents to develop.

They took their pupils on rambles and taught them French, Spanish and Esperanto.

They showed them how to use a typewriter and sewing machine and bought them clothes and regular treats.

This was all too radical and subversive to allow, so trumped-up charges were brought against the Higdons and they were sacked, amid campaigns and protests on their behalf.

The children, with their parents’ backing, decided to strike and the night before there was a rousing meeting on the village green chaired by one George Durbridge, fish-seller, poacher and Tory, who exhorted the crowd to stand firm with the Higdons with these unforgettable words: “Stick like bloody shit to a blanket!”

The next morning the children marched around the village with banners aloft and lessons were held on the green until a carpenter’s shop became available.

The year 1911 was a period of general industrial unrest, with dockers, miners and railwaymen fighting against wage reductions.

In this context, a wave of school strikes had swept across Britain affecting over 60 towns and cities. Children abandoned their lessons and marched through the streets and held picket lines to protest against caning, homework and school fees so the children’s action in Burston was not so surprising.

Support for the Strike School snowballed, with national fundraising, publicity in the radical press and rallies in the village attended by Tom Mann, Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury.

The NUR, miners’ unions, trades councils and co-operative societies raised funds and a new Strike School was built.

Parents were fined 2s 6d for their children’s non-attendance at the council school but these costs were easily met by collections outside the court.

Families were evicted from their allotments to try to break the strike, but to no avail.

Only six pupils attended the council school with 66 in the Strike School.

Tom said: “The strike has come into tangible grip with all the petty tyrannies, oppressions, religious hypocrisies and class privileges which exist in country districts.”

The Strike School continued until his death in 1939. It had given the children of Burston the usual curriculum plus some unusual extras — trips to trade union rallies, May Day celebrations, protests against the execution of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti and the company of six Nottinghamshire miners’ children during the 1926 general strike.

The solidarity of the villagers and their supporters against the politically motivated dismissal of their teachers was impressive.

They challenged the old rural order — the authority of landowners, the Church of England and the judiciary.

The struggle continues today for trade union rights, meaningful education and international solidarity.

This year’s Burston strike school rally will be held on Sunday, September 7 at 10.45am, Church Green, Burston, near Diss, Norfolk.

IAN MANBORDE argues that the radical past embodied in the Burston strike school should inspire future solutions: here.

A BUMPER CROWD of thousands packed out the annual Burston strike school commemoration yesterday, with many first-timers flocking to the celebration of working-class solidarity. The mass rally in the Norfolk village heard from Labour leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn, who praised the memory of strike teachers Kitty and Tom Higdon: here.

9 thoughts on “Longest strike in British history, a century ago

  1. What a charming story. I’m glad to see this bit of history is being remembered. The strike was started by the children! What courage to take a stand at their age and in that era.


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  7. Monday 28th August 2017

    posted by Morning Star in Features

    Trade unionists can learn valuable lessons in community solidarity from the longest strike in British history, writes CHRIS SMITH

    WHAT lessons does the longest strike in British history have for modern trade unionists, teachers and students? This question is particularly relevant in today’s world of the “gig economy” and business models in the digital sphere, amid falling union membership and all round general assaults on the principles of collectivism and solidarity.

    Burston teaches us that strikes are not the only thing that matters.

    This might seem a counter-intuitive starting point when it comes to celebrating the history of “the Burston Strike School,” but the greatest inspiration to be drawn from this historic event comes from examining how exactly the strike was maintained for 25 years.

    It wasn’t by burning socialist conviction or the waving of placards. It was achieved through strength of solidarity in the local community; this one struggle struck a chord with a deeply felt sense of injustice against many elements of life.

    Solidarity was created, nurtured and maintained by that most simple but elusive of phenomena: human relationships.

    And it is this focus on how to create those positive relationships across communities, networks and political divides that is where the Burston school can be of most inspiration to modern educators and trade unionists.

    It was the children and parents of Burston school who took strike action against their local education board — which was tied closely to the local church and landlords in a system reminiscent of the feudal system, as was the way of agrarian Norfolk in the early 1900s — in protest at the dismissal of local teacher Kitty Higdon by refusing to attend the local school and instead creating their own alternative school.

    This would never have happened if on the most basic and human level the people of Burston did not care for and have a connection with Kitty and her husband, as well as their fellow teacher at the same strike school, Tom.

    High political ideals and social theory come a very distant second to the potency and importance of a caring relationship with colleagues, neighbours and friends.

    For trade unions facing years of falling memberships, there is certainly a lesson in this.

    Talk to your colleagues about “the alienation of labour caused by an exploitative capitalist wealth extractor” and if you don’t receive a blank stare, send me a message explaining how you did it.

    Invite colleagues to the pub for a drink after work to blow off some steam and hopefully you will encounter a more enthusiastic response.

    The key then is turning words into action, of course, but take heart from knowing that small groups of determined people in rooms together are among those who have changed the world.

    We need to avoid the great trade unionist folly of preaching to the converted. Entire communities need to be engaged, not just the already engaged, if we want to change the world meaningfully.

    Teachers are a case in point here. The recent amalgamation of the NUT and ATL is an excellent and necessary development, but it will not meet its potential if we neglect our relationships with those outside our trade union family — in our specific case, those members who are currently categorised as “inactive.”

    Teachers possess an unrivalled position of trust within their communities and are respected by parents and students in a way that politicians and even other whitecollar professionals like journalists, bankers and lawyers can only envy.

    If we want to make sure that the education system we work in is preparing students for the wider world once they leave our care it is parents, children and communities we need to be talking to.

    So to all attending the Burston celebration this weekend (I assume all reading this will have dropped all other plans and be racing to Norfolk as soon as they put the paper down) here is where you come in.

    Invite people to come with you; especially that mate who you know will never vote Labour but can be sold on the virtue of a day in the country hearing bands, enjoying good company and serious conversation held along with quality local food and drink.

    If any event can inspire a respect for the virtue of collective endeavour and solidarity, it is the story of how children so attached to their teachers were willing to refuse to be taught by anybody else.

    To the organisers of the event: keep up the brilliant work and let’s make this year’s Burston Strike School Rally the biggest celebration to date — to remind everyone that “normal for Norfolk” is a radical history and a present that others should hope to emulate.

    Chris Smith is a member of the NUT’s young teachers national organising forum from Norwich. You can follow him on Twitter @chriswriteshere. For more information about the Burston Strike School Rally visit http://burstonstrikeschool.co.uk/rally2017.



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