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‘She lit the fire’

101 years on, the Burston Strike School rally is a celebration of everything that is positive about the labour movement, writes STEVE SWEENEY

“There really can be no peace or victory for us which does not bring with it freedom for the countryside, liberty and life for the labourer and prosperity and plenty to his home and family.

“The labourer must henceforth take his place industrially, socially and politically with the best and foremost of the land. He must do this himself – by the force and power of his union. And he can!” – Schoolteacher Tom Higdon, quoted in The Labourer, January 1917.

The quiet village of Burston near Diss in Norfolk is the unlikely setting of the longest strike in British labour history.

The Burston Strike School stands as a living monument to working-class education and the struggle against rural tyranny.

Lasting from April 1914 to August 1939, the strike was led by schoolchildren in support of Tom and Kitty Higdon, progressive teachers who ran into trouble with the local clergy and landowners for espousing socialism and challenging their authority by organising labourers to stand in the parish elections.

The clergy played a prominent role in many rural communities and were often in charge of education and the running of the parish, seeing themselves as being responsible for their flock.

The Rector of Burston, the Reverend Charles Tucker Eland, was no different and saw it as his right to rule over the local community. However this was to bring him into conflict with the Higdons who moved into the area around the same time as Eland.

His £580-a-year salary was in stark contrast to the living conditions of the people of Burston, many of whom were agricultural workers receiving an annual wage of just £35 and lived in constant fear of being evicted from their homes by wealthy landowners.

Failure by the authorities to improve conditions both at the school and in the community motivated Tom Higdon to stand for election to the parish council and he encouraged other villagers, largely agricultural workers and labourers, to do the same.

When they won, with Tom Higdon heading the list, ousting Reverend Eland and the rest of the Establishment from their positions of power, the authorities sacked Kitty.

The reason given for Kitty’s dismissal was that she had broken the rules by lighting a fire in the school to dry the children’s damp and rain-soaked clothing without permission from the school’s management board – headed by Eland and made up of Burston landowners.

The children walked out in solidarity, refusing to return, and held their classes in a marquee on the village green. They led a march around the village holding placards with “We Want Our Teachers Back” and a banner displaying the word “Justice.”

In 1917, following a national campaign and donations from the labour movement, a new makeshift school was established on the green, with George Lansbury and Sylvia Pank­hurst present at the opening.

Violet Potter, who led the school strike, said: “With joy and thankfulness I declare this school open to be forever a school of freedom.” The children remained on strike from April 1914 until just prior to the outbreak of the second world war in 1939.

The authorities attempted to crush the strike by punishing the families of those children who attended the strike school. Many of them were sacked and had their homes ransacked while 18 families were taken to court for not sending their children to an official state school.

However the community rallied round and the fines were paid through collections made outside the courtrooms. The authorities soon realised their attempts were futile and in 1920 Reverend Eland left Burston.

Tom Higdon was Norfolk County secretary of the National Union of Agricultural Workers until 1938 and those links have continued firstly with the TGWU and now Unite who are Burston trustees and organisers of the rally, which is supported by London, East and South-east TUC and a range of trade unions and progressive organisations.

In 2015 Jeremy Corbyn addressed the crowds as the village green saw record numbers less than a week before he won the Labour leadership contest and this years event will hear from shadow chancellor John McDonnell, Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail, RMT leader Mick Cash and former Sertuc regional secretary Megan Dobney.

The march, led by the RMT brass band, follows the route taken by the children and pauses to remember the Higdons, buried in Burston churchyard.

On its return to the village green, visitors can enjoy the many trade union and progressive stalls from NEU, NASUWT, CWU, RMT, PCS, Unison and Unite to Stop the War, Cuba Solidarity, the Communist Party, the Labour Party and of course the Morning Star.

And no trip to Burston would be complete without a visit to the GMB King’s Lynn No 1 Branch stall with Dave Dennis and Denise Lawrence kindly feeding the crowds with burgers, hot dogs and a very welcome cuppa.

Burston is a celebration of everything that is positive about the labour movement — people power, solidarity and a show of strength from schoolchildren mobilising and taking action to defend teachers against the ruling classes and the challenging of power through organising collectively.

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