Cat no. 716

Yesterday's Witness: The Burston School Strike

Running time44:38 Colour Sound 1974 Burston, Norfolk

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The memories of the children who attended the Burston Strike School.



Burston, in Norfolk, is the home of a modern railway and signal box. Young children play in a recreation field. Newspaper headlines from 1914 read: 'Children Strike Because Of Teachers' Dismissal. A Village School Boycotted. School Strike At Burston'.

The film examines the Higdons' early teaching careers at Wood Dalling in North Norfolk where they worked from 1903. Annie Higdon was a qualified teacher, her husband Tom was her assistant. They were both Socialists. There are stills of the former school at Wood Dalling with school buildings as part of a farm. Ted Williams, a former pupil walks around the farm. Sitting in a grain store he recalls the way that the Higdon's ran the school. He remembers them as very kind people, aware that many of their pupils were from poor families.

Sydney Paine, sitting in his fireside chair, recalls memories of the school. There is a still of him as a schoolboy and of the school log book and a school group. Talking whilst standing in the street, Annie Springall remembers how Mrs. Higdon taught the girls practical skills. Tom Barnes recalls a nature ramble that is recorded in the log book. Ted Williams recalls Tom Higdon's opposition to children being kept away from school to help with the harvest. One confrontation with a local farmer led to him receiving a black eye. George and Hettie Ramsden add their memories of the school.

In this country and village landscape, including the Church, the differences between the Higdon's approach and that of the local school managers are large. The Higdons believed in a wide education; the school curriculum at the time catered sole for teaching the '3Rs' and religion. Tom Higdon's socialism antagonised local farmers as he campaigned for the rights of farm workers. Annie Higdon constantly complained about the poor condition of the school. Part of one of her school reports was censored.

In 1911, the Higdons were moved to Burston. Children play in the school and its playground close by to the the village and the Church. Sitting in a chair, Violet Potter recalls Annie Higdon. Marjorie Lyng remembers that school hours were not always strictly observed. If someone wanted to learn, Annie Higdon would teach them, irrespective of time. Whilst a tractor works the field the commentary recalls that farm workers were treated poorly. Wages were around 12 shilling a week, housing and working conditions were poor. May Wilby recalls Tom Higdon's involvement. Arthur Moore, a young farm hand at the time, recalls that in 1913 Tom Higdon organised a group of farm workers to stand for election to the Parish Council. They were elected with Higdon himself topping the poll. This meant that there was no place for the local parson, the Reverend Charles Ealand. This was the start of the Higdons' problems in Burston.

Violet Potter and May Wilby recall the response. Accusations were made against Annie Higdon for beating two Barnardos girls, fostered in the village. Violet Potter is adamant that these charges were fabricated and that the girls were paid to tell their story. Barney Ford, standing outside his bungalow remembers the incident. The Higdons were poorly supported by the rather naive Nation Union of Teachers and the tribunal went against them.

On April 1st, 1914, the Burston School Strike began, led by thirteen year old Violet Potter. Another pupil describes the action that was taken; a meeting on the village green and a march through the village. Placards read: 'We want justice. We want out teachers back'. Parents joined the protest. Classes were held on the village green. Parents were summoned to Diss Magistrates Court for their children's non-attendance at the County School. The village marched to the Court. Jack Aldridge, a parent at the time, recalls the events. He was one of eighteen parents fined that day.

The carpenter's shop was donated as the new school building. Jack Aldridge recalls that after leaving the village, he continued to send his two children, Charles and Elsie, to the Strike School. Wyn Leader recalls joining the school later when her family moved from Ipswich. Her father had already bee organising collections for the school. The protest included a boycott of the Church. On Sundays meetings were held on the village green. These were a combination of religious and political gatherings; Tom Higdon was a lay preacher.

The meetings were visited by George Edwards of the Agricultural Labourers Union, by Ben Tillett of the National Union of Mineworkers, and by Tom Mann, who had been involved in the Dockers' Strike of 1889. George Lansbury, the pacifist, also became a supporter. Philip Snowden, later the first Labour Chancellor visited the village along with Sylvia Pankhurst. There was support from the National Union of Mineworkers. A delegation visited one Sunday. There are stills of them marching through the village. Wyn Leader recalls some of the pressure that was placed on them, particularly those who farmed Church land. Many of these were evicted. Marjorie Lyng remembers how the issue split families. The School Strike became a national issue, even during World War I.

There was a meeting in Leytonstone on 23rd February, 1916 hosted by the London Trade Unionists Committee. Speakers included the Higdons and George Lansbury. A new school building was built from donations, many donations coming from Trades Unions and from branches of the Independent Labour Party. On May 13th, 1917 Violet Potter opened the new school. Standing outside, she recalls the occasion. From behind the counter of the Burston Stores, Tommy Potter remembers the school. Wyn Leader recalls that her parents' ambition for her was that she should not become a domestic servant. At the Strike School she learned shorthand and typing. During the General Strike there were children from the Bulwell Colliery near Nottingham lodging in the village whom attended the Strike School.

The former pupils continue to remember the school as it continued through the 1920s and 1930s. Granville Guy (?) a London headmaster, recalls efforts to see the school continue but Annie Higdon, now quite elderly was reluctant to relinquish control. She died in 1939 shortly after her husband, Tom. They are buried together.

Background Information:

The elementary school curriculum at this time was concerned solely with teaching reading, writing, arithmetic and religious instruction. In 1894 an elementary school in Nottingham attempted to introduce French and Science for older pupils. They were forbidden to do so. The decision was upheld in Court.In an article in the Eastern Daily Press in 1984, Arthur Moore recalls learning photography and Esperanto at the strike school. In this film the red roses in the garden of Arthur's bungalow can bee seen in bloom. These were planted to show his own socialist views.Tom Potter was named after Tom Higdon.

Featured People:

Annie Higdon; Tom Higdon; Tom Barnes; Sydney Paine; George Ramsden; Hettie Ramsden; Annie Springall; Ted Williams; Charles Aldridge; Elsie Aldridge; Barney Ford; Wyn Leader; Marjorie Lyng; Tommy Potter; Violet Potter; May Wilby; Jack Aldridge; Arthur Moore; Reverend Charles Ealand; Granville Guy (?); George Edwards; Ben Tillett; Tom Mann; George Lansbury; Philip Snowden, Chancellor of the Exchequer; Sylvia Pankhurst

Featured Organisations:

Agricultural Labourers Union; National Union of Mineworkers; Nation Union of Teachers; London Trade Unionists Committee; Independent Labour Party

Featured Buildings:

Burston Church; Burston School; Burston Strike School; Wood Dalling Church; The former Wood Dalling School; Diss Magistrates Court

BBC Television

Stephen Peet

Youseff Aziz

John Barnes

Brian Watkins

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