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New re­search re­veals the full story of Bri­tain’s long­est strike

EDP Norfolk - - EDP NORFOLK MAGAZINE - WORDS: Rowan Man­tell

All out! New in­for­ma­tion about Burston’s fa­mous strike school

The tiny Nor­folk vil­lage of Burston, near Diss, is fa­mous for the long­est strike in his­tory. In 1914 chil­dren left lessons in a protest against their teach­ers be­ing dis­missed – and didn’t re­turn for 25 years.

The clash be­tween teach­ers An­nie and Tom Hig­don and the school man­agers has in­spired plays, songs, doc­u­men­taries and a full-length film.

Now Shaun Jef­fery, a trustee of the Burston Strike School Museum, has re­searched and

writ­ten a com­pre­hen­sive ac­count of the ex­tra­or­di­nary story, in­clud­ing a wealth of newly dis­cov­ered in­for­ma­tion.

The Vil­lage in Re­volt: The Story of the Long­est Strike in His­tory opens with the early lives of Tom and An­nie and traces their his­tory and in­flu­ence right through to the 21st cen­tury.

Landscape gar­dener Shaun, of Bec­cles, first came across the Strike Museum when he started work and joined the suc­ces­sor of Tom Hig­don’s trade union. “The Burston Re­bel­lion was a re­volt born in the fields and fought by those that toiled in them,” says Shaun.

An­nie and Tom be­lieved their poverty-stricken ru­ral pupils should have a de­cent ed­u­ca­tion but were thwarted by those in charge of Nor­folk vil­lage schools.

“I’ve been able to add a con­sid­er­able amount of new de­tail to ev­ery as­pect of the story but the re­ally in­ter­est­ing as­pects have been about the ori­gins of Tom and An­nie, and their lives be­fore their ar­rival in Burston,” says Shaun.

He dis­cov­ered An­nie’s uncle, a ser­vant, in­her­ited a for­tune from an em­ployer – help­ing her ac­cess a good ed­u­ca­tion and mean­ing she was al­ways the head­teacher while Tom was her as­sis­tant.

The cou­ple loved the coun­try­side and ar­rived in Wood Dalling, near Reep­ham, in 1902.

They were hor­ri­fied at the squalid con­di­tions at the school and wor­ried about the chil­dren work­ing il­le­gally on lo­cal farms. How­ever, sev­eral school man­agers were farm­ers and their com­plaints cre­ated ten­sions. In 1911 they were trans­ferred to Burston and, af­ter a cou­ple of years of try­ing to keep good re­la­tions with the new rec­tor and other mem­bers of the school board, their com­plaints about un­hy­gienic, cold and damp con­di­tions led to more clashes with school man­agers. An­nie Hig­don was crit­i­cised for not seek­ing permission be­fore lighting fires to dry the clothes of chil­dren who had walked miles through the rain. And again the Hig­dons were con­fronted by landown­ers who val­ued child labour over ed­u­ca­tion.

De­spite be­ing pop­u­lar with pupils and par­ents, pay­ing for food and cloth­ing for the poor­est chil­dren – who were en­cour­aged to view lessons as a plea­sure, not a chore – An­nie and Tom were dis­missed in April 1914.

Their shocked pupils marched through the vil­lage with hastily hand-made plac­ards declar­ing ‘We Want Our Teach­ers Back.’ Sixty-six of the 72 chil­dren en­rolled at the school re­fused to re­turn to lessons – a boy­cott which lasted for 25 years.

In­stead, Tom and An­nie opened their own school on the vil­lage green, funded by do­na­tions from trade unions and the Labour move­ment. Burston’s two schools co­ex­isted un­til 1939, when Tom died. An­nie con­tin­ued alone for a few months but, aged 76, closed the school a few months later.

To­day the Burston Strike School is a free museum, open daily. The an­nual Burston Strike School Rally, on Sun­day Septem­ber 1 this year, cel­e­brates the legacy of An­nie and Tom with high-pro­file speak­ers, mu­sic, stalls and en­ter­tain­ment.

“Peo­ple from all round the world come to Burston to visit the school,” said Shaun. “But it is what the school rep­re­sents and com­mem­o­rates that is ar­guably its most im­por­tant legacy be­cause it is a story that con­tin­ues to in­spire peo­ple to take ac­tion against injustice.”

‘It is a story that con­tin­ues to in­spire peo­ple to take ac­tion against injustice’

The Vil­lage in Re­volt: the story of the long­est strike in his­tory, by Shaun Jef­fery, is pub­lished by Hig­don Press for £14.99. burston­strikescho­ol.co.uk

Denise Bradley

LEFT: The Burston Strike School cen­te­nary event. Chil­dren from Tivet­shall and Burston vil­lage schools and lo­cal res­i­dents tak­ing part

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