New research reveals the full story of Britain’s longest strike
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
LEFT: The Burston Strike School centenary event. Children from Tivetshall and Burston village schools and local residents taking part