26 September 2009

The Burston Rebellion

By Liam Carroll

Every year on the first Sunday in September, people from all over Britain and the world descend on the small quiet and picturesque village of Burston in South Norfolk, a few miles north of Diss. Why?

As the EDP reported on September 7, they gather to commemorate the longest strike in British history; not a conventional strike of industrial workers, but a strike by schoolchildren against the school authorities.

The story begins when Mr and Mrs Higdon came to Burston in 1911 as head teachers. Not only were they very popular teachers, they were also social reformers. In those days the parish was ruled and controlled by the farmers, the gentry and the priest, although the majority of the voting population were farm labourers and craftsmen.

In those days farmers would take the children out of school to pick stones out of the fields for little or no payment. Such was the nature of society. The Higdons, however, tried to put a stop to these practices. Besides running the school, they would meet with the villagers and impress upon them the fact that, as the democratic majority in their village, they could run the village themselves.

Within a year or two, the Higdons had successfully encouraged the parishioners to take democratic control of the parish. This however offended the authorities, and a farmer's daughter at the school then claimed she was hit by one of the teachers. This gave the education authorities a reason to remove them from their position. Subsequently one of the students, Violet Potter, convinced all the school children to stop attending.

Due to the fact the children were not attending a state school many of the parents were taken to court and fined a large sum. This proved to be a great hardship as most of them were poorly paid, however they were adamant that they would not accept the removal of their teachers. Subsequently the village carpenter who had a small room on the green renovated it and offered it as a school for the Higdons to teach in.

In order to keep it running, letters were sent to trade unions all over the world seeking support for the school. Funds came in from every corner of the globe to pay salaries and maintain the facilities. The school ran successfully despite the fact that even the National Union of Teachers objected to this situation. The strike eventually ended with the death of Mr Higdon, and the children went back to the state school which had lain empty for 30 years.

The annual commemoration of the strike, the Burston Rally, always has a National and International speaker of high standing. It has stalls, from trade unions to Amnesty International, as well as having cakes, a beer-tent, second hand books and music.

The carpenters shop has become a museum containing artefacts and booklets about the strike. The external walls are made of engraved bricks from all over the world; sent by those groups and individuals who supported the strike. Significant among them is one from Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, whose involvement with East Anglia went beyond support for the strike school, for he also gave all the profits from a book printed in England to an anarchist commune in Suffolk.

What is exceptional about this strike is that it was instituted and carried out by children between the ages of 7 to 12 years. Their awareness of the social significance of what these two exemplary teachers in this small rural village were trying to achieve at such an early time is evident in this remarkable strike.

Please visit the museum which commemorates this unique place in our Norfolk history (a key is available in a nearby house).

This article is based on the work of Colin Phillips.

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