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The Village in Revolt. The Story of the Longest Strike in History. Shaun Jeffery. Review – the Burston School Strike.

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“…hard to recommend this thoroughly researched book on our labour movement more highly.”

The Village in Revolt. The Story of the Longest Strike in History. Shaun Jeffery. Higdon Press.2018.

On the first Sunday of September every year trade unionists, members of the Labour Party and other left-wing organisations, rally on Burston Village Green. Standing on the side is the Burston Strike School, now a Trust-run memorial. In the past years figures such as Audrey Wise, Tony Benn, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have spoken to the crowd. The march around the flat village lanes, a “candlestick” is both a present-day labour gathering, and to celebrate what the historian of the Farm Workers’ Union, Reg Groves called, a “microcosm of the rural war” (Sharpen the Sickle! 1948).

On the 13th of May 1917 there was a great labour movement gathering. A “Great Eastern Railway special charter train from London Liverpool Street” writes Shaun Jeffery in his Introduction. It had brought around a thousand people to Burston. As they paraded with two bands, amongst union banners from the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union, and National Union of Railwaymen, Labour political figures and Sylvia Pankhurst, joined villagers and the children who attended the school. The opening of the Burston Strike School drew people from London, Norwich and across the country.

Replacing a temporary structure used since the walk-out began in 1914 it bore an “engraved tablet” writes Shaun Jeffery, “recorded for perpetuity just why they had all come to be there.” “Mr T. Higdon and Mrs A.K. Higdon were unjustly dismissed from the Council School of this village on the 31st day of March 1914. This building, was erected by public subscription to protests against the action to provide a free school, to be a centre of rural democracy and a memorial to the villagers’ fight for Freedom.”

Village in Revolt tells the story of the Higdons, Tom and Annie, and the Burston school strike, including their adversary, the Reverend Charles Tucker Eland. Shaun Jeffery charts the fortunes of the ‘National’, the agricultural labourers’ union, (NALU) to which “Tom’s own life was to be eternally tied” against the backdrop of the rise of militant union action in the years running up to 1914. The story takes us to socialism, “For decades” Jeffery’s observes, “Socialists in Norwich had been making various attempts to gain support in the surrounding villages”. By 1913 the Independent Labour Party, by then part of the Labour Party in Parliament, would draw up a “Rural Programme” and MP George Roberts would attempt to get a wages board for agriculture.

Tom and Annie lives, and their career as schoolteachers, were bound up with protests against rural squalor and exploitation. Before Burston they had disputes with the education authorities over “illegal employment of boys by the local farmers during term time”, that is, a clash with the local “squireachy” of parson and landowners foreshadowed the conflicts after their 1911 appointment in Burston.

The reader will perhaps sometimes feel that the cause of the friction and “little altercation” between the Higdons and their – powerful – enemies was not always one-sided. Rebutting the idea that they did not accept outside guidance, they showed “openness to informed advice”. Yet “Any accusation that the Higdons did not suffer fools in position of power who served themselves…would certainly be a charge harder to refute.” Nincompoops amongst their adversaries abounded. That one of the first charges against them in Burston was “non-attendance at church” followed by the same Reverend Eland, the rector, complaining that Annie was “Lighting fires without permission” casts darkness on their adversary’s behaviour. It ended in claims that the Head Teacher, Tom had been “discourteous” to the Managers, and that Mrs Higdon had beaten two Barnardo girls with a cane.

The Children’s Strike.

The details of the dispute are the work of the book. The Higdons were sacked, April the 1st 1914 came, and the children paraded with banners and cards with the words, “We want our teachers Back”. “Neither Violet Potter, nor any of the other senior scholars involved in the strike, could remember who exactly came up with the idea of taking the action that they had embarked upon”.

These opening episodes in the dispute take us from the Norfolk fields to wider conflicts. School strikes were ‘in the air’ across the country and, Jeffery’s suggest can be seen as a way in which “pupils and parents sought to assert community control over provided education” – perhaps a lesson for today when anti-community Academy schools exist. This dimension may help to explain why the wider labour movement gave backing, from the newly founded NUR (1913), to the more directly concerned Agricultural workers. Nor does The Village in Revolt neglect the most obvious of backgrounds, the Great War. “Tom Higdon was no militarist warmonger, but like many Labour leaders, such as his friend George Edwards, he had come to the conclusion that there was no other alternative but to enter the war.”

After the Armistice ambitious plans for the Strike School and national reforms in its wake did not happen. Tom Higdon was disappointed that a “great upheaval did not take place”. Yet the First Trade Union School in England was honoured as “living monument to the struggle against rural tyranny and for democracy”. In the post-war years, “Supporters that the Higdons hadn’t fallen out with would still visit and address large audiences in the green in front of the school”. Despite hard work for the cause of the agricultural workers Tom never rose to prominence in the labour movement. The Rally was revived in the early 1980s and continues to draw large crowds each year.

Both as an absorbing narrative and history The Village in Revolt is an unqualified success. It is hard to recommend this thoroughly researched book on our labour movement more highly.

More information: THE VILLAGE IN REVOLT – NEW BURSTON BOOK

Written by Andrew Coates

August 27, 2019 at 11:12 am