Mick Ekers (Essex) on Burston strike school master Tom Higdon and labour activism between the wars

Mick Ekers visits Norfolk Record Office to research the life in politics of Tom Higdon, one of the two teachers at the heart of the famous Burston School Strike which lasted from 1914 to 1939.

The story of the Burston School Strike is quite well known. In 1914 Annie and Tom Higdon, two teachers in a village school in Norfolk, were sacked as a result of a campaign by the Reverend Eland, the local rector. His complaints to the education committee included manufactured allegations of physical abuse of the school children, and other trumped-up charges. The real reason was that Eland was incensed by the Higdons’ socialist politics, and was particularly enraged by Tom usurping his place as chair of the parish council. In protest at the removal of their much-loved teachers, almost all the school children went on strike, the case became a cause célèbre among the left, and a national fundraising campaign resulted in a permanent strike school being built in 1917.

Drawing of the strike school and photograph of Tom Higdon.
Fig 1. The strike school and its master. Click for larger image

During what is claimed to be the longest strike in history, the school continued in operation until Tom Higdon’s death in 1939. Existing histories largely focus on the events leading up to the strike and the building and establishment of the school, with minimal coverage of the final twenty years. Documentary evidence of those years is scanty, largely because the person who took over the Higdon’s cottage burnt almost all their correspondence and school records. Norfolk Record Office (NRO) holds the most comprehensive collection of material relating to the strike, including the minute books of the local district Labour Party, and parish and rural district councils. The bursary from the Society for the Study of Labour History enabled me to spend a fruitful week in Norfolk at the NRO, also giving me time to visit Burston itself and the public library in nearby Diss.

For the purposes of my MA dissertation I decided to focus on Tom Higdon’s political career. The school strike had freed him from any risk of losing his job because he was a socialist, and as Annie undertook most of the teaching, gave him plenty of time to immerse himself in rural politics. He became a ubiquitous and respected political figure in Norfolk, holding executive positions in the National Union of Agricultural Workers and the emerging Labour Party, and at times chairing the local Cooperative Society Management Board, and sitting on parish and rural district councils.

The activities of Tom and his contemporaries, as recorded in minute books, trade union and press reports and the occasional fragments of correspondence and recorded oral history provide a unique lens for studying a time of great change in the socialist movement. The NRO records illustrate the ups and downs of those turbulent times, from the excitement of mass trade union rallies to gloomy party meetings abandoned when fewer than six people attended. The minutes of the South Norfolk Labour Party (SNLP) were particularly valuable, recording conflicts between local divisions and head office, party and trade union priorities, and left and right-wing factions – as much a part of internal party politics then as now.  

Minutes of South Norfolk Labour Party concerning a threat by the Diss party to disaffiliate
Fig 2. South Norfolk Labour Party minutes reveal internal factionalism. Click for larger image

The stormy meeting of the SNLP Executive Committee (EC) meeting on 28 September 1928 is a prime example. The Diss branch had written a letter stating they were disaffiliating from the national party in protest at a report by H. Freeman, the paid election agent for South Norfolk parliamentary candidate George Young. In the report Freeman criticised the branch for allowing the sale of the communist Sunday Worker paper at their meetings. The EC roundly admonished Freeman for acting without consulting them, Tom Higdon moved that the report be withdrawn, and subsequent minutes show that the Diss party was persuaded to withdraw their disaffiliation.[1] Although Labour made considerable gains in the 1929 General election, forming a minority government, Young was defeated by the Tory candidate in South Norfolk. Higdon was highly critical of Young, who had only secured the nomination by offering to partly fund his campaign, saying that he was ‘not the man for the job in a rural division’.[2] Both Young and Freeman shortly resigned amidst grumbles over election expenses.

I was also pleased to discover some relevant correspondence which appears to have been overlooked by school-strike historians; a series of letters written to the Bishop of Norwich in 1925 regarding the amalgamation of the Burston and Shimpling parishes. Francis White, who replaced Eland as the Burston rector, adopted in public a conciliatory attitude towards the Higdons and their school. However his asides in one letter reveal the continuing alignment of the church with the establishment and the Tory party: ‘In 1922 we gave Mr Higdon and his party at the Parish Council Election such a beating that they have not been to any parish meetings since’ [my italics]. He notes that this year the elections went through in peace and harmony without any dissenting voices.  His colleague Wilson White, the rector of nearby Brockdish parish, also gives his opinion of the Higdons and the situation in Burston. He writes that he ‘did not think there would be any cantankerous opposition from the Burston political non-conformists’, and notes ‘I do not know much of Mrs Higdon, but what I have seen of her, I consider that she is a dangerous woman.”[3]

With my dissertation complete I still have a significant amount of unused material, which I am considering using as the basis of a PhD project, or possibly a biography of Tom Higdon. The release of the 1921 census next year promises to make a whole additional set of relevant data available, and I’m excited about returning to this story. I’m very grateful for the assistance I received from the SSLH, I must also record my sincere thanks to the staff at the NRO, who were particularly helpful given the Covid related access restrictions under which they had to operate.

Mick Ekers is studying history at the University of Essex

[1] NRO SO 242/1/1 South Norfolk Labour Party, Minutes of the General and Executive Committees, August 1918 – July 1932
[2] ibid
[3] NRO CNS/6/38, Diocese of Norwich, ‘Burston and Shimpling’ (Papers relating to proposed Union and Disunion of Benefices)

Picture of the entrance to the archive centre.
Fig 3. Norfolk Record Office. Photo: Mick Ekers

Image credits: all photographs used with permission
Fig 1. The Strike School and its Master, from NRO MC 31/70, 478X1 – Illustrated leaflet: ‘Burston School Strike and Evicted Glebe Tenants’, issued by the National Committee.

Fig 2. Diss Labour Party and the Sunday Worker, from NRO SO 242/1/1 South Norfolk Labour Party, Minutes of the General and Executive Committees, August 1918 July 1932, Executive Committee meeting, 28 September 1928

Fig 3. Norfolk Record Office, by Mick Ekers

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