The Burston Schoolchildren march in support of Kitty and Tom Higdon.
The longest strike in history was not staged by miners but by minors – the children of a small village in Norfolk.
On 1 April, 1914, pupils of the Burston village school, supported by their parents, took to the streets in protest at the dismissal of their teachers, Tom and Kitty Higdon.
The strike lasted for over 25 years.
‘There really can be no peace or victory for us which does not bring with it freedom for the countryside, liberty and life for the labourer and prosperity and plenty to his home and family. The labourer must henceforth take his place industrially, socially and politically with the best and foremost of the land. He must do this himself – by the force and power of his union. And he can!
– Schoolteacher Tom Higdon, quoted in The Labourer, January 1917.
In 1902, a Parliamentary Education Bill was introduced offering education to ‘working-class children’. ‘Education’ in this sense meant little more than instructing children as to their place in society, preparing them for service or factory/agricultural work.
Though it’s often omitted from modern performances, the 1848 children’s hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ contained a second verse that spoke directly to the discontent among the working classes: ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate / He made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.’ It was this sentiment that was felt to be of greatest benefit to the children.
But there were many educated Working- or Middle-class people who saw through the indoctrination and felt that every person, regardless of background, should be treated with equal respect – or rather, that a person’s breeding did not automatically guarantee them authority over ‘lower’ stock.
Photo: Kitty and Tom Higdon with their supporters. Kitty and Tom are seated.
Highly agricultural areas such as Norfolk were seen by the Agricultural Workers Union as ripe for recruitment.
Annie Katherine Schollick – known as ‘Kitty’ – was born in 1865 in Cheshire. Tom Higdon was born in 1869, the son of a Somerset farm labourer.
The pair were married in 1896 and eventually moved to Norfolk in 1902, the same year that the Education Act came into force.
They were proud of their beliefs as both Christians (Primitive Methodists) and Socialists, beliefs that made them idealists who hoped to use education as a means to making a better life for the next generation, rather in conflict with the thinking behind the Education Act as a means of preserving the status quo.
The Primitive Methodists were active Christians who fought for the low paid farm workers and their families and helped them to form their labour Unions.
The Higdons began teaching at Wood Dalling County School, near Aylsham in Norfolk, on 14 April, 1902, with Kitty appointed as headmistress and Tom as assistant teacher.
Almost immediately they found themselves at odds with the establishment, specifically the farm-owning managers of the school. In the view of the Higdons, the school was squalid and unsuitable for children to inhabit.
Furthermore, the land owners insisted on pulling children out of school whenever the seasons dictated that they needed cheap labour. Tom Higdon’s frustration with one land owner resulted in Tom being fined 40 shillings for assault.
By 1911, the Higdons found they were fighting a losing battle as the school managers refused to make concessions for the good of the children. The Norfolk Education Committee arranged that they be transferred to another Norfolk school, in the village of Burston, near Diss.