Published on 10 May 2018
Student Matthew Thomas is researching the longest strike in British history – organised by a group of school children.
A History undergraduate at Sunderland, Matthew received a bursary from the Society for the Study of Labour History, enabling him to visit Norfolk Record Office and collect important documents regarding the Burston School Strike, the longest strike in British history (1914-1939).
Matthew's research unearthed documents including a copy of the school log book which describes the conduct of the school and gives details of the attendance rates and disciplinary action under the headmistress Annie Higdon, wife of Labour activist Tom Higdon.
The findings from this research will be revealed in Matthew's final year dissertation - a study of the role of school strikes in labour history.
As well as Burston, Matthew’s study also includes the local Washington/Usworth school strike of 1917; strikes which were different in their execution, but had similar aims.
Matthew, from Washington, said: “School strikes are under-researched events in history. It is the purpose of my study to determine whether the children themselves were political activists in organising such events or if they were simply an extension of Labour strikes into politicised childhood.
“The proximity to the First World War will be a particular focal point, considering such themes as the development of state intervention, welfare legislation and the role of children/youth within the political sphere. Overall, my work seeks to establish the significance of events such as school strikes as well as the role children play within politics, whether they choose so or not.”
He added: “The research I was able to carry out in Norfolk provided invaluable documents towards my dissertation. Overall, this has contributed immensely to my understanding of the Burston School Strike and Labour, with particular regard to local history and government. Without this contribution to my work, I would not be able to accurately contrast with my work on school strikes in my local area.”
The material helped provide Matthew with the necessary context for the dispute between the local authorities and the Labour-supporting headmistress, as well as the children who backed her and voted in favour of the Burston Strike School.
Matthew also accessed the Norfolk Education Committee minutes, newspaper articles, pamphlets and booklets, which all provided fascinating accounts of the strike: its motivations, politics, and the ways in which these affected local government and industrial relations in general.
Dr Andre Keil, Lecturer in Modern European History, said: “Matthew’s project is very exciting as it explores an understudied topic in Labour history. Children and youths were always an important part in working-class communities but their role in labour politics is not fully understood. His study will certainly shed light on this exciting historical question.
“Matthew is a great student who showed a lot of initiative and ambition. The fact that he was awarded a bursary as an undergraduate student – something that doesn’t happen very often – highlights what our students are able to achieve.”
He added: “As lecturers in the History team we always strive to support our students to fulfil their potential and ambitions. In the last years, we had a few students whose achievements were recognised by scholarly societies, such as the North East Labour History Society or the Society for the Study of Labour History. Many of these students have moved on to do postgraduate research degrees.”
Matthew plans to continue his research in this area, with a focus on rural experiences during World War One and struggles with local government. He will begin a Masters Degree after he graduates in the summer.
Commenting on his university experience at Sunderland, Matthew said: “Everything on this History course has been amazing, even the things I’ve found difficult were at least interesting and the academic staff in particular helped my progression tremendously.
“Having worked as School Coordinator at the university alongside my course has been an incredible opportunity to truly experience the university at all levels.”
Usworth Grange Primary School, Washington, Strike 1917.
On 18 March, 1917; 1,600 miners in the Washington and Usworth Districts announced their children would go on strike. Three quarters of the children refused to attend school and those that did attend were called blacklegs and scallywags.
Shifts in the local pits had been reduced with an average income of 26 shillings a week above the relief fund threshold of 24 shillings. Food prices were soaring and as most mining families were large, 26 shillings were not sufficient to buy enough food.
The local authority at the time was refusing to put the Feeding of the Children Act into operation which required them to give children a meal at school.
The strike highlighted the desperation of the suffering families. The strike ended two days later with a Deputation in Durham agreeing that families earning a basic income of 27 shillings or less per week were eligible for relief fund. This meant that no family working in the Washington and Usworth Pits would have less than £2 1s per week income, and that the Feeding of School Children Act would not be necessary.
The Burston School Strike was the longest strike in British history, running from 1914 to 1939. The children of the school in the Norfolk village of Burston went on strike, led by Violet Potter, after their teachers, Annie and Tom Higdon, were dismissed by the school’s management committee. Annie Higdon was headmistress and a progressive educator. She objected to the conditions in the school and the landowners’ continuing claiming of the children for farmwork. Tom Higdon was assistant teacher and an organiser for the agricultural workers’ trade union.
When their teachers were sacked the children marched round the village with placards saying “we want our teachers back” and refused to return to the school. The Higdons established, with the support of the children’s parents, an alternative school on the Green. By 1917 the labour and trade union movement had raised enough money for a new school building (now a museum).
Every September the Burston Strike School Rally Committee, made up of trade unionists and community activists, organises a celebration of the strike on the first Sunday in September.
The treatment of the Higdons united the working class community – first in Burston and the surrounding area, but soon the solidarity spread throughout the land. Money was collected, public meetings were held all over England, and labour movement heroes, including Sylvia Pankhurst and George Lansbury, came to Burston to demonstrate their support.
The dismissal of the Higdons was closely related, in time and cause, to the growth of the agricultural workers’ union that challenged the appalling working and living conditions of farm labourers and their families across the East of England.
IMAGES provided courtesy of The Burston School Strike.