Monday, January 03, 2011


It is obvious that the prescribed way out of our economic troubles will anger the public in ways which the powerful will not be able to control. There are limits to how far people will undergo austerity before they decide that enough is enough.

What was so inspiring about the recent protests was that they were led by the very people who are supposed not to be interested in politics: the young. Not just A-level or university students, but younger secondary and primary school pupils. Maybe we have learned that these are the most purely political people. Untarnished by ideology, children and young people can see most clearly what is right and what is wrong.

This article from the Eastern Daily Press is typical:

Placards saying “Dumbledore would never let this happen” and “these men have Eton our futures” were displayed during the protest yesterday and passers-by were urged to sign petitions against the tuition fees increase, cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowance, and the end of transport subsidies for sixth form students in Norfolk.

Children and teenagers from all over England made the same point, though it must be said that young people in Norfolk have a certain track-record when it comes to refusing to know one's place. Readers who are unfamiliar with East Anglian history may not know the great story I'm about to tell, so I shall whet your appetites with a quiz. Who was responsible for the longest-running strike in British history? Coalminers, perhaps? Dockers? Transport workers? Journalists? All these are plausible, but all wrong. It was, in fact, a bunch of school-children.

In 1902, the Conservative Government passed the Education Act, which passed into statute the obligation for local authorities to educate working class children. While apparently progressive, the aim of the Act was to teach children their place in society - in other words, to maintain the status quo. At that time, rural East Anglian was divided sharply along class lines, with a few powerful landowners renting their land to farmers and managing the running of the local community.

Into this society stepped Tom and Kitty Higdon, two school teachers who had moved to Norfolk from London. They were Christian Socialists, opposed to a system which they saw as a tool for empowering the elite, and dedicated to broadening the minds of ordinary children.

When they arrived at the small school in Burston, near Diss, they had already been kicked out of one Norfolk village for upsetting vested interests. They found at Burston a school which was insanitory, which set the expectations of children at the barest minimum (boys were to be farmhands, girls domestic servants), and from which pupils were seized, mid-lesson, by farmers who needed free labour. The Higdons knew from experience that this was a life shared by most poor children across England. One morning, when a group of children arrived at school soaked to the skin after walking for miles in the rain, Kitty Higdon lit a fire in the hearth to dry their clothes and hair.

The school's management board, made up of landowners and the local rector, sensed trouble. The Higdons were challenging the divisions which they claimed were the natural order. They charged Kitty on a trumped-up charge of not asking permission before she lit the fire. Tom's landslide victory over the rector in a parish council election in 1912 was the final straw, and the board referred the Higdons to the local education authority. They were found guilty of discourtesy towards management, and ordered to leave the school.

What the management board had not counted on was the sympathy and support the Higdons would get from pupils and parents. They had vocally sided with labourers and their families in local disputes, and the people of Burston were in no doubt that they wanted their children taught by the Higdons, not a teacher who had been shipped in by the board. When the new teacher arrived on 1 April 1914, she found an empty classroom with the words "We are on strike" written on the blackboard.

Outside, a girl called Violet Potter led her fellow pupils on a march through the village high street. The children carried drums, trumpets and placards, and the scene resembled a great carnival. The management board thought it was an April Fool's prank. But Violet led her young comrades and their parents to a marquee on the village green, where the Higdons had set up a make-do school. Of 72 children, 66 chose the Higdons over the Council school, even though many parents knew they would face the sack or eviction from the local landowner. The Higdons' method of schooling was to let the individual talents of each child blossom, so it's little wonder that the children themselves embraced their new school.

The school couldn't continue for long in a marquee, nor in the village's empty warehouses. But the Burston Strike School had caught the imagination of the labour movement up and down the land, and donations poured in from Trade Unions and co-operatives to build a proper school. The new school was opened by Violet Potter in 1917.

This is where I must declare a personal interest. In the late 1910s my great-grandfather, Robert Ratcliffe, was a driver on railways across Suffolk and Norfolk. A leading light in the Ipswich co-operative (and, later, Trade Union) movement, his trains would stop at Burston and he became a keen supporter and fundraiser for the strike school. When his wife Ruby gave birth to their third child in 1917, they named her Lillian Burston Ratcliffe. I knew her as Auntie B, and she died only a few years ago. Here are pictures of the Higdons with Violet Potter outside the school in 1936 and, below, my Auntie B (then aged 18).

And here's one of B with her parents, Robert and Ruby. The stones commemorate the strike school's benefactors. They are a little difficult to read, but I can make out the Gainsborough and Kirkby-in-Ashton branches of the Independent Labour Party, and the Tottenham branch of the NUM.

Robert died before I was born. He became a Labour Mayor of Ipswich in the 1950s and wrote a four-volume called The History of the Working Class Movement in Ipswich. Apparently there are only three copies in existence. Ipswich Library has one, my uncle has another. I wonder who has the other.

Anyway, back to the story. The management board quickly realised that Burston Strike School was no flash in the pan. Some of the parents were fined for not sending their children; others were thrown out of their homes and jobs. But the high-handed action of the management board only served to fuel Burston's solidarity. The strike school continued to educate children until Tom Higdon died in 1939. During the 25 years of the strike, the Council-run school was forced to improve its conditions and standards in order to compete. When the last remaining pupils were transferred to the Council school in 1939, it had become a school to which parents were happy to send their children. This was, in large part, due to the vision and labours of the Higdons.

Each year, Unionists and activists meet at Burston to commemorate the strike. Here is a clip of Tony Benn's at last year's event. I especially like the parable / anecdote he ends with.


Blogger Snowball said...

Good stuff. Regarding 'The History of the Working Class Movement in Ipswich' - you should really do something with that. Not sure how long it is - 4 volumes sounds pretty heavy - have you read any of it? What's it like?

4:37 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

Thanks. I haven't read any of it, but my uncle has - he has planned to type it all out so that there's an electronic copy, but has never quite got around to it.

But I quite agree - it deserves to be read. I shall badger my uncle next time I see him - he has the only copy other than the one in the archives.

I suspect Bob could write too. He certainly had a good turn of phrase. People would come up to him and say, "Dreadful weather we're having, Mr Ratcliffe," to which he would reply "Better than no weather at all."

6:55 PM  
Blogger Ipswich Labour Party said...

Bill Knowles, currently Chair of Ipswich Labour Party has the third copy - bound as a single volume. He was given it by the widow of the late Ian Grimwood (also a former Labour Mayor of Ipswich).

John Cook
Ipswich Labour Party

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Andrew Guy said...

Hi. On Googling for Robert Ratcliffe I came across your blog. It appears we have a family link. Robert Ratcliffe was my Great Great Grandmothers younger brother. ie Robert was Eliza Ratcliffe's brother and Eliza is my GG Grandmother (if I've counted the generations correctly) I'd be interested if you would drop me a line ( as my mother is doing the family tree and has come unstuck regarding Eliza and her family. Thanks Andrew

9:51 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home