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Mixed Media: Burston Strike School Museum

The Burston Strike School Museum, Church Green, Burston, Norfolk (free admission, open all reasonable hours (key at adjacent bungalow)) website: http://burstonstrikeschool.wordpress.com

Pre-visit publicity gives a rather misleading impression of the BurstonStrike School Museum and its setting in the village of Burston, near Diss, in Norfolk. This is not a charming rural community but a straggling suburban development of retirement bungalows and nouveau-rich villas, interspersed with a few ropey farmsteads, home to a particularly unpleasant agribusiness installation. As such, the museum and the annual rally on the pocket handkerchief village green are rather incongruous. The large-scale rural poverty once found in this area is no more because the formerly ubiquitous ragged farm labourer, whose existence the Museum recalls, is no longer required. They have been discretely bundled off to hidden estates in the market towns or to the mean streets of the run-down coastal resorts.

The Museum competently tells the story of the events leading to the Burston School Strike in 1914 when the teachers at the local school, Annie and Tom Higdon, were sacked after a dispute with management. The petty powers had objected to their industrial and political activities, and, led by the local priest, enacted the dismissal of the Higdons from their posts on trumped up grounds. The teachers were supported by the local farm workers, whose cause the Higdons had valiantly espoused. Pupils were withdrawn from the school as a protest (thus the strike was not an ordinary industrial one). Although unthinkable today, there was a rash of so-called Schoolboy Strikes in the years immediately before the First World War (see, for example, Dave Marson’s excellent 1973 pamphlet Children’s Strikes in 1911), so this was not an entirely isolated outburst.

The Higdons set up their own alternative school in a tent on the village green. Later the school moved to local carpenter’s premises and then to a purpose-built school financed by donations from the labour movement, and it is this building which now houses the museum. The Burston Strike School carried on teaching local children until shortly after Tom Higdon’s death in 1939, becoming, therefore, the longest running ‘strike’ in British history.

The displays in the museum, recently renewed to commemorate the centenary of the start of the children’s strike, are well maintained and informative in the conventional narrative style. A recent acquisition is a charming and entirely relevant bronze casting of one of the original Strike School chairs by Norwich artist Louise Richardson. The exhibition is backed up by extensive literature, which is on sale at the museum or on-line, including reproductions of The Burston Strike School by Casey (originally published by the Independent Labour Party) and T.G. Higdon’s The Burston Rebellion, as well as A Striking Village, which provides interesting background material. The latter was written by members of the Potter family, whose ancestor, Violet, led the schoolchildren in 1914. There is also an excellent range of postcards as well as well-designed mugs and pencils.

There have been additional events during the centenary year, including the Burston Community Primary School six week project that culminated in a re-enactment of the original candlestick march round the village. On their arrival on the Green they were greeted by ‘Mr and Mrs Higdon’ from The Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company’s production of their new play The Bricks of Burston. The annual Burston Strike Rally will take place on 7th September 2014. This year it will be addressed by Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. There will also be music from the NASUWT Band, and Thee Faction, an R&B band.

Younger children especially will, doubtless, gain something from a visit to the museum. However, overall, the impression is of the quaintness of the past, of white pinafore dresses and tight lace up boots, of strange and antiquated hand tools and odd facial hair. To the discerning visitor, however, much is left wanting.

Leaving aside footnote enquiries, such as details about the donors commemorated by the foundation stones lining the front of the Burston Strike School Museum building, whose brief inscriptions hint at fascinating untold stories, there is vital historical information which one needs for a full understanding of the case. Particularly, one would like to know the nature of the alternative education provided in the ‘Free School’. Besides being ‘nice’, what was this? The cursory treatment of this phrase is particularly disappointing because it was the duration of the school, a whole quarter century, which makes the incident noteworthy. In the era of McDonaldisation of education, independent education for the working class ought to be a particularly relevant issue.

And it is the failure to create links between the past and the present which makes the Burston Strike School Museum, like the People’s History Museum in Manchester, a failure. History is never finished business, done and dusted. Only by analysing society, how it came to be and how it is, can we hope to advance to a better future.

KAZ