The Legacy of the Burston Rebellion
Tom Higdon remained an active member of the Agricultural Labourers’ Union and continued to teach at the Strike School until shortly before his death in 1939. He was Treasurer of the Union from 1916 to 1920, and the Executive Committee from 1914 to 1938, apart from a break between 1924 and 1927. As County Secretary, for many years, he cycled hundreds of miles annually on Union business. In 1923 he was on the County Emergency Committee conducting the four-week strike in Norfolk for the union. The Diss Express reported on 6 April 1923, a ninth anniversary meeting on Burston Green, presided over ‘by Tom Higdon who spoke at some length on the farm strike….’
Tom was a member of the Management Committee of the Diss Co-operative Society, a member of the Independent Labour Party, and an active Depwade Rural District Councillor. His passionate commitment to social justice remained unabated. A local paper gave an acount on 12 August 1938 of a Depwade UDC meeting at which a Report of the Rural Housing Conference held at Bury St Edmunds was considered. In a long and heated argument Tom Higdon ‘opposed the idea of grants to farmers for the building of houses that will be tied cottages….
Arthur Moore, who left the Strike School in 1913, said of Tom Higdon that he was ‘….one of the straightest men I’ve ever come across. He was a good living man.’
Annie (Kitty) Higdon
Few of Kitty Higdon’s pupils ever forgot the emphasis that she gave in her teaching to Christian principles, courage and compassion. During the strike of 1926 six miners’ children were lodged in the village and attended the Strike School and one of them stayed with the Higdons until he left school and joined the merchant navy.
Tom Potter, Violet’s younger brother, remembers two boys from the Soviet Trade Delegation lodging with the Higdons and attending the Strike School. It was their fathers who presented Mr Higdon with the large picture of Daniel in the Lions’ Den which still hangs in the school.
For many years Kitty Higdon and the Strike School were the very heart of the village. Inevitably, as time passed this heart beat less strongly. G.T.Giles, the London headmaster who later became President of the National Union of Teachers, had sent his sons to the school in the 1920s. As she grew older, he tried to persuade Kitty to take on an assistant. ‘She just wouldn’t listen. We drove around in a trap for hours and got nowhere. She was old and obstinate. It was her school.’
Win Potter (nee Leeder) recalled, ‘Mrs Higdon was heartbroken when Tom died. His body was not taken into the church. He was taken into the Strike School. It was crowded to overflowing with personal and trade union friends. Mrs Higdon knelt down by the coffin and sang beautifully. The coffine was brought to the Strike School on a farm cart, provided by ‘Fetchum’ Potter, Tom’s father. It was driven by Stanley Potter, Tom’s brother. Violet Potter was there. ‘The Strike School was crowded. Mrs Higdon sang “The Lord is my Shepherd”, and everyone was very moved. Many were in tears.’
Left alone, Kitty declined. Several times she was found wandering in the lanes at night, saying that she was waiting for Tom to return home from a union meeting. On one occasion she met Violet and asked her politely whether she was ‘coming to school’.
She spent her last days in a home in Swainsthorpe, near Norwich and died in 1946. Her coffin was brought to Burston on a trailer, her story largely forgotten in the village.
Violet Potter, who had been the main spirit in organising the strike and became, with Marjory Ling, one of Kitty’s young assistants, left Burston in 1918 and went to live with friends in Forest Gate whom she and her mother had met when they visited London in 1916 to attend the public meetings in support of the school organised by the National Union of Railwaymen. She got a job as a ledger clerk in an office in Stratford, East London, but came back to Burston in 1920 when she was twenty, and married at the age of 21. Her husband was a cowman and worked for several farmers before he and Violet took over the Crown Inn at Burston, which they ran for sixteen years. He died soon after they left the Crown, when he was working at Buckenham, as a miller. Three of their children went to the Strike School. Two of them were still of school age when their father died at the early age of 54.
Violet was a keen church worker and a lively participant in all sorts of social activities for pensioners until very near the end of her life. She loved letter-writing….She died in 1979
Violet Potter’s brother, Tom, was born in 1914 and was christened on the Green by John Sutton, the Methodist lay preacher. He and his younger brother, George, were both named after Tom (T.G) Higdon. George, also, was christened on the Green. Their father, John Potter, known in the village as ‘Fetchum’, became a small tenant farmer in the early twenties. The third brother, Stan, carried on the farm with Tom when their father died.
In the late 1940’s Tom stood as a Communist candidate in the Parish Councils elections. When the results were declared, Tom was top of the poll. Tom served the community of Burston through many bodies, that included both the District and Parish Councils, and as a trustee of the Strike School. He also remained a lifelong champion of the agricultural worker and their union. Tom remained in farming until he took over the Post Office Stores in the village in 1961.
The considerable Potter family contribution to the Strike School and its legacy continues to this day, through Tom’s daughter (Violet Potters niece) Anne. M. May. Tom’s daughter, Anne May, has written accounts (details of which are found in ‘Books’ within the ‘Education’ page) about how the Higdons and the Burston School Strike influenced the lives of her and her extended family. But few have done as much as Anne May to promote this remarkable piece of social history, and raise funds through regularly giving talks on the subject to history groups, Women Institutes and schools.
Arthur Moore was a pupil at the Council School in 1911 when the Higdons arrived in Burston and he left school at the age of thirteen to work on the land. His wage was 4s a week, the adult wage as this time being 13s. He joined the Union in 1914, when the Burston branch was formed. In 1930 he became branch secretary and held his post until 1970.
Sol Sandy is the son of Noah Sandy who asked Tom Higdon to stand for election at the Annual Parish Meeting in 1913. He was born in 1895 and had left the school when the Higdons arrived from Wood Dalling. He attended many of the meetings on the Green and remembered the prominent people who came to Burston, Philip Snowdon, George Lansbury, A.J.Cook, Tom Mann, and many others.
He joined his father and his brother Noah in their jobbing building trade when he left school, and served in the Royal Engineers on the railways, in France, during the First World War. After the war he lodged for a time in Ipswich and worked on the railway there. Eventually he came back to Burston and became a smallholder and worked odd days for local farmers. It is Sol Sandy who saved so much of the documentary evidence of the Strike that puts this remarkable story on such a firm foundation.