[Annie Catharine] Kitty Higdon (née Schollick) was born on 30 December 1864 in Cheshire, the daughter of Samuel Schollick, a foreman shipwright, and his wife, Jane. She became a teacher, and taught in Somerset and London. She married Thomas George Higdon, who was also a teacher, on 11 July 1896. On 14 April 1902 they took up joint posts at Wood Dalling Council School in Norfolk. Kitty was the head teacher and her husband an uncertified assistant.
The Higdons were Christian socialists and they tried to improve the conditions at the school; they were concerned about the illegal employment of children by local farmers. However, many of these farmers were also school managers and the Higdons’ activities, including their encouragement of the farm labourers to join trade unions, created social tensions. Eventually, the Norfolk Education Committee gave the Higdons the option of dismissal or employment at another school. They were transferred to Burston and Shimpling council school, where they took up duty on 1 February 1911.
The conditions were similar to Wood Dalling, and their political activities and social concerns again led to clashes with their managers. After Thomas Higdon helped local labourers to oust sitting members at the parish council elections, himself heading the poll, the managers requested in November 1913 Norfolk Education Committee to remove Kitty Higdon from her post on disciplinary grounds. After an inquiry, the committee asked her to seek alternative employment; when she took no action she and her husband were dismissed as from 31 March 1914.
Kitty Higdon was an excellent teacher, as reports by the school inspectors make clear. On 1 April 1914, 67 of the 72 pupils were led out on strike by one of the children, Violet Potter, to show their support for the Higdons. Many parents refused to send their children to the official Council School and, instead, a separate school, the Burston Strike School, was established. At first, it was held outside on the village green and, later, above a carpenter’s shop in Burston.
As the dispute went on, it drew support from trade unions and other national labour organizations. Public meetings were held on Burston Green, addressed by leading political figures. The Higdons, meanwhile, began to teach the striking children, at first in the open air and then in a temporary ‘strike school’ held in a former carpenter’s shop. A national campaign was launched to raise funds for a purpose-built property. The new building was opened on 13 May 1917 with George Lansbury and Sylvia Pankhurst in attendance at the ceremony.
By 1919 the strike school still had forty pupils and throughout the 1920s and much of the 1930s it continued to prosper, drawing children not only from the immediate vicinity but from the wider community. Among them were two Russian boys, the sons of members of the Russian trade delegation in London. Kitty Higdon laid great emphasis on the repeated instruction of civic values, and older pupils were taken to trade union and political rallies. In a grudging tribute to the couple’s sincerity, the Board of Education described them as ‘persons who conceive themselves to have a “mission”’. The school building, described by the Higdons as the ‘centre of a new living movement of educational and social activity’, was used for meetings in support of various educational and socialist causes.
The school remained open until shortly after Thomas Higdon’s death in August 1939. Its eleven pupils were then transferred to Burston Council School and Kitty Higdon entered a retirement home at Swainsthorpe, near Norwich, where she died on 24 April 1946. Both Kitty and Thomas were buried in Burston churchyard.
The Burston Strike became the longest running strike in the school building still exists today and now houses a museum which tells the story of the Burston Strike.
Find out more: The Norfolk Record Office holds a wide variety of records relating to the Burston Strike School. An information leaflet, which lists these records and where they can be found, can be downloaded for free here. Images of Burston School can be viewed on Picture Norfolk here.