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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk

St Mary, Burston

Burston: not unattractive

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west end: the tower collapsed in the 18th century Perpendicular-style windows and buttressing, curious under the shallow tiled roof

    St Mary, Burston

Perhaps this is not Norfolk's most exciting or interesting church; a tower that fell in the 18th century, and a nave and chancel refashioned in an uncharacteristically utilitarian manner by the Victorians, have left a rather barn-like structure. The nave walls, with their massive Perpendicular-style windows and buttressing, look very curious under the shallow tiled roof, but the scattering of red brick at the west end gives it character, and the whole piece is not unattractive in the wide, tree-scattered graveyard.

Not far off is the village green, with the parish school beyond it. But there is another school building beside the green, and this pleasant parish on the outskirts of Diss is world famous, of course, for the Burston school strike, sometimes referred to as the longest strike in British history.

In 1913, Kitty and Tom Higdon, headmistress and senior teacher respectively of the Church of England village school, came into dispute with the school managers after Tom Higdon had been elected to the parish council. The Higdons were Christian Socialists, and were widely perceived as troublemakers. They refused to let the children be taken out of school to help with the harvest, or to do back-breaking, poorly-paid work like stone-picking; such employment was illegal, but it was the universal practice in rural areas at the start of the 20th century.

The Higdons' nemesis was the Reverend Charles Tucker Eland, Rector of St Mary. He was a clergyman of the old type, an unchallenged authority figure in this parish without a resident squire. He seems to have held Victorian views, along with the majority of the tenant farmers. The 1870 Education Act had decreed universal education, but the role of education was so often interpreted as preparing the children for their place in the social order. Under such circumstances, learning to read and write was acceptable, but learning to think was positively to be discouraged. It was expected that the boys of the parish would become poorly-paid farm workers, and the girls would go into service. The conditions in which they were prepared for these roles were appalling.

Tom Higdon was a popular figure with the local farmworkers, and so it was that he topped the poll in the Parish Council elections, and the Reverend Eland came bottom, losing his seat. But, crucially, he still led and controlled the School Board. The Board found an excuse to sack the Higdons.

Twenty years earlier, that would have been the end of the story. Twenty years later, it perhaps wouldn't have happened at all. But this was a crucial moment in European history; far off, in Sarajevo, a single shot fired at the Archduke Franz Ferdinand set in chain a sequence of events that would lead to the Great War, which changed East Anglia forever. This was to have an unforeseen effect on what happened next.

The Higdons set up an open air school on the village green. Magnificently, the great majority of the poorer families of the parish took their children out of the village school and sent them to learn from the Higdons.

The establishment reacted. The Rector, shamefully, expelled families who held allotments on his land, and had their crops destroyed. Other families were given notice to quit from their tied cottages; but these evictions were not carried through, because the Great War had led to a serious shortage of labour, and the tenant farmers simply could not afford to lose their workers. The principles of the farmers were not as strong as those of the farmworkers; or perhaps they were merely pragmatic. In the event, the Strike School survived and prospered, moving into a carpenter's workshop that first winter, and then into a fully equipped, brand new school funded by collections made by Trade Union and Socialist organisations around the world.

The church school also continued, and by the 1920s the two schools had settled down into an uneasy but workable rivalry. The old order was falling away; Reverend Eland retired, and his replacement, Francis Smith, supported both schools equally, giving religious instruction in both. The Strike School lasted until 1939, by which time the Kitsons were both in their seventies. After Tom died, Kitty gave up the school, and it closed. The strike had lasted 25 years.

Today, the Strike School is a museum, but the village green is still the focus for a national Trade Union rally on the first Saturday of each September. The village school continues to survive in the same buildings which the Higdons walked away from nearly a century ago. And this brings us back to St Mary, because in this part of Norfolk with many churches but few people, St Mary has been reinvented as a kind of school hall. The chancel survives as a working church beyond the ironwork screen which separates it from the nave with its modern chairs. This is the kind of solution we are likely to see more and more in the future as parishes wrestle with the problem of maintaining ancient buildings.

Unfortunately, it also means that St Mary is kept locked, but I am told that the churchwardens are happy to give access to people who are interested, and so I hope to go back soon. I'm interested in seeing the James I royal arms and the font, which has the figures of saints around its base.

For many visitors, the main point of interest is the Higdons. They are buried side by side in the graveyard.

Simon Knott, March 2006

you can also visit the Burston Strike School website


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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk