Book Review: The Village in Revolt- The Story of the Longest Strike in History

the-village-in-revolt

The Village in Revolt by Shaun Jeffery.

Shaun Jeffery. The Village in Revolt: The Story of the Longest Strike in History. Higdon Press, 2018. RRP £14.99 paperback.

I recently went to Tolpuddle in Dorset, to find out more about the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs. In the gift shop of the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, there were a number of books about the martyrs, but also about other examples of rural strikes and trade unionism. The Village In Revolt: The Story of the Longest Strike in History appealed to me largely because I had never heard of the Burston School Strike before. My research is focused on urban protest, so I thought it would be interesting to find out more about an example of rural dissent.

The Village in Revolt tells the story of the Burston School Strike. Tom and Annie Higdon were well-loved teachers in the rural village of Burston in Norfolk. On 1st April 1914, the Higdons were fired based on a series of exaggerated and unfounded accusations. The Higdons were socialists, and since they had arrived in Burston in 1911, they had been in an escalating conflict with the village elites, particularly the rector, the Reverend Charles Tucker Eland. The Higdons were good teachers, and the school children and their families decided to support them. 66 out of 72 children went on strike, refusing to attend the village school unless the Higdons were reinstated. An alternative school was established on the village green, which would last until 1939. The strikers received support from around the country, and by 1917 had raised enough to build a Strike School, which still stands to this day.

burston-strike-school

The Burston Strike School still stands to this day, and is now a museum (Photo: Out_of_Station).

Shaun Jeffery tells the story of the Burston School Strike with creativity and sympathy. Whilst obviously admiring of the Higdons and the strikers, Jeffery doesn’t shy away from their flaws, admitting that Tom Higdon could be quite a difficult man to get along with. The Village in Revolt is obviously the result of significant historical research; as well as the strike itself, the book also provides detailed discussion of the Higdons’ and Reverend Eland’s origins, and the history of rural trade unionism. The connection between a school strike and the unions of agricultural workers may not be immediately obvious, but Tom Higdon was a dedicated trade unionist, and the atmosphere that union activities created helped to give the striking students and their families the confidence to stand up to local elites.

My main criticism of The Village in Revolt is that the balance between context and the discussion of the strike itself feels off. Jeffery spends so much time discussing the background to the strike and the biographies of the people involved, that the section about the strike feels short by comparison. I understand that context is important, but it not more important than the story itself. As a result of this imbalance, the ending of the book feels quite abrupt.

If you are interested in the history of Norfolk, British education, or rural protest, then I think you will find something of interest in The Village in Revolt. It certainly is an inspiring story, and Burston is now on my list of places to visit!

Book Review: ‘Silvertown- The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement’

Silvertown by John Tully

Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement by John Tully

Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement. Tully, John. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2014.

“Silvertown’s workers and their families were not just passive victims of the industrial system. They were flesh-and-blood human beings who sorrowed and hoped, swore and fought, loved and hated, enjoyed themselves when they could at pub knees-ups or their teetotal equivalents, dreamed of a better life for their children, and bore adversity with simple stoicism and very Cockney, Irish-influenced, irreverent and ironic sense of humor.”

(Tully, 2014; p. 83)

The above quote epitomises John Tully’s approach in Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement. Tully tells the story of this once-forgotten strike without losing sight of the human element. Thoroughly researched and well-written, this book about British labour history, written by an Australian for an American audience is a valuable addition to labour movement literature.

Silvertown is an industrial area in the London borough of Newham north of the Thames. It is dominated by the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, but the area was named after Silver’s India-Rubber, Gutta-Percha and Telegraph Works that opened in 1852, when the area was little more than marshland. In September 1888, the workers at the Silver Works went out on strike when they were denied a pay rise. The bitter dispute lasted for 3 months before the workers reluctantly returned to work at their original levels of pay- those that weren’t blacklisted, anyway.

The Silvertown Strike was part of a wave of strikes and organisation in the 1880s that is now known as New Unionism. For the first time, semi-skilled and unskilled workers were unionising, and unlike the more established craft unions, they had socialist leanings and were willing to take militant action. Silvertown was not the only strike that has been left out of the dominant narrative of New Unionism, Louise Raw’s excellent book Striking a Light attempts to give the 1888 Bryant and May Matchwomens’ strike the place it deserves in labour history. Silvertown contributes to the constant process of reassessment that is so important for academic research.

There are any number of reasons why a strike or protest might be left out of the history books, and in the case of Silvertown it is probably because the strikers lost. After 3 months of hunger, picketing, marches and victimisation, the strikers were forced back to work. Tully does an excellent job of analysing why the strike did not succeed. His attention to detail is admirable- he even researched the weather conditions during the strike in order to consider the impacts the weather might have had on the strikers’ resolve. Despite the loss, Tully argues that the strike was a turning point in New Unionism, not least because the merciless tactics used by the owners of Silver’s rubber and electrical plant became a blue print for any employer trying to break a strike.

There are some gaps in the story- for example Tully has few sources that detail what the factory managers were thinking during the strike, so he has to make a few educated guesses. To be fair however, Tully always makes it clear that they are educated guesses, and he cannot use sources that don’t exist. Tully also uses too many sub-headings for my liking, which makes the text feels disjointed and awkward, but this is a minor criticism.

John Tully balances considered analysis with descriptive writing that conveys the more emotive, human aspects of the Silvertown strike. Not only is Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement a fantastic piece of scholarly research, it is also an enjoyable read, two qualities that don’t always go hand in hand.

‘Going through the Change!’: The Story of the National Women Against Pit Closures

A banner from the National Women Against Pit Closures (Source: Pastpixels, n.d.)

A banner from the National Women Against Pit Closures (Source: Pastpixels, n.d.).

On Tuesday evening I went to the London premiere of the film Going through the Change! at the Bishopsgate Institute. Made by Anne-Marie Sweeney, it is a film about the 20th anniversary weekend of the National Women Against Pit Closures (NWAPC) in 2004. Anne-Marie Sweeney and Bridget Bell, Joint Secretary of the NWAPC, both spoke and led the discussion after the film. Because of the recent 30th anniversary, the 1984-5 miners’ strike has been the focus of renewed attention, most prominently in the form of the film Pride. Going through the Change! is a reflection on this commemorative process, as well as a celebration of the past, present, and future work of  working class female activists.

The NWAPC is a national organisation set up to coordinate the efforts of local Women Against Pits Closure groups that sprang up around the country almost as soon as the miners’ strike started. The film is made up almost entirely of footage from the weekend held to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the strike. It uses footage of the weekend’s speakers, many of whom were involved in entirely different campaigns from the miners’ strike, to show footage of other disputes, including dock strikes in Liverpool, action by the Fire Brigade’s Union and protests demanding improved treatment of asylum seekers. In this way the film really emphasises the importance of solidarity between campaigns and social movements, in terms of moral as well as financial and practical support.

A badge from the 20th anniversary of the NWAPC, with a stirring message (Source: Feminist Times, 2014).

A badge from the 20th anniversary of the NWAPC, with a stirring message (Source: Feminist Times, 2014).

One thing that the film and discussion made me think about was the way in which anniversaries such as the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike are used. As I said, many of the speakers shown in the film were from campaigns that were nothing to do with the strike, many of them still ongoing at the time the footage was filmed in 2004. Then, as now, the NWAPC is using the anniversary not as an excuse for a nostalgia trip, but as a focus point for what is still yet to be achieved. In a similar way, the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group (LGSM) has received a boost from the publicity surrounding the anniversary and Pride (see @LGSMPride on Twitter). Unlike other historical events, the anniversary of the strike is being used as an opportunity to look forward as well as back.

Women grappling with police during the miners' strike (Source: Bristol, 2014).

Women grappling with police during the miners’ strike (Source: Bristol Radical History Group, 2014).

When the women of the NWAPC do look back, it seems to be mainly for the purpose of taking inspiration and lessons for future campaigns. Education is clearly an important part of campaigns such as this one. Many of the women involved in NWAPC had no experience of activism or politics before the strike began. The title of the film Going through the Change! initially invokes thoughts of the menopause, but is actually a quote from one the speakers. And the change she is referring too is that from housewife to political activist. All of the women featured seemed to have experienced this sense of empowerment, the realisation that actually they can make a difference and cause change. They were fierce and proud, and perfectly capable of articulating themselves in public, something several of them said they never dreamed they would be able to do before they were politicised. As campaigns continue and develop, more women will be empowered in this way, will learn how to use direct action and campaigning to fight for their goals. Women who have already gone through this transformation should be able to help based on their own experiences, which is another reason that solidarity and networks between different campaigns are so important.

Going through the Change! is an inspiring film, and it was a pleasure to be part of a discussion where so many of the women from the film were present. These are strong women who have had long, accomplished activism careers, and who continue to fight in times that they see as just as bad, if not worse, than the 1980s. Many of them are now fighting for the futures of the grandchildren rather than their children, but they remain as passionate and fierce as ever, and a lesson to us all.

The people involved in making Going through the Change! are keen for the film to be seen. If you would like to buy a copy, or arrange a screening, then get in touch via their Facebook group.


Sources

‘Going through the Change!’ Bristol Radical History Group. Last modified 6th February 2015, accessed 4th March 2015. http://www.brh.org.uk/site/events/going-change/

Graham, Sarah. ‘Women Against Pit Closures: memories from the miners’ strike, 30 years on.’ Feminist Times. Last modified 5th March 2014, accessed 4th March 2015.  http://www.feministtimes.com/women-against-pit-closures-memories-from-the-miners-strike-30-years-on/

‘Greetings card: The Banner of the National Women Against Pit Closures.’ Pastpixels. No date, accessed 4th march 2015. http://www.pastpixels.co.uk/en/product/greetings-card-banner-national-women-against-pit-closures

Book Review: ‘Striking a Light- The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History’ by Louise Raw

Striking a Light Front Cover

Striking a Light by Louise Raw.

Raw, Louise. Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

I recently finished reading Striking a Light, Louise Raw’s wonderful book about the Bryant and May matchwomen’s strike in East London in 1888. My friends and family would be able to tell you how much of an impression it made on me, as I have spent a lot of time telling them how much I enjoyed it and recommending that they should read it themselves. The matchwomen’s (known to most as the matchgirls) strike is one of the most well-known examples of protest in London’s history, but as Raw expertly explains, much of what we think we know is inaccurate, and doesn’t give the strikers the credit they deserve. The thorough and innovative methodology used in the research also deserves recognition.

Raw conducted thorough analysis of the primary sources to re-evaluate the established narrative of the strike. She argues that the matchwomen were not as helpless and innocent as they were frequently portrayed to be, both at the time and in subsequent historical accounts. Annie Besant, a well-known campaigner at the time, is generally credited with leading the strike, helping the women to achieve what they could not alone. Raw easily demonstrates that although Besant did help the strikers, she did not have an organisational role, it was the women themselves that decided to strike, and organised the following campaign. Raw also uses census data and other sources to dispute the assertion that the women were too disconnected from the dockworkers in East London to have had an influence on the Great Dock Strike in 1889. Striking a Light recognises the bravery and strength of the matchwomen, acknowledging their achievements in a way that has not been done before.

The other element of the book which I particularly admire is the methodology. Raw is clear and explicit about how she conducted her research, including the difficulties she faced, which is something I personally would like to see more of in historical geography. In addition, Raw tracked down the grandchildren of some of the women involved in the strike, in order to find out more about them as women. Although this is a time-consuming method, with some obvious concerns about accuracy, the stories and insights uncovered brought the women to life. Finding sources from the perspective of those who actually took part in historical protests has been a major difficulty for me, as well as more established historians (for example Rudé (2005). Raw’s approach brought home the fact that the strikers were human beings, each with their own unique lives, aspirations, and motivations, something which is easy to forget in the midst of conventional archival research. This is a methodology that I hope I can use in my own research.

Sources

Raw, Louise. Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Rudé, George. The Crowd in History. London: Serif, 2005 [1964].