Celebrating 200 years at Hitchin's British Schools Museum

As Hitchin's British Schools Museum celebrates a very special 200th anniversary, Petra Hornsby takes a look back and finds out what you can see today

BEING British has always involved having a good moan and one favourite topic is the state of our education system today. But by looking back to days gone by we might just see how lucky we really are. Indeed, 200 years ago education was reserved for the privileged; it was not for the masses and was certainly not a ‘right’ as we view it in the 21st century.The unique and fascinating British Schools Museum in Queen Street, Hitchin, stands today where the first ‘monitorial’ school in Hertfordshire opened in 1810.Until then literacy was never within the poor man’s grasp but in Hitchin local solicitor and businessman William Wilshere was determined to improve the opportunities for the youngsters of his town. He knew that, increasingly, local businesses needed workers with some knowledge of the ‘three Rs’ – reading, writing and reckoning.It was educational pioneer Joseph Lancaster who provided Wilshere with his inspiration – when he came to Hitchin in 1808. Wilshere learned of Lancaster’s school in Southwark, London – opened in 1798 and so popular that by 1802 he was teaching some 200 boys in one large room.  Lancaster had developed a cheap and efficient system of teaching, whereby one teacher could teach a large number of pupils. He taught the more able students, called ‘monitors’, and they in turn taught others what they had learned.There was no government funding for education in those days so Wilshere set up his ‘Lancasterian’ school in an old malthouse he owned. In 1810 the lessons began with girls and boys being taught separately.In 1837, a new schoolroom was built for the boys. This meant that the girls had more room and so an Infants’ School was opened. The population of Hitchin was growing and the youngsters were thirsty for knowledge.So how did the monitorial system work? The Hitchin schoolroom provides the answer. 300 boys of all ages sat in rows facing the front of the schoolroom – youngest at the front, older more learned scholars at the back, all grouped into eight ‘standards’. The floor once sloped giving the master a good view of the room. Good order was essential in a class of such size.Semicircles were marked on the floor around the four schoolroom walls. Each monitor would lead eight or ten scholars to stand around a semicircle where they would teach them using a printed sheet hanging on the wall. They would return to their benches to practise what they had learned.The Gallery classroom was added in 1853 after Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools Matthew Arnold, the famed Victorian poet, visited the Hitchin schools and recommended extending the facilities. Four years later in 1857, a new Infants’ and Girls’ School replaced the old malthouse that was in poor condition after a devastating fire in 1845. A Master’s house, which is open to view now, and a Mistress’s house were built on site at the same time.It wasn’t until 1870 that the Government made education available to all. Even then, it was not compulsory until 1880, and not free until 1891. The Hitchin British Schools remained in the hands of a Trust until Hertfordshire Education Committee took over in 1903 – renaming them the ‘Queen Street Schools’. Soon after, in 1905, two ‘Edwardian’ classrooms were added, and classes were still large, accommodating 60 boys each. The school finally closed in 1969 and the site became part of Hitchin College. In 1990 the Hitchin British Schools Trust was formed to save the buildings from redevelopment. Five years later the new British Schools Museum opened its doors for the first time. Since then a dedicated team of volunteers has transformed the site into a unique museum. The museum now welcomes around 100 schools and nearly 5,000 pupils every year to experience the austere atmosphere of the Victorian classroom. For those interested in history the classrooms tell the story of elementary education and teaching methods that served the working man's children so well.The museum is also a great day out for the whole family – and quite an eye opener for today's younger generation, most of whom would be lost without a computer. How many could imagine that in the early 1800’s children would start learning to write using sand trays?

Comments powered by Disqus