One master, three books, 300 boys and 30 monitors. This is the inspirational story of one man’s vision to provide basic education for the children of Hitchin.
Low-tech, quirky museums, often in intriguing buildings with windy stairs, dust and dated interior design, are to be treasured. The Chilterns has its fair share, most under the radar and unless you live on the same street, that is where they will probably remain.
Blissfully unaware of its existence until recently, the British Schools Museum in Hitchin is one such place; the last surviving example in the world, packed with wonderful stories and eye-popping facts about English education.
This, the northernmost town in the Chilterns, is probably the least well known of our market towns, and was once a national centre for lavender-production having grown and successfully exploited the crop since the 15th century. Now only one business, Cadwell farm is still producing and selling lavender products.
The British Schools Museum is located on Queen street in the town centre, within the former Edwardian and Victorian school premises, in a number of buildings set close together. Near the site of former slums, whose young occupants would surely have attended the school, their dwellings in stark contrast with the outsized St Mary’s church, on the opposite banks of the river Hicca – a bold statement from a town doing well on wool. The pretty cobbled marketplace is surrounded by a mix of more traditional buildings, some medieval, jostling for prominence now amongst more forceful contemporary chain stores. Slightly further out of town however, Tudor and Georgian buildings that surround the town go some way in redeeming the local vernacular.
The ‘font of Hitchin information’ Andy Gibbs, was our guide through the history of British schools, delighting in our discovery of many lovely stories and a museum collection made up of personal memories of former pupils or those who worked here and include incredible feats to trace former pupils: Andy showed us a plaque commemorating a soldier who died during WW1 that was heading for the dump following a house clearance, but it was sent to the school by someone who thought there was a connection. There was; the soldier was a former pupil!
The founder of the school, Joseph Lancaster was a Quaker and a maverick at odds with his peers about how children could be educated. In a time when universal education did not exist, but a belief that education could damage the ‘natural social order’ did, children as young as six were sent to factories, workshops or into domestic service in the vague hope that they would one day be able to support themselves and future dependents. In 1837 Joseph Lancaster introduced a system that meant cheap, basic education could be delivered to large numbers of children, describing his system as to produce a “Christian Education” and “train children in the practice of such moral habits as are conducive to the welfare of society.”
The Monitorial schoolroom was built in 1837 and though only partly restored, has both preserved and presented this forgotten world very well. I had never seen anything like it. The masters desk is the focal point with the sand tray where students would be practising and learning their handwriting, right under his nose. The three books were dispersed and their pages shared at the monitorial teaching stations around the room.
One master to teach 300 boys assisted by 30 monitors by the Lancasterian method in the only known complete example of a monitorial classroom to survive in the world. The boys sat facing the master on benches at narrow desks and were taught by the monitors at semi-circular teaching stations around the walls. The room looks as it was in 1837, minus the radiators! Built to Lancaster’s specifications with clerestory windows and pillared side aisles. The floor originally sloped to give the master a good view of all his pupils – essential in such an enormous schoolroom full of children to maintain discipline.
By 1900, 700 children were packed into the school, and three more classrooms were added. The desks, displays and teaching implements vaguely familiar to me from a time before wipe boards and Chromebook’s. Sitting at the now tight-fitting wooden desks brought much mirth to our group who recalled days sat in similar rooms trying to master mathematical theorems or the anatomy of a frog! Inside each desk are thoughtful displays of reading books, drawings, photographs and games from the Edwardian era.
The school closed it’s doors in 1969, and the period between its closing and the opening of the museum was not without drama too, Andy told us it almost didn’t happen. But that’s a story for another day!
There is nothing manufactured about this place, it’s genuine, a gem in fact, rooted in the local area, but so important to our collective national memories. But don’t take my word for it, experience this amazing space for yourself. Take your children, they’ll be as amazed as you.
The museum is open at the following times:
Fridays 10am – 4pm
Saturdays 10am – 1pm
During July, August and September open 10 am – 4pm, Saturdays and Sundays 2pm – 5pm
For further information on another delightful and unique Chilterns museum, the Natural History Museum in Tring is just how museums used to be, dressed fleas included.
Further Chilterns inspiration here