One Master, Three Books & 300 Boys

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, unless you live on the same street, that is where they will probably remain.

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.

A brief history of English education

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.

Hitchin Town Centre
The pretty cobbled Hitchin market place with St Mary’s church

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.

Saved from the dump!

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. Following a house clearance, this plaque was destination for the dump, but it was sent instead to the school as it was though there could be a connection. There was; the soldier was a former pupil!

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Don’t break the rules!

A maverick

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 1798. 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.”

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Excerpt from Moral Songs – 
`But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding, who taught me betimes to love working and reading.’

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.

Low tech writing aids
Low tech writing aids – a strip of sand

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.

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Andy Gibbs in the Edwardian classroom

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 as schoolchildren. But don’t take my word for it, experience this amazing space for yourself. Take your children, they’ll be as amazed as you.

Further Information:

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.

Not just for old ladies, the nearby fields of Chilterns lavender will delight almost everyone. Cadwell farm is still producing and selling lavender products in Hitchin.

Further Chilterns inspiration here

Countryside around Hitchin
Big skies surround Hitchin

Repair and Refurbish

Who knew that we owe so much of our complex digital lives to the war-time activities of code-breakers toiling in secret during the Second World War at Bletchley Park?

In an unexpected location, in the middle of a nondescript town in Buckinghamshire, north west of London, sits a visitor attraction that is bound to keep the heritage hordes happy…somewhere to while away an afternoon immersing yourself in long-forgotten stories and past selfless lives.

Janet and John
Janet and John

I have often commented on the insatiable appetite for heritage and history and all that falls in between. The market is well served with providers who are only too keen to help you part with your cash to support their heritage cause. As with many other heritage sites, the balance to be struck between access and paying those bills can’t be easy, so finding your niche is important. Bletchley Park, once home to the code-breakers, has a long, glorious and complex history, to which I cannot do justice here, but suffice to say that finally, the location of such mind-boggling war-time work, so much of it top secret, can now bask in the visitor attraction and heritage limelight. Bletchley Park is fortunate in having found an excellent niche and relevance with ICT and the security headaches it brings to all of us today; with our many electronic devices, computers, encrypted passwords and daily dodging of online fraudsters who do their very best to break our personal codes.

Perhaps the Trustees would think it an overblown description of this as a Cinderella attraction following its transformation since it first opened in 1994 and successful £8 million Heritage Lottery funding that has enabled at least some of the site to be developed – much more to follow in the future and an annual visitor forecast of 250,000.

It was hard to tell from where the visitors originate, as most of us where plugged into our complimentary headsets (with impressive content) that cocooned us in a 1940’s world, with added comical gestures and expressions of our own. Some thoughtful displays and some not so, but we did enjoy the puzzles, code crackers and how to even work an Enigma machine.

Where would the heritage sector be without volunteers? In fact, where would the UK be without volunteers? There were a number of them dotted about, ready to explain the complex machinery and their impact, and to the chap who, with wit and confidence made the inner-workings of a Bombe Machine seem so obvious to the dull-witted such as myself, your contribution was inspirational!

There has been much written and broadcast of the life of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who for a time led Hut 8, the section responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. Now the focus of new biopic, the Imitation Game, he devised a number of techniques for breaking German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish bombe method, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine. Winston Churchill said that Turing made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany. Turing’s pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in several crucial battles. He was prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952 however, when such acts were still criminalised in the UK, that was to have tragic consequences.

Alan Turing
Alan Turing

The further we got into the experience though, you could tell where the funding had stopped. The knackered toilets really felt like a 1940’s immersion experience (no pun intended), and it couldn’t have included customer training for the young staff who were working (and some relaxing) in the caff, where ‘spot something fresh, anything fresh to eat’ become pointless. Call me bias, but I always hold the Merlin Entertainments Group as a shining example of how staff need to deal with and interact with customers, they are fabulous. No matter what job is being done, they are always ‘in the moment.’

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Chess on the lawn was how we finished the visit, a fitting way to get our brains working, but I suspect nothing like the 9,000 Bletchley workers who at the peak of the war, toiled night and day on the 10,000 codes messages that flooded in from every theatre of war.

Today, July 29th, Bletchley Park’s Royal Patron, HRH The Duke of Kent, will officially open a major new exhibition telling the story of Codebreaking in World War One, The Road to Bletchley Park. The Duke will meet representatives of the exhibition’s sponsors, BAE Systems and Ultra Electronics, as well as visiting new displays and exhibitions updated since his last visit in 2009.

Entrance to the museum costs £15 (and is valid for one year), for adults and is free for children under 12. For further information: Bletchley Park