diamond geezer

 Wednesday, April 04, 2018

This is the British Schools Museum. It's not far from London.

Location: Queen Street, Hitchin, Herts SG4 9TS [map]
Open: Friday & Saturday 10am-4pm (Sundays 2pm-5pm)
Admission: £5.50
Website: britishschoolsmuseum.org.uk/
Time to allow: one or two hours
To clarify, this isn't a museum covering the history of British education, but of the pioneering British and Foreign Schools Society. As such it provides a unique insight into a lost form of collective primary education, long overtaken by more didactic methods, whose buildings now exist nowhere else in the world but here. The founder of the Monitorial system was Joseph Lancaster, a Quaker who set up his first school on Borough Road in Southwark in 1798. Rather than employ lots of teachers, Joseph's smart move was to get older pupils to teach younger pupils, thereby saving a lot of money on wages.

Hitchin's Monitorial school was once one of many, established in an old malthouse in 1810, and extended in 1837. Its huge early Victorian learning space survives, along with a more traditional classroom nextdoor, thanks to later repurposing as a Junior Mixed Infants school and then a Higher Education college. When the empty site finally went up for sale in 1990 an educational trust campaigned to take over, launching the museum in 1996, and adding the odd extra bit ever since.

The school, now museum, sits on the eastern edge of the town centre opposite the back of Asda. For your admission fee you get a short guided tour of two parts of the site, then the chance to wander round and explore on your own. First off it's across the yard and up the slope to the big building at the back, where the pièce de résistance is the huge monitorial classroom laid out behind a single teachers' desk.

Up to 300 boys could be taught in the same room at the same time, separated out by ability, bench by bench. Learning was by rote, with individual pages from the sole official textbook separated out and stuck to boards hung on the wall. Older pupils taught small groups in semicircles facing the wall, mainly through repetition. Every child giving an incorrect answer would be demoted to the bottom of the line, so the aim was to answer correctly and end up at the top. Once the day's lesson was fully instilled pupils returned to their bench to practice writing in sand trays, or on slates, or in ink, according to age. Modern educational theory describes this as 'peer tutoring', the big difference being that today it's one of many strategies, not the sole didactic method.

In an adjacent room is the Gallery classroom, a later addition, with a more traditional layout using stepped desks. The BBC used this set-up, minus stuffed squirrel, when filming Just William in 2010. A pair of more recent classrooms now house desks resembling those I remember sitting behind in a Hertfordshire school. Various old textbooks are hidden within, so lift up the lids to discover handwriting guides by Marion Richardson and a now-dubious reading scheme featuring Sunny Sambo. Today's children may endure nothing similar, but those present seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to play in the strict learning environment provided by the larger room.

A second mini-tour takes you round the Headmaster's house, home to Mr William Fitch for half a century, and restored to peak Victorian middle class respectability. And the rest of the buildings are given over to an alternative exhibition, not always education-related, indeed the current one focuses on Herts at War. It's impressively comprehensive, and full of excellent local detail, which I particularly appreciated as a child of the county. My great grandfather would have signed up to the Hertfordshire Regiment during WW1, so to be able to watch eight minutes of amateur film showing life at camp behind the main front was highly evocative.

Not your normal museum, anyway. That'll teach you.

Oh, and Hitchin's lovely.

A large north Hertfordshire market town, now overshadowed by neighbouring Stevenage, much of Hitchin's core is impressively unspoiled. Several of the scenes from the BBC's recent Doctor Foster drama were filmed in the characterful market square, a large part-cobbled empty space where the market is no longer held. Narrow twisty thoroughfares lead off, a few quirky alleys run beyond, and several half-timbered buildings are liberally scattered before more typical suburbia kicks in. The photos above, for example, were taken on four different streets in and around the town centre, each dripping with a charm that growing up in Watford never provided.

The shops are well-pitched, neither over-chained or under-useful, and with enough bijou outlets to keep the moneyed in clover. My favourite find was Merryfields, ostensibly a traditional newsagents, but half of whose stock was racks of folded maps of every scale and hue. The market's now held round the back of Hitchin's only ill-advised shopping centre, and was bustling with assorted bric-a-brac you'd actually have been interested in. Alas the town's 150-year-old department store closed in January, the family business unable to survive the retirement of its final owner. And yes, there is a Hitchin Kitchen Cafe, halfway along the long walk from the station, because the town's name is too good a rhyme to be overlooked.

For an overview of the town, yomp up Windmill Hill to the toppermost cosy bench. Other things to look out for include the second largest church in Hertfordshire (only St Alban's Abbey is larger), a brand new town museum (which the incompetent council haven't yet got round to opening), and the insignificant River Hiz channelling through the backstreets. I liked the place considerably more than I was expecting. If you're looking for a different kind of day out, half an hour from the capital, bear Hitchin and its mega-classroom museum in mind.

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