The British Schools Museum is an educational museum based in original Edwardian and Victorian school buildings in Hitchin in Hertfordshire. The museum complex is made up of Grade II listed school buildings housing infants, girls and boys schools with houses for the Master and Mistress. It includes a monitorial schoolroom (the only one in the world) based on the educational theories of Joseph Lancaster for 300 boys, which opened in 1837, and a rare galleried classroom, dating from 1853.The first school on the site was a schoolroom for 200 boys and 100 girls. It was founded in 1810 by local lawyer William Wilshere in a disused malthouse. This schoolroom was the first monitorial school for the sons of the poor in Hertfordshire. Teaching was based on Joseph Lancaster's methods of monitorial teaching. He developed a system in which large numbers of younger scholars could be taught by older scholars under the supervision of the master (for boys) or mistress (for girls). This method continued until the Revised Code of 1862 that brought in the Pupil Teacher method of teaching.
The monitorial system was changed as it was the general consensus that having children teach other children, when they are not well educated themselves, proved to be problematic. The Pupil Teacher method involved an older scholar being given training and being paid to teach. The government hoped that this would increase the number of teachers in the future, using a system that could be described as an apprenticeship in teaching. The school grew steadily and to such an extent that in 1837 a new schoolroom was built that could hold 300 boys. This was completed in 1838, and the original school in the converted malthouse then included an infants school as well as the girls'. HM Inspector of Schools Matthew Arnold visited the school in 1852 and reinforced the 1849 recommendation of inspector J D Morrell that the boys' school would benefit from a new classroom. A new Gallery classroom for 110 pupils was completed in February 1854.
In 1857, it was decided by the School's Board of Trustees to completely rebuild the Girls' and Infants' School. The new building was completed in 1858 together with adjoining houses for the Master and Mistress. When Matthew Arnold paid a return visit to the school in 1867 he reported that the new buildings were "excellent". By 1904 additional classrooms were needed because of the growing number of pupils, and these were built in 1905, but by 1929 the school was too small (and quite worn out!) and the Boys' and Girls Schools transferred to the new Wilshere Dacre School in the town. The Infants School carried on in the original buildings, but because of the number of evacuees who were sent to Hitchin at the outbreak of World War II the school reverted to a Junior Mixed Infants School in 1940. This school continued on the site until 1969, when it closed, but the buildings were taken over by North Hertfordshire College as the Queen Street Activities Centre.
The Jill Grey Collection consists of some 37,000 items relating to the history of education and the social history of childhood. This was collected between approximately 1962 and 1987 by Jill Grey, a Hitchin resident. An eccentric yet extraordinarily gifted woman, Jill Grey (1919 – 1987) was a code and cypher officer with the Royal Air Force during World War 2. After the war she went to the USA as personal assistant to Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine, at a time when American companies were negotiating to use his important invention. During the 1950s she began to collect all things associated with early education and childhood – eventually filling her house in Hitchin with books, postcards and items of furniture, costume and much, much more. On her death these were donated to the museum. Since 1994 they have built up a separate collection of material relating to education and childhood, that has been donated to the British Schools Museum. There are now more than 10,000 items in the Benchmark Collection to tell the full story of elementary education, and the childhoods and home lives of the children who attended the schools and those of the teaching staff. Items from the collection have been used to furnish the Head Master’s House, to equip the classrooms and the Discovery Room.
You can enjoy a tour with a volunteer guide (included in the admission price) or discover the site’s history on your own with one of the self-guiding leaflets. Children can explore the site dressed as a Victorian boy or girl, sit at the desks in the historic classrooms and practise their handwriting in sand or on slate – then try using a dip pen and ink! The Headmaster’s House is a real gem. Set out in late Victorian style, you can really feel what domestic life must have been like at that time. You can also visit the Discovery Room and find out what school and home life was like for Victorian children. Although the majority of the site is fully accessible neither the headmasters house nor the air-raid shelter can currently be accessed by wheelchair users. There is one unisex wheelchair-accessible toilet with an alarm-call cord. Assistance dogs welcome – water bowl available on request. Carers are admitted for free.
Location : 41/42 Queen Street, Hitchin, SG4 9TS
Transport: Hitchin (National Rail) then bus or 1 mile. Bus Routes : 88, 101, 304, 314, 386 and 635 stop nearby. Services from London
Opening Times : Tuesday 10:00 to 16:00; Saturday 10:00 to 13:00; Sunday 14:00 to 17:00
Tickets : Adults £4.50; Children (5 - 17) £2.50
Tickets Temporary Exhibitions: Adults £2.00; Children (5 - 17) £1.00
Tel: 01462 420144