Tuesday, 17 September 2013

British Schools Museum, Hitchin

What kind of auntie takes her school-aged niece (who she hasn’t seen in a long time) to the British Schools Museum for an outing, on a day when the said niece doesn’t have to go to school?  I do!!  And I make no apologies for it!!  I enjoyed it (bit of a ‘busman’s holiday’!), she enjoyed it and so did Grandma – a great afternoon out that suited three generations.

The British Schools Museums is located on Queen Street, Hitchin in Hertfordshire and this past weekend was offering free admission as part of the Heritage Open Days scheme.  The museum is housed in school buildings dating from 1837 on a site where a school has stood since 1810.  It has been open for twenty years and is run by a team of dedicated volunteers whose enthusiasm for their subject really adds to the enjoyment of the visit.

The original school was divided into an infants’ school (mixed boys and girls up to the age of seven), a girls’ school and a boys’ school.  On arrival in the museum today, children can enhance their experience by opting to wear the traditional smocks (for girls) and collars and caps (for boys) worn by schoolchildren in Victorian times.  The museum’s reception is located in the old Infants’ School and is home to a wealth of information displayed on posters on the walls and in numerous folders to browse through.  Volunteers in Victorian costume are on hand to answer questions throughout the site.

From the reception area, visitors cross the playground (complete with hopscotch grids!) to visit the headmaster’s house.  This small house was first home to the original headmaster of the school, his wife, and their seven children!  It has been faithfully restored to its Victorian glory and is full of authentic furnishings and accessories, giving an accurate insight into the lives of its occupants.

The monitorial schoolroom
From there, you walk up a slope, which would have originally been cobbled, but which is now tarmacked, to the Boys’ School.  In here, you can see the only surviving example of a ‘monitorial schoolroom’ anywhere in the world.  The monitorial system of education was developed by Joseph Lancaster, a Quaker from London who believed that all children had a right to learn, as a way of teaching large numbers of pupils very cheaply.  300 boys of all abilities would have been taught in this one room.  Desks and benches filled the centre of the room and lesson boards were hung around the walls.  The keen children were taught by the Master, both before and after normal school hours.  These pupils became ‘Monitors’ who proudly wore badges giving them the responsibility to teach small groups of other children.  These lessons took place in front of the lesson boards.  The pupils then returned to their desks and wrote what they had learned on slates.  Younger children would practise writing with their fingers in sand trays.  Today, in this room, visitors can practise writing on slates or in sand and can play with the toys in the recreation corner.  They can also experience Victorian reprimands by wearing a dunce’s cap or having a label hung around their neck with ‘Unwashed hands’ or ‘Too much talking’, for example!!

Grandma & Grace practising their handwriting
In the galleried classroom, which was built in 1853 for 110 boys, modern day visitors can experience what it was like to be a pupil in Victorian days.  Originally, this classroom had no desks – boys simply sat on the floor on a series of steps so that every one of them could be seen by the teacher.  Desks were added in around 1880 and it is at these that visitors to the museum can sit and practise their handwriting using authentic quill pens and ink pots.  There is a volunteer dressed as a Victorian teacher on hand to dole out suitable praise or punishment for work submitted.  My Mum was admonished for ‘blotting her copybook’ – quite literally, whilst my niece was praised for her efforts, but requested a caning anyway!!

The 1905 - 1939 classroom
There are two further classrooms, one of which depicts school life 1905 – 1939 and the other the period 1940 – 1969.  These rooms are full of objects from the times and certainly led to a lot of stories being told by my Mum and myself as we explained their significance to my niece.

The ‘discovery room’ at the end of our visit was another opportunity for Mum and I to remember our schooldays and for Grace to play with the toys of yesteryear.  For me, I discovered that I’m still no good at ‘cup ‘n’ ball’!!!

I thoroughly recommend this museum to children of all ages and applaud the efforts of the volunteers for keeping it going.  Long may it continue!

Check out the museum’s Facebook page and this film made by Hitchin TV.


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