Hitchin British Schools celebrate 200 years

A bicentenary of 'a place of learning'

By Ann Judge

In 1810 the first Monitorial School in Hertfordshire – and one of the first in the country – opened in Hitchin.  On Saturday 20 March 2010, the British Schools Museum celebrated its bicentenary with a number of events to mark this special occasion.

The school, and others that followed, were for the children of the working class; in the early years of the 19th century there was no state education and no opportunities for the working classes to gain an education of any worth.  Joseph Lancaster, a Quaker by faith and working in Southwark, London, developed a system in which one master or mistress could teach 300, or even more children in one schoolroom.  He then came to Hitchin in 1808 and met William Wilshere, a local landowner and philanthropist.  Wilshere then founded the Hitchin British Schools in 1810.

The events surrounding the opening of the school in 1810 were re-enacted by volunteers from the British Schools Museum team.  Joseph Lancaster was played by Stuart Antrobus, William Wilshere by Ken Burton, Thomas Brand, Lord Dacre by Derek Wheeler MBE, and Thomas Dimsey who was the first Master of the Boys School was played by Graham Kingsley.

After a speech by ‘Joseph Lancaster’ to proclaim his system of education, everyone moved into the Monitorial Schoolroom to watch ‘Mr Dimsey’ demonstrate monitorial teaching.

Special guests included Lance and Andrew Dimsey, 3x and 4x great grandsons of Mr Dimsey, and the pupils of Wilshere Dacre School.

This page was added on 25/03/2010.

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  • ‘JOSEPH LANCASTER’ speech to assembled crowd at the British Schools Museum, Hitchin, Sat 20 March 2010 “My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen. I am delighted to have been invited to visit you and see for myself the new school you have established for the education of poor children here in Hitchin. And thank you, Mr. Wilshere, and you, Mr. Brand, and the assembled throng, for such a warm welcome to Hitchin. As some of you will know, I believe fervently in education for the poor. I have devoted my time, my talents and, indeed, my property to this cause. I have travelled widely, promulgating my plans, both here in this country and also abroad, since I believe in the success of this experiment in using the monitorial method of schooling. By this, I mean the use of older, brighter pupils to teach younger ones, under the strict control of an able master, or mistress, who will train the monitors, supervise them and test what the pupils – or scholars as we call them – have learned. I have shown in my own monitorial school in the Borough Road, London, that this can work and that one good master can inspire and train his monitors – who are proud to be monitors and wear their badge – to systematically teach the skills of basic reading and then writing. And this for the minimum outlay of money for a rented schoolroom, slates, pencils, lesson boards, badges and the salary of only one teacher. One able teacher, with 30 monitors, can teach up to 300 scholars. My system can teach children to learn quickly, economically, efficiently and, I believe, enjoyably. First, one must select and then train an able master or mistress, being sure to attract only the best. Once trained, that teacher must then set up an orderly and disciplined school with, as I always say, ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. Very quickly, the able master will be able to find which scholars show the keenness and aptitude which marks them off as potential monitors. These he can then tutor separately before and after the main school day to be his juvenile assistants. Experience shows that such monitors take their responsibility for a small group of their own fellow pupils very seriously and are able, with increasing effectiveness, to teach them the lessons of the day. I believe in rewards, both in terms of praise and status and also in terms of prizes, which give incentives to all to work hard and learn their lessons and progress in their schooling. Rewards not punishments. My system of monitorial schooling works and, I believe, is, in time, calculated to promote the education of millions of children around the world. Some of you will have attended my lecture here in Hitchin, two years ago, in 1808, when I persuaded Mr. William Wilshere and other liberally-minded benefactors, such as the Honourable Thomas Brand, to see what they could do to begin elementary schooling for the poor in this fair town. I know that some fear that by learning to read and write the poor will get ideas above their station in life but I believe that it will bring only good to individuals and to society at large. And not only I believe this. Our sovereign, King George – the Third of that name – when I met with him in 1804, said to me that he wished that every child in his kingdom should be able to read the Holy Bible and I am certain that eventually we will be able to achieve that. You in Hitchin have begun that by setting up this school. I predict that in less than one hundred years’ time, every boy and girl will be able to both read and write and do sums. Who knows, in perhaps two hundred years’ time – in the year 2010 – men and women will assemble here to celebrate what you have begun in this year of our Lord, 1810. I understand, Mr. Wilshire that you have procured the services of a very able master, Mr. Dimsey, who has himself trained at my Borough Road School? I look forward to seeing him in action with the children of your local poor. I would further recommend, Mr. Wilshere, that provision be made, perhaps through an endowment, for the future of this school, so that when we are all dead and gone, there will still be a school here to live on and continue the work which you have started. Perhaps you, Mr. Brand and other benefactors, will help Mr. Wilshere to ensure that this is carried out. But enough of my speechifying – let’s see what Mr. Dimsey is up to in your schoolroom!

    By Stuart Antrobus (28/03/2010)

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