Hitchin has an important position in the history of education. In 1808 the great educational pioneer Joseph Lancaster visited the Town and inspired locals to set up a school, which opened on ‘Dead Street (now Queen Street) in 1810.
Lancaster was a champion of free universal education at a time when you could only go to school if your family could afford to pay for it. Being a poor man himself, Lancaster devised a system where brighter children, called monitors, were trained to instruct their peers. Using this ‘monitorial method’ hundreds of children could be taught by one master. It was a very cheap and efficient method which was to spread across the world.
Lancasterian (later ‘British’) schools were often set in areas of extreme deprivation and many thousands of children would escape lives of poverty because of the education made available to them there.
The Hitchin British school closed in 1969 and is now a museum. It includes the only remaining purpose-built monitorial schoolroom in the world.
Hitchin’s other claim to fame in the field of education is that Girton College was actually established here on 16 October 1869 under the name of the College for Women at Benslow House. It was the first residential university College in England to offer degree-level education to women.
If you are wondering why a Cambridge College was established in Hitchin, it was considered too controversial to site it in Cambridge itself. Higher education was still thought to be the preserve of men! Its founders, noted suffragette Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon, chose Hitchin as the next best thing, being convenient both to London and Cambridge by railway.
The College relocated to a site near Girton village on the outskirts of Cambridge in 1873 and was renamed Girton College. However, it was not until 1948 that women were admitted to full membership of the University of Cambridge, and Girton received the status of a college of the university.