In 1808 William Wilshere, a highly respected Hitchin solicitor and resident, had attended a lecture in Hitchin by Joseph Lancaster. Lancaster, often described as the 'father of elementary education' was promoting his views about education - and what to do about it.
Wilshere, like Lancaster, was concerned at the number of young boys who were roaming the streets and causing trouble.
Lancaster explained his ideas for educating the children of the working poor. At that time it was generally considered that to attempt to educate them was not only unnecessary but likely to be detrimental to them - it would give them ideas above their station! Consequently there was no funding, and no schools.
Wilshere, however, decided that the children of the town should have the opportunity and so he founded a 'Lancasterian' school in an old malthouse which he owned.
Children were taught by the methods expounded by Lancaster. One Master taught a number of the older and more able children; they then passed onto others what they had learned. Initially the school was for boys only, but by 1819 girls were being taught as well.
The school became very popular and in 1837 the great Lancasterian Schoolroom was built to accommodate the numbers of boys who flocked there to learn.
In 1851 the poet Matthew Arnold, one of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Education, inspected the site. As a result of his recommendation, the Galleried Classroom was built in 1853, providing light and airy accommodation for 110 boys taught sitting on rows of benches.
In 1845 the ancient malthouse had been involved in a disastrous fire that swept along Queen Street. It had been repaired - but badly and so, in 1856/57, it was pulled down and replaced by the handsome Infants' and Girls' School. At the same time, a pair of houses for the Master and Mistress was built.
The final addition came in 1905 when the 'Edwardian' classrooms were added alongside the Lancasterian Schoolroom. The site has changed little since that time.
In 1925 the Trustees of the British Schools handed the site to Hertfordshire County Council, and the site became known as Queen Street Infants' School - and later Queen Street Junior School.
In 1969 the last school on the site closed, but the buildings continued to be used as Hitchin College's Community Annex.
When the site was offered for sale by Hertfordshire in 1990, the present British Schools Trust was formed to save the buildings from redevelopment and to develop the British Schools Museum.
The site is now extremely important to the history of elementary education that it portrays. We have yet to find another schoolroom built to Lancaster's specification, with the supporting pillars marking the teaching aisles still in place, surviving anywhere else in the world. All the buildings are Listed Grade 2, with the Boys' School being Grade 2*.
All of these buildings (except the headmistress's house) and classrooms are furnished and can be seen when the museum is open.