Arrival of a new Headmaster at the boys school. A golden age dawns with the appointment of William John Fitch - he stays for 45 years.
In 1854 following the years of turmoil resulting from the withdrawl of governmental grants from monitorial schools, the Trustees of The British Schools in Queen Street wearily cast around for yet another Headmaster. Among the candidates was a little, lame and obviously asthmatic man and against all odds he was appointed on probation. After 45 years of "probation", for he was never formally appointed, this man was acclaimed by Frederic Seebohm, the Hitchin banker, as the most valued townsman that the parish possessed, "his teaching was living in an unusual degree."
It is amazing what this fragile man accomplished both in and out of school. 3,333 boys passed through his hands and it was said that he gave them not only a wider elementary education than that was then usual but also the love of good literature, the love of God and the fear of W.J.Fitch. When his schoolday was done at 4 o'clock he threw himself into the organisation of the Hitchin Adult School and it was said that the gas lamps at The British Schools on dark days burned from 9 in the morning until 9 at night.
The "living" quality so admired by Seebohm did not commend itself to Her Majesty's Inspectors and they considered it improper that this probationer should play about with the curriculum as though the school belonged to him. His thoughts were not their thoughts nor were his standards as theirs. They point out continuously that the luxury of English literature is not permitted in elementary schools. There was one however, among this august body who recognised the genius of Fitch, the poet Matthew Arnold, the son of the celebrated schoolmaster, Arnold of Rugby, and who expressed himself much pleased by the results at Queen Street and who, in one year of poor results, said that he hadthe "highest opinion of Mr Fitch the Master" and that the reason for the "percentage of failure" was not the weakness in Arithmatic but an infusion of country boys, most of them very raw material.
Fitch had a reputation for being able to see in all directions at once and woe betide any malefactor caught in the act. Only once was he himself caught out, one of the pupil teachers caught a boy with appallingly dirty hands and brought the culprit to Fitch's desk for a thrashing. On his way to the desk the boy licked his hand and wiped it on his breeches and made it two shades lighter. Nonetheless when it was shown to the master it was still hideous. "Filthy indeed, a disgrace to the school" quoth the master. "If anyone can show me a dirtier hand then I'll let this wretch go free". Whereupon the dirty one with a confident grin held up the unlicked paw and claimed to be acquitted on the spot.
As today, danger was never far away and one parent called to give Fitch a thrashing for daring to call his young hopeful, and in open school, "a hopeless dunce". Mrs Spicer called to beg that her boy should not be overworked since she is alarmed by his behaviour at night and that a neighbouring boy has just died of sums on the brain.
At last in June 1899 the time came for the old master to lay down the rod and close the logbook and retire. He was aged 73 years.
He died in 1902. At his funeral the singing of the passion hymn was heard half a mile away in the town centre. The press of mourners was so great that few could get to the graveside and others were left outside the graveyard's gates.