Victorian house gets a makeover

PUBLISHED: 12:45 20 April 2006 | UPDATED: 10:01 06 May 2010

In the restored headmaster's house

In the restored headmaster's house

MOST people who restore a Victorian home aim to keep some of the period fixtures but update it with a new kitchen, power shower and all mod cons. Not so Ralph Westell and Sheila Graham, who have led an enthusiastic team of helpers renovating the 1857 head

MOST people who restore a Victorian home aim to keep some of the period fixtures but update it with a new kitchen, power shower and all mod cons.

Not so Ralph Westell and Sheila Graham, who have led an enthusiastic team of helpers renovating the 1857 headmaster's house at the British Schools Museum in Hitchin.

Instead of a washing machine they've installed an old copper, the loo is a water closet out in the yard and the cooker isn't gleaming stainless steel but an old black range.

The pictures and ornaments are out of sync with modern minimalist tastes - they include a portrait of Queen Victoria, two aspidistras and some stuffed birds in a glass case.

But the result is a triumph, showing visitors how Victorian headmaster William Fitch would have lived in the house with his wife Sarah and five children, all crammed into three bedrooms, one sitting room, a kitchen and a tiny scullery.

Sheila, who was in charge of the furnishings, has been very strict about not including anything produced later than the 1880s. Everything in the house has been given to the museum or paid for by donations and the attention to detail is amazing, right down to the tools in the small shed.

There's a sewing machine and wooden cotton reels on the landing, jelly moulds and a mincer for the cook and a mop at the sink. In the sitting room there's a harmonium that Mr Fitch would have played, while upstairs the floors are covered in rag rugs, and the beds made with old white linen and a Victorian quilt sewn by Ralph Westell's great great grandfather.

But Sheila is not finished. "There's not enough clutter yet," she said.

"A Victorian house would have been stuffed with things - but we'll get there.

"It's been dressed in a way that makes it look like a small town comfortable house, suitable for a Victorian family with five children. It must have been quite a squash.

"Mr Fitch was a great reader and more and more books will be added. I want to put lots of them in the bedroom. Mr Fitch liked to read for most of the night and I want a 19th century copy of Pickwick Papers, which was his favourite book."

The restoration of the Victorian house has been a long project and, like everything at the British Schools, would not have happened without enormous enthusiasm and commitment from a large number of volunteers.

The renovation was led by Ralph Westell, who came to the schools as a visitor and was so impressed that he offered to restore one of the old desks. Soon he found himself working on more, then on the fabric of the rooms and finally on the derelict house which fronts Queen Street.

It was in a dreadful state when he first looked round in 1998 and had been boarded up after squatters moved in. Some of the original doors had been removed and wooden floorboards replaced by concrete which had also been poured over the yard. Ralph chipped away at that himself, exposing the original tiles.

Part of the job proved to be historical detective work, finding traces of the original colours and, in the kitchen, the outline of dresser shelves. An exact replica has been put up and the 1860s green reproduced in the parlour, with a toning Victorian wallpaper.

The team received help and guidance from the conservation officer at North Herts District Council, one of the organisations that has helped the British Schools over the years.

"The house is simple but elegant," he said.

"Mr Fitch was a person of some standing in the community and this is an appropriate house to reflect that."

Mr Westell, who gained his DIY skills working on home projects, is very pleased with the results of the team's work.

"It's enormously satisfying," he said.

"We have done it largely with our own resources and I am very pleased if we have generated more interest and shown it is somewhere worth going to."

There will be official open days on Saturday and Sunday when visitors can rediscover the delights of Victorian domestic life with activities for children such as rag rug making, washtub washing and carpet beating.

Other activities include identifying mystery objects with items provided by Hitchin Museum and an exhibition on domestic economy entitled Suds, Brushes, Pots and Pans.

The Friends of the British Schools will be selling their home-made cakes and preserves.

For more details about opening times at the school and events, contact them on 01462 420144 or www.hitchinbritishschools.org.uk


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