assumptionists in Hitchin
There is very little history available about the school until 1925 but by that time the Edmundian Fathers found themselves in a critical financial position, caused by their ambitious plans for the College. The priests from the Order of Augustinians of the Assumption then assumed control of both the Hitchin Catholic Church and the College. This marked the end of the Edmundian Fathers in this country at that time, although they had established links in other parts of the world. Bro Andrew Beck, who was later to become Archbishop of Liverpool, had studied for the priesthood under them and he, and others, transferred to the Assumptionists.
The Assumptionist Order of priests was established by Fr Emmanuel d’Alzon, whose statue stood at the end of the driveway and always pointed towards the exit of the school. Perhaps, it should have been the other way round. Fr Louis Deydier, the first Assumptionist headmaster, although he was called Principal in those days, arranged for the statue to be erected in Fr d’Alzon’s memory.
St Michael’s College was a Catholic Boys’ School and the majority of the teachers were from the religious Order. The priests were dressed in long black habits, and around their waists was a leather belt, which stretched almost to their feet. That belt was a convenient means of applying discipline when the priest felt it was needed, among other devices that came to hand. Some might say that the College was not dissimilar to the school portrayed in the movie “Catholic Boys” (1985), also known as “Heaven Help Us”.
There was a tradition that teaching staff would often be made up from Old Boys with many pupils also joining the Assumptionist order to become brothers or priests. At one stage, the Assumptionists at the Hitchin Community consisted of twelve former pupils of the College.
Over the years, the school gained popularity among the increasing number of Catholics in North Hertfordshire, and beyond, and the school housed a number of boarding pupils. Below is a 1933 schedule of the boarders’ routine.
7.00 amRise2.00 pmClass
7.30 amMorning Prayer and Holy Mass3.30 pmTea
8.15 amBreakfast3.40 pmRecreation
9.00 amClass4.45 pmStudy
10.30 amInterval6.30 pmSupper
10.45 amClass7.30 pmStudy
12.15 pmRecreation9.00 pmEvening Prayer
12.45 pmDinner9.15 pmBed
How pleased the day boys must have been to be able to leave the College at 3.40 pm to catch a bus or ride their bikes home.
There was a very close association with the Becket School in Nottingham and many staff were transferred to and from both schools. Fr Bernard Rickett who was headmaster at both schools, is one example.
During 1951, in succession to Fr Dunstan Caselaw, who was a very kindly man, along came the not so jolly Roger as headmaster. He was the infamous Fr Roger Killeen AA. He was the longest serving headmaster at the College, apart from Fr Rickett, who over two terms, as headmaster, held the position for ten years.
One of Roger Killeen’s his first measures were to change the names of the Forms so that they conformed with the current national grammar school practice. This meant the abolition of the Lower and Upper Fifth forms. The years were renamed from Form 1 to Upper Fifth to Prep to Fifth. It was purely academic, if you pardon the pun, since it did not increase the number of classes.
He also brought about some further radical changes at the College. In 1953 following a General Inspection, the College was granted temporary recognition as an independent grammar school and this was made permanent in 1958. The effect was that this also lead to the College becoming even more popular and, ultimately, to its demise ten years later.
Roger Killeen left the College in 1959, perhaps to reflect on his time there, although the official reason was for him to continue his studies. Fr Bernard Rickett was his successor and the penultimate headmaster of the College. This was his second term in that post.
1960 – L2R; Richard Hanzi, Simon Patterson, Peter Price, at the top of the College drive. The car belonged to Leo Handley, the prep school headmaster.
The number of pupils requiring Catholic grammar school education continued to increase in North Herts and new premises were eventually required. It was not a viable proposition to further expand the Hitchin site. The expansion of Stevenage New Town during the sixties led to the school being relocated there. It changed its name to St Michael’s School, which incidentally was its original name at Hitchin. There was a subsequent amalgamation with St Angela’s School for Girls School and the school is now known as the John Henry Newman School, firmly entrenched in the comprehensive system.
Interestingly enough, the Society of St Edmund was to return to North Hertfordshire in 1970 to establish a new parish in Stevenage. One wonders if the Society could have ever envisaged, back in 1903, that their small school in Hitchin, started with five pupils, would be the forerunner to the present seat of Catholic education in Stevenage, with around 1,000 pupils.
The College, at a time when it was accommodating about 400 boys, eventually closed in 1968. This reduced the “Catholic Corner” of Hitchin, as it was known, to just the parish, which still exists, albeit at a more modern church. The College building stood for another two and half years, during which time it was used as an annexe of Hitchin College of Further Education. The building was subsequently demolished in 1971 to make way for Hitchin’s new Police Station and some residential properties.
All that remained was the statue of Fr Emmanuel d’Alzon, which was re-sited at Foxholes in Hitchin and thus an era ended in Hitchin. It has since been moved from Foxholes (who knows where to??).