There’s an entire recreated Victorian Street inside York Castle Museum. It’s been there since the start of the museum in 1938 and was the brainchild of its founder, Dr John Kirk. He was evidently an extremely innovative man; nowadays, so-called living museums are all over the place. And what a fabulous way of engaging with people – especially youngsters like me. ‘Kirkgate’ – named for John, above, represents a street from 1870-1901 and is based on real York businesses – some of them still trading. So you can dip in and out of all your favourite stores, like the chemists, toyshop, sweetshop, scientific instrument chappie (Victorian equivalent of an Apple Store, I guess) and (of course) the pawnbroker. There’s also a taxidermist – every high street should have one - and I’m sure we can all think of a few people we’d like to take there.
When we last visited, in 2013, the museum had not long completed a large refurbishment project, including adding ‘Rowntree Snicket’, an alleyway designed to illustrate the appalling social conditions people lived in during the Victorian era. A study on poverty in York, undertaken by Seebohm Rowntree of chocolate fame, caused a particular stir when it was published in 1901. Rowntree not only described the horrifying squalor in which almost a third of the inhabitants of the city lived; his work also demonstrated that even those in work could not afford to sustain what he called ‘bare physical efficiency’ It caused a sensation. Many found it inexplicable that such a state of affairs could exist at the heart of the British Empire. Winston Churchill told an audience that the book “fairly made my hair stand on end”. (Visit Poor Britain for a bit more on this topic.)
On a lighter note, the idea of refurbishing a Victorian Street appeals to me (think about it). And they’ve done it very well – though, personally, I found the costumed staff somewhat unconvincing.
Skip a short lifetime to find yourself confronted by a large photograph of Twiggy in ‘The Sixties’. This is a fun gallery, complete with a nice shiny Lambretta, Beatles’ singles (I really should sell mine), a jukebox and all manner of iconic paraphernalia. I particularly liked the TV news footage. Of course, if you can remember it all, then you weren’t there...
York Castle Museum is housed inside an 18th century prison. You can now experience the cells and hear the stories of some of the people that were held in them. These include the infamous highwayman, Dick Turpin, executed for horse-thieving in 1739, and Elizabeth Boardman, who was burnt to death in 1776 for the murder of her husband. Clever audio-visuals bring the characters to life, in a ghostly way.
There is an enormous amount to see in York Castle Museum, possibly justifying its relatively high ticket price. Though it’s one of those tickets that allow you entry for a whole year, I suggest this is a useless gimmick so far as most people are concerned. In fairness, entry for residents of York is free. However, it’s a place that I, for one, could happily spend hours in – and have. There are good exhibitions on social history, containing a fascinating array of everyday objects from times gone by, and on armour and armaments. I was particularly intrigued by Oliver Cromwell’s death mask. Even more captivating was an exhibition entitled, ‘From Cradle to Grave’, covering those two (and sometimes three) essentials of human existence – birth, marriage and death.
A final recommendation, though, is not to look forward too much to a nice cup of coffee in the museum’s café, because it may leave a bitter taste.
Visit York Castle Museum's website.