Guns and grime: a first look at the new Kirkgate

24 May 2012 @ 5.47 pm
| Entertainment
Streets apart: the new-look Kirkgate. Photograph: York Museums Trust

Forget the Tardis, Kirkgate is a far more enjoyable way to travel through time. And now the famous street in York Castle Museum has got bigger – and grittier.

We all have treasured childhood memories of discovering Kirkgate for the very first time. Peeping in to the windows and marvelling at the consumer durables of the empire age.

[column width=”60%” padding=”10%”]The £300,000 revamp of the street, which opens in June, sees all the shops based on real examples from Victorian York. There’s the Thomas Horsley gun making business which sold firearms on Coney Street, George Britton’s grocers for the discerning customer and Banks music shop, still going strong today.[/column][column width=”30%” padding=”0″]Scroll down for more pictures of the new-look street – and how it appeared in its early days


All very nice and middle class. But York was beset with poverty in the 19th century, even more than it is today. And to reflect that, one of two new alleyways will portray a slum are of York

Called Rowntree Snicket it includes Henry Hardcastle the Pawnbrokers, the Horse Repository and a view into the home of a Victorian working class family.

The new exhibit will have the whiff of true authenticity: the smells of the time have been recreated, from the cocoa aromas to the stench of the backstreets.

“Victorian York was a glamorous and prosperous, bustling and poverty-stricken place with people from every walk of life working and living in the city centre,” said Gwendolen Whitaker, the museum’s curator of history.

“For the rich, goods came flooding in from all over the empire while in close proximity two thirds of the city’s population lived in squalor. ?To show these contrasts we have made Kirkgate a much bigger visitor experience, complete with new backstreets and new shops all based on actual York businesses.”

Museum curators spent months researching the businesses and the people who worked there to make sure the shops in Kirkgate are as realistic as possible. They have interviewed family members and former employees, as well as studied company archives.

The results revealed glimpses into the lives of people living in Victorian York and a number of these individuals will be represented, such as George Alp, a teenage dad, heavy drinker and policeman, Elizabeth Kidd, a mental health worker and photographic model and Isaac Dickinson, slum dweller, activist and Royal Baker.

The expansion has allowed the museum to display thousands more items from its collections, with many on show for the first time.

  • The expansion of Kirkgate will reopen on June 2 in time for the Spring Bank Holiday. It is being funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archive Fund (MLA). The Joseph Rowntree Foundation also gave a grant of £10,000.
  • All shops in the new layout of Kirkgate operated in York between 1870 and 1901. They include The Little Dust Pan Ironmongers, Kendrick’s toy shop and fancy repository and the John Saville Pharmaceutical Chemist.
Rowntree Snicket shows life could be tough in Victorian York. Photograph: York Museums Trust
Authentic: all the shops on the new Kirkgate are based on real examples. Photograph: York Museums Trust
Inside story: the chemist's shop in Kirkgate. Photograph: York Museums Trust
Forerunner: this street scene from the Kirk Collection was pictured in York's Exhibition Buildings in 1934. Photograph: Imagine York
Here's how the street looked in the 1950s. Photograph: Imagine York