Victorian York revealed as Kirkgate enjoys £300,000 street spruce-up

By Culture24 Reporter | 30 May 2012 | Updated: 29 May 2012
A photo of a group of people in a recreated Victorian street
New alleyways and shops are the word on the street at Kirkgate in York© Dan Prince
Urban refurbishments rarely create areas of poverty, but Kirkgate, the Victorian street recreation run by York Castle Museum, is no ordinary set of pavement slabs.

A £300,000 revisioning of the popular visitor attraction, aimed at further reflecting the bygone city and social norms of the era, represents the culmination of months of research by curators, intent on making the shops and businesses faithful to the past they symbolise.

Family members and former employees have been interviewed and company archives have been leafed through, sometimes informed by Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, whose report, Poverty: A Study in Town Life, was a groundbreaking investigation of the causes of poverty in a financially-segregated city.

A photo of a woman and a young boy looking in wonder at a recreated Victorian street
Kirkgate was built in 1938© Dan Prince
One alleyway offers a glimpse into a working-class home, sloping off from a throughfare incorporating a gun-making business, grocer and music shop.

Characters include a slum dwelling activist and royal baker, a law-making alcoholic teenage dad and a photo model who supplemented her income by working in mental health.

“People from every walk of life worked and lived in the city centre,” says curator of history Gwendolen Whitaker, calling Victorian York “a glamorous and prosperous, bustling and poverty stricken place”.

“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, such as Thomas Horsley’s gun-making business, which sold guns on Coney Street.”

The annexe of emporiums all opened between 1870 and the turn of the century. The new layout will also result in some enlightening new routes: an ironmongers, chemist, cocoa rooms and funeral directors mean you can wander from the practical to the macabre, while the hard-up side of society introduces a Horse Repository and Henry Hardcastle the Pawnbrokers.

“The expansion has meant we have been able to get thousands more items from our collections out, with many on show for the first time,” adds Whitaker.

“I hope it will give visitors an immersing experience, but also make people think about and investigate what life was like during the period and how their own ancestors might have lived.”

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