York Castle Museum | Kirkgate – The Victorian Street Museum

Kirkgate was originally designed and named after Dr Kirk, the museum founder. It is the oldest recreated street in a UK Museum.

The Victorian district explores what life was like for people in York between 1870 and 1901. Many of the objects you see here are original, as are the vast majority of the shop fronts. The displays uncover stories of real people who lived and worked in the city.

The layout reflects the cityscape of Victorian York with high-street shops, workshops, and homes.


York Castle Museum, has long been reported as being haunted. Reported in the national press, one family of daytime visitors were astonished to capture the ghostly image of a Victorian girl on their camera.

Several staff at York Castle Musuem have experienced mysterious goings on, chains rattling, scratching noises from the cells and ghostly voices heard throughout the building. An old lady dressed in black has also been sited by a fireplace and a woman heard singing…

Working in Victorian York
The city was home to a wide range of businesses that offered services for all levels of society. These included Britton’s, a dynasty of high-end grocers delivering fashionable foods, small workshops like J. Kidd’s who mended his neighbours’ boots. German clockmaker Matthew Wehrly and pawnbroker Henry Hardcastle who made money from the changing fortunes of all.

Leak & Thorp, Draper, and House Furnishers
Drapers showed off their huge product range with exciting changing window displays. Customers could buy dress materials, gloves and hosiery, millinery and underclothing, traveling rugs, curtains, boy’s suites, carpets, blinds, waterproof garments, and much more!

Inside shelves were stacked with bolts of fabrics including cotton prints and floral chintz used for upholstery.

This large high-class draper was founded in 1847. The shop boomed during the Kirkgate period. The 1871 census shows they employed 14 ‘shopmen’, 16 teenage apprentices, 11 shop women, and seven servants.

Thomas Ambler, Family Grocer & Provision Dealer
Located just beyond the city walls, customers of this shop came from the Nunnery Lane area, a working-class district.

They could not afford high-end goods stocked by the prestigiou8s city-centre grocers. This shop offered a one-stop general store for food such as tea, sugar, bacon, and butter and household goods such as soap, boot laces, and tobacco. If times were hard the poor asked for a credit on goods.

The shop was run by an experienced grocer and Freeman of the City – Thomas Ambler. Thomas spent 19 years working for Rowntree’s grocery business before opening his own shop. In the early Victorian period, many grocers gained a bad reputation for cheating their customers and adulterating foods, for example putting white lead in flour, ground glass in sugar, and red lead in coffee.

Edward Allen, Taxidermist [Pike in storefront window]
This shop displays specimens preserved by Australian-born taxidermist Edward Allen. After a tragic upbringing, Allen trained under his uncle and gained a nationwide reputation. Some pieces were used for scientific study; others were made as hunting trophies.

Hansom cab [Pictured with Horse]
Joseph Hansom, an architect born in York, invented the cab in 1834. He worked mainly in Birmingham and never made money from his invention. For the Victorians, a hansom cab was used like a taxi today.

The Police Cell

This is similar to a York-city centre police station cell where offenders would be kept overnight before appearing before the magistrate in the morning. York enrolled its first 12 constables in 1836. In the Kirkgate period, the force operated from Silver Street. The station was altered and extended many times but remained overcrowded with between 20 and 30 prisoners kept in the three cells every night.

Temperance Cocoa Room
In the Victorian period, alcohol consumption was part of everyday life. Pubs were important centres for news and political gatherings, Alchohol was sometimes prescribed by doctors and considered by most to be ‘restorative’.

Temperance societies formed all over England from 1830 and encouraged followers to moderate their alcohol consumption. In the Kirkgate period Francis Baron, a former domestic servant, ran The Ebor and The York Temperance Club and Cocoa Rooms. Here customers could find cheap accommodation, rent rooms for meetings and events and buy ‘hot dinners’, ‘teas and suppers’ and cocoa!

John Saville, Pharmaceutical Chemist
The chemist mixed and prepared pills, powders, lotions, and tonics but also sold perfumes, sauces, ink, pesticides, fireworks, and a range of cleaning products. This business had a diverse customer base. Leading citizens and business figures of York were clients but so were those living in the surrounding slum areas. For these people ‘Mr Saville’ became a surrogate doctor. Saville’s developed and sold its own products including the popular ‘Ebor Cough Balsam’ for 1s 7d.

G. E. Barton Confectioners
Sweet making has been an important industry in York for over 200 years. G. E. Barton was a York confectioner, baker, and caterer who opened his first shop on Davygate, York, in 1881. He specialised in butter-scotch and his own ginger beer brewery.

Horsley & Son, Gunsmith
The Horsley gun-making business moved to 10 Coney Street in 1856. It had a workshop behind the shop so interested customers could come to check on the progress of their orders. The Horsley firm was keen on new developments and inventions and was one of the first to produce breech-loading guns. By the end of the 1800s, the firm was not only producing crafted firearms but also selling outdoor sporting equipment and running a shooting range. by 1900 Horsley & Son was also listed as a cycle agent.

Tallow Factory
Factories like this one made candles from mutton fat and had a very offensive smell. The cancels had the same smell as they burned, and their wicks needed constant tending. Tallow candles were cheap to buy and widely used for lighting throughout the 1800s. A factory like this could produce over 7,000 candles a day and employed teenage boys as apprentices. They worked long hours in dangerous and poor conditions.

Exploring the Victorian storefronts and artifacts was one of the finest experiences for quite a while.

Simon Wilson

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: