Welcome to Kirkgate, the oldest indoor street of its kind in Britain.
The objects around you, from the lampposts to the horse troughs, are original items from the Victorian period and earlier. We use very few props on Kirkgate, even the carriages are original, and so are nearly all of the shop fronts. Because of this, we ask you to help us keep the street and all its artefacts in good condition for everyone to enjoy.
Kirkgate is named after the museum’s founder, Dr Kirk – he was a medical doctor with a deep interest in the past. He wanted to give visitors the experience of going back in time to a bygone age. Like a real street, Kirkgate is made of buildings from different periods. The oldest is the large timber-framed building about halfway down the street – it’s now home to Barton’s sweet shop, but it was originally built in Stamford, Lincolnshire, in the sixteenth century. In 1890 it was a butcher’s shop, and in the 1930s it was taken apart and brought all the way here to be a part of the museum.
There are plenty of spaces to explore. Visit the pharmacy and the coach house, the draper’s shop with its bolts of cloth, and the toy shop, full of toys, games and gifts from the final decades of the nineteenth century. All the shops in Kirkgate are based on real shops and businesses that operated in York between 1870 and 1901. This was a time when York was already a tourist destination, known for its railway works and confectionery factories. It was a place of luxury shopping, but also a place of extreme poverty.
Around the back of Kirkgate, you can visit Rowntree Snicket, which houses the Poor Dwelling and the candlemaker’s. Making candles was a smelly business; the cheaper candles were made of tallow – that is, rendered animal fat. Unpleasant and dangerous businesses existed side-by-side with the poorest of York’s housing, there were . In the late nineteenth century, many York families lived crowded into single-room homes with no kitchen, bathroom or running water. Rowntree snicket is named after Seebohm Rowntree, who made a report into poverty in York. The snicket and the Poor Dwelling are based on his team’s findings.
There are other layers of history to be found here too. The museum first opened in 1938, but the building is much older. It dates back to 1780, and was built to expand the overcrowded York County Gaol. The space now occupied by Kirkgate was the exercise yard, and was open to the sky. This building became known as the Female Prison, because this is where all the women prisoners were held, but there were plenty of male prisoners kept here too.
If you’re curious about anything on Kirkgate, or about the museum or the prisons, please ask a member of staff. We’re happy to answer your questions.