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York Castle Museum

York Castle Museum courtesy the Museum York Castle Museum is the chance to relive childhood memories and to share them with your children and grandchildren. Visit the 1950s living room and imagine settling down on the brown settee, watching its black and white TV showing the coronation in front of the fireplace.

Visit the 1940s kitchen, where you had to cope on rationed food and hang your washing on an old-fashioned pull-down airer. Younger visitors will enjoy the revolution of 1980s fitted kitchens. See old toys, 1970s platform shoes, and beautiful wedding dresses from throughout the 20th century.

Experience life as a Victorian. Walk down cobbled streets and peer through windows of shops long gone. Take a journey through four hundred years of life in Britain from parlours to prisons, marriages to the mill house. Discover a city at war and stumble into an underworld of highwaymen.

The buildings that house these fabulous displays have their own history. They were originally prisons. All sorts, from debtors to murderers, were jailed here. Some were even hanged here.

There are currently three main collections at the York Castle Museum.

The first is Social History. The Castle Museum houses a remarkable collection of objects telling a story of every day life from the past four hundred years. These nationally designated collections include probably the best collection anywhere of British household items from 1600 -2002.

Next is Military History. A dramatic trophy of arms introduces the museum’s superb collection of arms, armour and militaria. From medieval to civil war to modern day body armour, visitors can learn and experience the realities of battle protection. The Castle Museum also has one of the most comprehensive collections of English Civil War armour in the country.

York Castle Museum memorabilia courtesy York Tourism Last is the Costume History. Costumes and textiles are among the most fragile objects in the Museum collections. Items are displayed in low light levels and are regularly replaced in order to preserve them for the future. The museum’s collection is one of the largest and finest in this country and only a fraction is on display at any one time. The collection includes men’s, women’s and children’s clothes and accessories, household furnishings and needlework and covers over two hundred years.

There are also special exhibitions.

For Cradle to Grave is an exhibition giving a unique insight to the traditions surrounding birth, marriage, and death in England over the past 300 years. Experience the intensity of Victorian mourning preparations and come face-to-face with the risks of pregnancy and childbirth in the reality of Cradle to Grave.

Spotless is an exhibition exploring the many ways people kept themselves and their houses clean in the past. Find out about water supplies, sanitation, hip baths and flushing water closets. Discover how the vacuum cleaner revolutionised housework and why early washing machines were harder work than dolly tubs and pegs.

Prison History is about the York Castle Gaol. The year 1705 saw the completion of the new county gaol to house felons: the men and women of Yorkshire who were accused of the most serious crimes. It also accommodated debtors—those unfortunate enough to have fallen into debt and imprisoned on the instigation of their creditors.

The new gaol was built on part of the site once occupied by York Castle. Prisoners had been kept in the castle since the 13th century, but the existing buildings had fallen into poor repair. The courthouse, rebuilt in 1674-75, and a jury house also stood within the confines of the castle. The architect is unknown, but it was possibly William Wakefield, a trained lawyer rather than a professional architect. A native of Yorkshire, Wakefield also designed Duncombe Park and Gilling Castle.

The building was designed to be modern and functional. Men and women were kept separate and those awaiting trial and those convicted were also separated. The debtors were housed in a different part of the building to the criminals, and even the debtors were divided into three classes reflecting their situation.

The finished building was a handsome example of English baroque architecture, built to reflect county pride. The upper floors were occupied by the debtors, the left hand wing by the governor of the gaol, and the right hand wing by the chapel. At the very lowest level, flanked by earthly justice in the form of the governor and divine justice in the form of the chapel, were the cells for the felons. Separate outside exercise yards were also provided for each type of inmate.

By 1900 York Castle had ceased to be a civil prison. It was handed over to the military authorities, and they used it as a detention barracks. The military left the buildings in 1929, and the site was sold to York Corporation. In 1935 the last of the prison buildings to be built became the first to be demolished along with the gatehouse and the walls. The city had intended to build civic buildings on the site, but only the foundations were ever completed. In 1938 York Castle Museum opened in the Female Prison, becoming the permanent home of the Kirk Collection of Bygones. In 1952 the Debtors’ Prison became part of the Museum.

Half Moon Court is a recreated Edwardian (1901 – 1910) street that was built in the half moon shaped part of the original prison yard. The shop fronts are a far cry from the original use of the area, given it was here that the shackles would be cut off prisoners before trial, execution, deportation, or release. Wall carvings are a somber reminder of the prisoners who left their messages on the walls.

Visitors can peer into Harding’s Drapery store and wonder at the bizarre collection of bric-a-brac that includes ostrich feathers, hat pins, and table linens. The early 20th century Edwardian Street includes the garage of Wales and Son with its 1899 Grout Steam Car, an ironmonger’s and a public house. In the street a gypsy caravan, a street piano, and a butcher’s van can be seen, complete with sausages.

The most famous part of York Castle Museum is Kirkgate, a recreated Victorian street, complete with a hansom cab and a stage coach. The street was designed by Dr. John Lamplugh Kirk, the founder of the museum, a doctor who worked in North Yorkshire in the early 20th century. He recognised that a whole way of life was disappearing around him and so began a collection of objects, which soon outgrew his house. This became the core of York Castle Museum's exceptional collection.

Visiting Kirkgate creates a real sense of entering another age. There is gas street lighting, cobbles, a mounting block, and rows of shop windows, all original to the period. The numerous shops include an apothecary's with its jar for leeches, a toyshop, a gentleman’s outfitters and a Victorian sweet shop. There is also a candle maker's workshop with boilers for melting tallow, a fire station with engine, and a police station complete with padded cell.

Visitors are able to step back in time and experience the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian Britain and meet the characters behind the shop doors and discover what life was like in a time that changed the world.

York Museums Trust, who run the castle museum, is one of only eight non-national general museum services in the country, which has 100 per cent designated collections. This means that all its collections are designated for their national importance. The Trust was formed on 1 August 2002 and it is responsible for the development and management of York Castle Museum, Yorkshire Museum, York Art Gallery and York St Mary’s. York Museums Trust was created to run these public museums with the purpose of delivering a better service to both the citizens of York and visitors to the city.

Visitor Information

York Castle Museum in the city of York is open daily 10am to 5pm.
Tel. 0 1904 687 687
Photos courtesy the museum
Note: We recommend you schedule a minimum of two hours for the museum; 3 hours or longer is better. Try to schedule your visit when there are no school groups going through if possible—phone ahead and check. This museum is worth a special journey.




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