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Dr Kirk's vision

DR John Kirk was a magician. He took a load of old junk and turned it into a time machine.

This Is Lancashire: Dr John Kirk, whose collection of bygones formed the basis of the Castle Museum. Kirkgate is named in his honour Dr John Kirk, whose collection of bygones formed the basis of the Castle Museum. Kirkgate is named in his honour

For years Dr Kirk stored the "bygones" he bought or begged from his rural patients at his Pickering home. Every item was from the pre-industrial age, an era he realised was fast disappearing.

Soon, however, his collection threatened to overwhelm his house and garden. It was time to create a folk museum.

Pickering Council staged a temporary display of the antiquities, but rejected the idea of a permanent museum. So Dr Kirk offered his collection to York. Alderman John Bowes Morrell, visionary statesman that he was, became a great cheerleader for the scheme and the rest is, well, history.

Dr Kirk oversaw every detail of his street's creation, down to the precise shade of paint for each window. He insisted on skylights so people could see the street in daylight, and specified hot air heating. On arriving to find that the city engineer had installed radiators and hot water pipes, he threatened to withdraw his collection completely.

That attention to detail paid off immediately. People queued around Clifford's Tower to get into the Castle Museum when it first opened in 1938, paying 6d per adult and 3d per child.

More than 30 million people have travelled through time via a walk down Kirkgate since then. It is the oldest recreated street in any museum in the world, and remains the backbone of the Castle Museum.

Now Kirkgate has been updated. The famous Victorian faade remains, but there's much more behind it.

Under the heading You Have Seen The Street, Now Meet The People, Kirkgate will offer an insight into the life and times of our forebears when it reopens on Saturday, April 8.

Visitors will be able to meet the characters behind the shop windows including the toymaker, grocer, sweet maker and policeman. As sounds of Victorian life fill your ears, time passes before your eyes as new lighting turns day into night.

Among the new attractions is the schoolroom. Using actual Victorian school desks, a blackboard and an abacus, the classroom takes you back to a time to when education was strict and the punishment painful.

The classroom is open for the public to explore, and schoolchildren will be invited to experience how they would have been taught one hundred years ago by Kirkgate's very own head teacher (minus cane).

Many of the items come from Fishergate Primary School in York. The room was designed with the help of the pupils who explored their own Victorian school to identify key features about their building.

Another museum innovation is the street's own newspaper, the Kirkgate Examiner. Printed on the same presses which brought you this paper, the Examiner is full of stories about street life.

These include the fictionalised views of William Sharp, a real pawnbroker who had a shop in Fossgate. He is "quoted" defending his trade: "Where else can the poor go and get money? Money lenders are bad news and the banks will not give them a look in. We are letting people live."

William Chipchase also features in the Examiner, complete with photograph. He was another real person, and worked at Bacon's Factory making tallow candles. He helped set up the Kirkgate display in the Thirties.

Unlike the pawnbroker, Mr Chipchase was interviewed by the museum's curator and his recollections form the basis of the story.

He began making candles in 1865. Like many other boys starting out in the trade, his first job was to hang the completed tallows on a line of twine to dry.

But as he got older he began to learn the full process of making the candles - involving hazardous boiling pans of stinking animal fat. By 1890, he was a master of the trade.

"We make tallow candles here," he told the curator. "They're candles from mutton fat. The fat comes straight from the local butcher - no cheap imported stuff.

"Mutton fat is good as it gives the tallow extra gloss and hardness, though they say the best tallow candles are made from a mixture of mutton and beef fat. Pig fat is awful stuff - all you get is smoke and smell."

As with every newspaper, the Kirkgate Examiner has plenty of crime news - in this case, real stories taken from the York Gazette, 1891.

"Three children, aged respectively ten, seven and four, were charged with begging in the Micklegate district," begins one report.

"PC Paul said many complaints had been made of the defendants soliciting alms of passengers in the neighbourhood, and singing in the streets.

"The mother, who was in attendance, said she hailed from Oxford Road, Manchester, and was 'making her way' to Leeds, in search of her husband. Thither she was allowed to proceed with her children, on promising she would not send them begging again."

The revamped Kirkgate experience promises to be a new way of looking back. "We are delighted with the changes," said Martin Watts, director of lifelong learning at York Museums Trust.

"They are a huge improvement to what was already the best street of its kind. We have combined the very best elements of this famous iconic display with modern ideas and technologies.

"We now believe this will put York Castle Museum once more at the forefront of museum interpretation - engaging, exciting, inspiring and informing new generations of visitors."

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