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Postcards from the Past – by Alan Milner, Visitor Experience Team Member at York Castle Museum

York Castle Museum first opened to the public 80 years ago on 23 April 1938. The museum was founded by Dr John Kirk, a doctor from Pickering in North Yorkshire. He was fascinated by history and vanishing ways of life and began collecting objects that were becoming rare or obsolete. These ‘bygones’ formed the museum’s collection.

Visitor Experience Team Member, Alan Milner, has been researching the history of the museum as part of our 80th anniversary celebrations. Find out more about one of Alan’s discoveries in this blog entry.

When I first started working at the Castle Museum, I came across a series of postcards that came out in 1938 and were sold in the museum well into the 1970s. The museum also had their own version of a Penny Black stamp which you could buy. It had a red seal, and postcards could then be posted from the museum.

I started saving these postcards and found out there were 32 in the set. I now have 31 of these and have managed to find two photographs from the same series; one of the card I need and the other of an image of one that was never used. The postcards numbered 8 and 9 have been used to promote the museum over the years. Click on the images below.

Further research led me to discover that the 17 postcards that featured people in costume on Kirkgate were the York Repertory Company. The Repertory Company was used twice for promoting the museum – take a look at the gallery below. What follows is a retelling of the story that curator Violet Rodgers, Dr Kirk’s right-hand woman, wrote about in a letter dated 1976.

“The taking of photos for the street postcards was another very amusing experience. The York Repertory Co. came all dressed in suitable costume including Miss Phyllis Calvert who appears in the sedan chair pictures. I shall never forget that afternoon – they all kept up the part delightfully all the time.

“One lady, who had to be photographed on the balcony of the Tudor House, got her crinoline stuck in the trap-door. One could just see a pair of legs in long frilly pantalettes dangling through the trap-door. Anguished cries for help fetched me to the rescue.

“‘Give them all some tea’, said the doctor hospitably, quite forgetting that there were only four cups in his office and about twenty people from the Repertory Co. so they drank in relays, which was rather awkward as they kept wandering away down the street, carrying their cups, as we had no chairs for anyone to sit down, and I had to chase them to collect the cups for the next lot to drink from.

“The museum staff also dressed up on another occasion for the postcard photographs and I remember how difficult it was to keep the crinolines from swaying during the exposures.

“Another amusing day was when Dr Kirk lent out the stagecoach to the York Repertory for some festival – I forget just what, holiday at home or something – they got it out of the museum through the annexe after mighty efforts in which we rather expected the coach might fall to pieces, and drove it all round York, to the accompaniment of the genuine coaching horn.

“It was very entertaining; I rode inside and the beautiful damsels from the theatre in their crinolines with their be-whiskered and top-hatted escorts on the top of the coach. The driver was Mr Joe Thornton from the antique shop in the Shambles, who looked the part to perfection without make-up.

“One of the horses kept stopping without any perceptible reason. We discovered that it was a dairy horse and that the coach went down a street where it usually went on its milk rounds. Old Joe had been given a special route by the police, as it was a crowded Saturday afternoon, but he blithely ignored this and drove the coach through all the narrow streets of York where he was most well-known.”

We’ll be revealing more fascinating stories and objects as part of our 80th anniversary celebrations this year. Visit Kirkgate to meet Alan and our other Visitor Experience Team Members to find out more about the history of Dr Kirk, the museum, and our collection.

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