THERE was a palpable air of excitement in York on the morning of April 23, 1938.

Queues had begun forming on the steps leading up to the old female prison at the Eye of York. Before long, they stretched all the way around Clifford's Tower and up Tower Street.

A new museum was about to open in York - and it was one everyone was desperate to see.

Some of the myriad objects accumulated over a lifetime of collecting by the Pickering GP Dr John Lamplugh Kirk had already been on view in a temporary display York Art Gallery.

But the new Castle Museum, created in the former female prison to house his collection of rural memorabilia and 'bygones', would be entirely different. Not only did it include entire rooms furnished in the style of different periods through English history: Dr Kirk had even insisted on recreating indoors an entire Victorian street, complete with shops, cobbles - and a Hansom cab. The street, which was to be named Kirkgate, was built in what had been the exercise yard of the prison, which was roofed over to keep out the elements.

The people of York today are used to Kirkgate. But 80 years ago it must have been a revelation. Dr Kirk had got the idea after visiting Skansen in Sweden. But it's a fair bet that little like it had ever been seen in this country. No wonder those queues were so long...

The Castle Museum will be celebrating its 80th birthday on April 23 this month.

The actual anniversary will be on a Monday. But on the weekend before (April 21 and 22) there will be a new display of some of the original objects from Dr Kirk's museum. Actors dressed as Dr Kirk and members of his museum staff will be on hand to meet and greet visitors, and a new scale model of the original museum (much smaller than today's museum, which long ago expanded into the debtor's prison too) will be unveiled. A time capsule containing objects from today will also be put into storage, to be opened in 80 years time.

As preparation for the anniversary, the museum has let The Press publish some of the old photographs from its collection. They show workmen building Kirkgate in the old female prison exercise yard: a troupe of actors in the newly-opened Kirkgate; a photograph of Dr Kirk himself, looking distinguished in tall top-hat; and those long queues winding past Clifford's Tower on April 23, 1938.

One other photograph shows the walls of the grim old Victorian prison that once enclosed Clifford's Tower being demolished a few years before Dr Kirk's mew museum opened. If they'd not been pulled down, there's no way the museum could have moved into the female prison at all...

Stephen Lewis