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The Crippleage Roses

The reconstructed Victorian street known as Kirkgate, which has been situated in York's Castle Museum since 1938, contains much of interest. At the time of its construction, it was a groundbreaking and innovative way to display a large number of artefacts in an appropriate setting, rather than the traditional glass cases you might expect to find in a museum, adding a sense of period atmosphere to enhance the visitors' experience.

Nowadays we have entire villages built in this way, such as Blist's Hill, Beamish, and the Black Country Museum, where we can immerse ourselves in the sights and sounds of the 19th century, but it is possible that Kirkgate may have been their imaginitive predecessor.

It interests me to note that at the time of its construction, its appearance was in fact referencing a period of history only 50 or 60 years in the past, and well within living memory for many people.

I wonder if such a project were to be undertaken today, would there be a viewing public eager to pay to visit a brutalist concrete shopping precinct c. 1960, and marvel at such wonders as Fairy Liquid and Blue Band margarine in the shops? The Victorian era still holds a rosy glow of nostalgic recognition for us, even though none of us were ever alive then, and our perception is based somewhat on films, books, and other peoples' recollections. I wonder how the first visitors to Kirkgate felt as they peered into the bow fronted and gaslit shop windows at sugar mice and corset laces, or perused the array of deadly poisons once freely available in the pharmacy. Did it remind them of their childhoods, and was that recollection the most valuable part of their visit, rather than the acquisition of knowledge about the past? Would a reconstructed 1960's high street offer people the same experience?

In the corner of one Victorian shop window, almost hidden from view amongst the bonnets and button-hooks, there is a small and unremarkable cardboard box. It contains a spray of fabric roses, faded by the years to a dusty ivory and pale yellow. It may have been purchased and forgotten about, or perhaps it represents unsold shop stock ; whichever, it almost certainly never fulfilled its intended destiny of decorating a fashionable hat or evening gown.

There is a label pasted into the lid, entitled "The Crippleage", which informs the reader that the flowers within have been made by one of 300 "blind or crippled girls" under the auspices of a charity mission set up to aid one particular section of the Victorian poor. The life of a street seller was harsh and poorly paid, standing out in all weathers to sell flowers and watercress. Imagine then the plight of a girl as young as 10 having to do such a job, and also physically or visually disabled. The Watercress and Flower Girls Charitable Mission was set up in 1866 to provide shelter and support for these girls, and proved so successful that it initiated a business making these decorative flowers, including some of the very first WW1 poppies. It was also able to provide indoor employment and accommodation.

I wonder about the maker of this little rose spray, whoever she was, and the difficulties she had to face, and hope that, somehow, her life was eventually improved.

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