The author would like to thank Peter Hogarth, also Frances Chambers, Paul Thornley, and Dr Sarah King, Associate Collections Curator, for their help in her description of the museum and its exhibits. Unless otherwise specified, the photographs are by the author, and you may reproduce them without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

Façade of the Yorkshire Museum, in York.

The Yorkshire Museum, built for the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, which had been founded in 1822, was designed by the architect William Wilkins (1778-1839). Constructed from 1827-30 on the limited site by then acquired by the Society for that purpose — the core of what is now the Museum Gardens — it was one of the first, if not the very first, purpose-built museum of its kind in the country, and is Grade I listed. Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave name Wilkins’ Museum as one of “two superb Greek Revival buildings in York” (100), the other being the Savings Bank, St Helen’s Square, 1829-30, by Watson, Pritchett and Watson.

Façade and ruins of St Mary's Abbey, now.

The museum was intended to provide a meeting-place for scientific discussion; to preserve the remaining ruins of the abbey there; and to house the various collections of members. It is in the Greek Revival style, using Hackness limestone. The probable reason for this choice of stone is that the quarries were on the land of Sir John Vanden Bempde Johnstone, an early member of the Society, and brother-in-law to William Venables-Vernon (Harcourt), the dynamic first president of the Society. Many of those commissioned to work for the YPS were members: one wonders whether every active man of importance in Yorkshire joined the Society, or whether members were favoured over outsiders; perhaps it was the enthusiasm of all these gentlemen to do something positive with their increasing power.

Left: “The New Museum with part of the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey,” Nathaniel Whittock, 1829. Credit: York Museum Trust. Right: The remains of the monastic walls lie under Wilkins's museum, and also the Tempest Anderson Hall (a lecture hall) added in 1912.

Initially, before its principal additions — the extensions of the 1850s, and the Tempest Anderson Hall of 1912 — the museum comprised a south-facing façade “of nine bays, with a Greek Doric tetrastyle portico with triglyph frieze and pediment” (Pevsner and Neave 180). It preserved within its grounds the historically significant ruins of St Mary's Abbey, the foundation stone of which was laid by William Rufus in 1088. Laid out for the Museum in the 1860s by Sir John Murray Naesmyth (1803-76), these grounds were at first for private use by members of the York Philosophical Society, with only occasional public openings, but since 1961 at least, when the Society lost control and the York Museums Trust took over the gardens and the museum, they have been open as a public park, and contain not only the preserved ruins, but also many fine specimens of trees.

Left to right: (a) Pear-barked (grafted) beech tree, with the Roman multangular tower in the background. (b) The approach to the Museum — another view from the grounds. (c) The main entrance.

The grafted beech tree beside the Museum is a good example of the special trees in the gardens: it is a pear-barked beech – Fagus sylvatica miltonensis. The graft is clearly visible, as is the difference between the rougher bark of the sport (or cultivar) above, and the smoother bark of the natural beech below it. The miltonensis cultivar is "named for its more twisted, drooping branches. The height of this champion tree is 19m and the girth is 2.89m." ("York Museum Gardens").

Links to Related Material


"York Museum Gardens." York Museum Trust. Web. 17 August 2023.

"Museum Gardens, York." Historic England. Web. 17 August 2023.

Pevsner, Nikolaus, and David Neave. Yorkshire: York and the East Riding. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002.

Created 17 August 2023

Last modified 2 September 2023