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Cleanliness Was Next To Godliness for Kitty, Saint Of The Slums

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Bob Edwards was born in Liverpool in the 1950s. He has been a policeman, a publican and a teacher in Further Education. He is a keen local historian and the author of the book, Liverpool in the 1950s. Since 2010 Bob has maintained which has attracted more than 1,9 million visitors from around the world.

CATHERINE “Kitty” Wilkinson became the superintendant of the first wash-house for poor people on Upper Frederick Street in Liverpool in 1842.

Kitty was born Catherine Seaward in Londonderry, in 1786. When she was only a few years old, her working class parents took the Irish ferry to Liverpool in order to better themselves. At the mouth of the Mersey, their ship struck the Hoyle Bank, and her father and sister were drowned. At the age of twelve, she went to work in a cotton mill in Caton, near Lancaster; she was an apprentice and had several privileges, not the least being the opportunity of improving her education at night school. When she eventually left the mill she went into service for a few years. She later married a sailor. Sadly, soon after they were married, he was lost at sea, and she was left a widow with two very young children – one child in need of almost constant care and the other a new-born babe. In addition to looking after the children, she cared for her mother who was blind and insane; however, despite all of this, she opened her door to anyone who wanted help. At one time, she had a mother and family lodged with her, and on another occasion, a blind invalid neighbour whom she looked after for seven years.

After the death of her mother, she came back to Liverpool, there she met and married a young man she had first met in Caton, Tom Wilkinson, who was a porter in Rathbone’s warehouse. They settled down in her house in Denison Street. Tom, like Kitty was also a caring and compassionate man always keen to help others and between them they invited may poor, destitute and orphaned people into their home.

Dubbed ‘the Saint of the Slums’, Kitty Wilkinson was responsible for

Kitty Wilkinson
Kitty Wilkinson

saving many lives, in 1832, during a cholera epidemic, Kitty took the initiative to offer the use of her house and yard to neighbours to wash their clothes, at a charge of 1 penny per week, and showed them how to use a chloride of lime to get them clean. She was supported by the District Provident Society and William Rathbone. In 1832 a cholera epidemic was sweeping Liverpool , Kitty and Tom Wilkinson were in the fortunate position of having the only hot water boiler in their street so they invited their neighbours down to their cellar to wash their clothes and bed-linen, hoping to offer some measure of protection against the cholera.

The Wilkinson’s were aided in their work by the Liverpool District Provident Society and the benevolence of the Rathbone family, each contributing towards the provision of clean clothes and fresh bedding materials therefore reducing the spread of disease. The Wilkinson’s wash-room became so popular that it was moved upstairs to the kitchen, with a rudimentary drying area established in the back yard. Kitty and Tom asked the neighbours who used their facilities to contribute one penny per family, per week to help towards water and gas costs. At the same time, Kitty and a neighbour by the name of Mrs Lloyd established a rudimentary infant school, in Kitty and Tom’s bedroom. Local young orphans would be taught, continuing Kitty’s desire to see working-class children educated as best as possible.

When the cholera epidemic passed, there were many fatherless motherless children who were neglected and even living rough. Kitty took in twenty of them every morning and read stories to them and taught them hymns in her bedroom. They enjoyed themselves so much that Kitty was forced to hire a room and employ another woman to teach them.

Kitty Wilkinson’s influence forced the authorities to acknowledge the need for access to clean water for

Frederick Street Washouse
Frederick Street Washouse

washing people and clothes in the fight against disease, she pioneered the public wash house movement which gave poor people somewhere to clean their clothes. Fourteen years after the cholera outbreak, the first public wash-house opened in Upper Frederick Street in 1842 (and was later rebuilt in 1853) and Kitty and her husband were appointed as its first superintendents. This led to more wash-houses being built in Liverpool and in other parts of the country. The wash-house was still operating up to 1925.

Wash house in Kensington
Wash house in Kensigton

Kitty lost her husband Tom who died in 1848.  She outlived him by twelve years and died aged 73.  This was considered to be a great age, in a time when people did not live far beyond their 40th birthday.

In 1852, Liverpool Council established a Baths Committee to oversee the management of the new baths, as well as the building of new ones. As well as rooms for private bathing and laundry rooms, some of the baths had larger swimming pools or plunge baths for the public to use. By the end of the century, twelve such baths and wash-houses had been opened in Liverpool, including the city’s first free open-air bath, at Burlington Street, in 1895.

From great basins in stalls fitted with washboards and hunks of soap, to electrically-charged rotor-tubs to the comparative luxury of laundrettes with their padded plastic chairs, the weekly washday had huge importance in the communities – before we caught up with those rich Americans, who had their own washing tubs and tumble-dryers in the home. Liverpool’s last public wash-house, the Fred Robinson laundry in Everton, closed in October 1995.Kitty Wilkinson - STained Glass Window

A stained glass window in the Anglican Cathedral is dedicated to Kitty Wilkinson.

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