Kitty Wilkinson

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Kitty Wilkinson, portrait published in Memoir of Kitty Wilkinson, 1927.[1]

Kitty Wilkinson (Catherine Wilkinson) (1786–1860)[2][3] was an Irish migrant, "wife of a labourer", who became known as the Saint of the Slums.[2] In 1832, during a cholera epidemic, she had the only boiler in her neighbourhood, so she invited those with infected clothes or linens to use it, thus saving many lives. This was the first public washhouse in Liverpool. Ten years later with public funds her efforts resulted in the opening of a combined washhouse and public baths, the first in the United Kingdom.

Personal life[edit]

Wilkinson was born Catherine Seaward in County Londonderry, Ireland, and at the age of nine was coming to Liverpool with her parents, when their ship ran aground in the Mersey and her father and younger sister drowned. At twelve years of age she went to work at a cotton mill in Caton, Lancashire, where she was an indentured apprentice. At age 20 she left the mill and returned to live with her mother in Liverpool, where they both were in domestic service. Shortly thereafter she married a sailor, Emanuel Demontee, although her mother continued to live with her. After two children in quick succession,[4] with her husband drowned at sea, she returned to domestic service. But shortly thereafter, upon being gifted with a mangle, she set herself up as a laundress. In 1823, she married Tom Wilkinson, a warehouse porter, and they continued to live at the Denison Street house that she rented.


In 1832, cholera broke out in Liverpool. Wilkinson took the initiative to offer the use of her boiler, house and yard to neighbours to wash their clothes, at a charge of 1 penny per week,[5] and she showed them how to use a chloride of lime to get them clean. Boiling killed the cholera bacteria. Once these activities came to their attention, Wilkinson was supported by the District Provident Society and William Rathbone. Convinced of the importance of cleanliness in combating disease, she pushed for the establishment of public baths where the poor could bathe. In 1842 the combined public baths and washhouse was opened on Upper Fredrick Street in Liverpool, and in 1846 Wilkinson was appointed superintendent of the public baths.[1][6]

In 1846 the Mayoress presented Wilkinson with a silver teapot from Queen Victoria en-scribed "The Queen, the Queen Dowager, and the Ladies of Liverpool to Catherine Wilkinson, 1846."[7] Wilkinson died in Liverpool and was buried in the St. James Cemetery.[3] with the inscription:

CATHERINE WILKINSON. Died 11 November 1860, aged 73. Indefatigable and self-denying She was the Widow's friend. The support of the Orphan. The fearless and unwearied nurse of the sick. The originator of Baths and Wash-houses for the poor. 'For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.' St. Mark, 12th Chapter, 44th Verse.


In 1910 "The Life of Kitty Wilkinson" was published by Winifred Rathbone which provided a more accurate story of her life than previously available in "Catherine of Liverpool" in Chambers' Miscellany, Vol III.[8]

In 2000, the first official contemporary account of Kitty Wilkinson's biography was written by Liverpool Author & Civic Historian, Michael Kelly in his book "The Life of Kitty Wilkinson". Mike Kelly was born in 1932 in the Kirkdale District of the City, and was raised in a working-class family of Irish Seafarers, whose ancestral home originates in County Cork, Ireland. In his working day, he was trained as a skilled Carpenter, spending the majority of his working life in the construction industry. Michael has never forgotten his Irish heritage, and throughout his life he has been a quiet, but hardworking advocate for the Irish men and women who have helped to shape Liverpool, the rest of the United Kingdom, and in many ways, the world. Michael eventually found his feet on the Novelist's stage, and has very successfully written, released and published five of his own books, ‘Liverpool Irish Connections’; ‘The Night Watchman’; ‘Mothers of the City’; ‘Sunlight Beyond the Grave’; and ‘The Life of Kitty Wilkinson’. Michael first stumbled upon Kitty’s story when he was a young boy, just after the Second World War. He used to attend the Washhouses with his Aunt, and was fascinated by the amazing social experience that attending the Public Baths was. Michael always had such a love for Liverpool and has expressed before, that he sees Liverpool as a great Celtic city because of the mass influence of the Welsh, Irish and Scots. He was assigned a joinery job in the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, and was asked to repair the 200 chairs in the Ladies Chapel. Michael was always aware of the stain glass window as he walked up and down into the Chapel, and of this Kitty lady staring down at him. What grabbed him the most, was the writing underneath the image of Kitty, inscribing ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens’. This made him curious, and he eventually went away and wrote a little article for an Irish magazine, ‘Ireland’s Own’. This kindled a huge interest in Kitty, and Mike began the long-term quest to discover who exactly this lady from Ireland was. Although Michael is passionate about every project he undertakes, ‘The Life of Kitty Wilkinson’ has got to be Mike’s greatest love, and is an endeavour that he has supported for nearly two decades. He is constantly campaigning to have Kitty recognised for the work she did for the poor in Liverpool, helping to stamp out Cholera, and being the originator of the first ever Washhouse and Public Baths in Liverpool, which indirectly transformed and revolutionised UK healthcare, forever. It is Mike’s hope that one-day, Kitty’s story will be taught in schools, just like The Lady with the Lamp, Florence Nightingale. Due to his efforts, in recent years the story of Kitty Wilkinson has been given more exposure, and a statue of Kitty has been erected in St George’s Hall in Liverpool. That said, Michael still hopes that someday a local artist will be commissioned to sculpt a statue of her that will be able to stand in the streets, amongst her people. Michael starred in the first official Documentary about Kitty's life in 2014, entitled 'Kitty: The Saint of the Slums".

In 2014, a group of Student Filmmakers from Edge Hill University produced a Short Documentary on the life of Kitty Wilkinson, entitled "Kitty: The Saint of the Slums". The Film formed a major part of their Degree programme, BA (Hons) Film & Television Production. They were mentored by their lecturer Derek Murray, from Inspiral Films. Connor Richmond & Matthew Harrison co-directed and produced the project, alongside Sophie Malone, assisted by Alex Walsh and Rebecca Seddon who also made contribution. The Documentary features Liverpool Author and Historian, Michael Kelly, the Great Great Great Niece of Thomas Wilkinson, Rev Elizabeth Storey, and Liverpool-Irish Historian, Greg Quiery. The Film also features music from Irish-traditional Musician and Historical Novelist David Dunlop, International Singer-Songwriter Cara Dillon, and also Clann Wallace. The Documentary was selected to appear in the Liverpool-Irish Festival in October 2014, and received press coverage on Granada Reports, the regional segment of ITV's 'Good Morning Britain', BBC Radio Merseyside, BBC Radio Ulster, and was screened in the Museum of Liverpool during a formal unveiling and Q&A of the Film. The production is in connection with Edge Hill University, 2013-14.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Rathbone, Herbert R. (1927), Memoir of Kitty Wilkinson of Liverpool, 1786-1860: with a short account of Thomas Wilkinson, her husband, H. Young & Sons 
  2. ^ a b "'Slum Saint' honoured with statue". BBC News. 4 February 2010. 
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ Her second child was born after her husband's death.
  5. ^ Ashpitel 1851, pp. 2–14
  6. ^ Wohl, Anthony S. (1984), Endangered lives: public health in Victorian Britain, Taylor & Francis, p. 73, ISBN 978-0-416-37950-1 
  7. ^ (Rathbone 1927), a plate showing the silver teapot is included.
  8. ^ Rathbone, Winifred (1910), The Life of Kitty Wilkinson, a Lancashire heroine, Henry Young, Liverpool, p. 67 , British Library record SYS:003043899


Further reading[edit]