THE SAINT OF THE SLUMS
Our July 2017 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
Pauline Hurst came to speak to us on 10th July. Her subject was Kitty Wilkinson (1786-1860). Born Catherine Seaward in Londonderry, she moved to Liverpool as a child with her widowed mother and two siblings. When her mother became ill, young Kitty was sent to live and work in Caton Mill, a cotton factory near Lancaster. She must also have received a basic education there, because when she returned to Liverpool she opened a Dame School to support the family.
In 1812 Kitty married a French sailor, Emanuel Demonta. They had two sons, John and Joseph. It seems that Emanuel died at sea, and Kitty was forced to move to a smaller house that wouldn't accommodate a school. She worked at nail-making, then began taking in washing from neighbours. So impressed was her landlady, Mrs Braik, that she rewarded Kitty by bequeathing her a mangle!
In 1823 Kitty married for the second time. Pauline told us that her new husband, Thomas Wilkinson, was a gardener at Greenbank, the home of William Rathbone (a prominent Unitarian, merchant and social reformer). They lived in Denison Street, in a large house previously occupied by 'gentry', and Kitty began taking in orphan children.
In 1832 cholera struck, a national epidemic exacerbated by poor sanitation and an erratic water supply. Kitty was fortunate enough to live in a house with a boiler, running water and a drying area, so was able to take in washing - contaminated bedlinen as well as clothing - from the densely-populated 'court' houses nearby. In this, she was helped financially by the Liverpool District Provident Society, an organisation with which William Rathbone was involved.
The 1841 Census lists Thomas and Catherine Wilkinson in Frederick Street. The first public washhouse opened nearby in 1842 - an undertaking said to have been inspired by Kitty's efforts. Pauline showed us a statistical table indicating that the customers were a mixture of washerwomen, servants and private individuals. The 1851 Census lists Kitty as 'Matron of the Corporation Baths' (Thomas having died in 1849). Two years later, the baths were rebuilt in Upper Frederick Street, and by this time other baths had been opened: in Cornwallis Street and Paul Street. In addition to the facilities for the washing and drying of clothes, these had plunge baths for males and females, as well as individual baths. Pauline mentioned that soap and a towel were only available as 'extras'.
Before she died in 1860, Kitty Wilkinson had been given a silver teapot with the inscription 'Presented by the Ladies of Liverpool'. William Rathbone, apparently, bought this teapot from the family after her death, and it was the Rathbones who first brought Kitty's story to the attention of a wider audience.
Kitty Wilkinson's grave in Liverpool's St James's Cemetery is marked by a simple headstone. When the Anglican Cathedral was built nearby, however, her name and portrait were incorporated in a memorial window by the entrance to the Lady Chapel. And more recently she has become the first woman to be the subject of a statue in St George's Hall.
Pauline's talk was relatively short, but triggered a long series of questions which she was happy to answer. It also gave rise to reminiscences from audience members, who as children had been taken to various public baths in Liverpool "whether they needed a wash or not"!