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Kitty Wilkinson - Liverpool's wash-houses

Catherine "Kitty" Wilkinson became the superintendant of  the first wash-house for poor people in Liverpool (and Britain) on Upper Frederick Street 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 compasionate man always keen to help others and between them they invited may poor, destitute and orphaned people into their home.

Frederick Street Wash House
Dubbed 'the Saint of the Slums', Kitty Wilkinson was  responsible for 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 new bedding 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 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.

Frederick Street Public Gardens Wash  House

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.

Some Liverpool Wash-houses

Frederick Robinson Public Wash-house

Wash-house in Litherland

Wavertree Wash-house

Albert Street Wash-house

Liverpool Women on the way to the Wash-house
Photograph Credit
20th Century Images

Liverpool wash-house
(Photograph Scottie Press)

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

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



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Liverpool Anglican Cathedral
British History Online

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