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Catherine "Kitty" Wilkinson

1785-1860
Pioneer of public wash-houses

Catherine (Kitty) Seward was born into a working class family in Derry, Ireland, in 1785.  Her mother worked in spinning and lace making.  The occupation of her father is unknown, although it has been suggested that he may have been a soldier.

In 1794, Kitty’s parents left Derry for Liverpool and they set sail in February.  Their ship encountered a storm as it entered Liverpool.   The ship finally came to rest on a sand bank at the entrance of the River Dee. Kitty and her mother and the two younger children were taken onto the life-boat but there was no trace of her father.  The gale force wind snatched the baby from Mrs. Seward’s arms and washed her overboard. 

Mrs. Seward and her two surviving children arrived in Liverpool and had the  task of providing for them without the support of her drowned husband. The family settled in Denison Street in the north end Liverpool.   Their employer, Mrs. Lightbody, gave Mrs. Seward the task of teaching the other servants  the task to make lace.   At the age of 11 Kitty and her brother were sent to a cotton mill at Caton, Lancashire. It was here that Kitty met her future, second,  husband, Tom Wilkinson.

Later Kitty returned to Liverpool and with her mother found accommodation in Frederick Street, both finding domestic work.  Kitty opened a school so that she could have her mother with her during the day.  Between ten and ninety children attended, paying 3pence per week. They were taught reading, writing and sewing.  Kitty’s mother made lace and Kitty sold this in the evenings. 

In 1812, Kitty married a French sailor by the name of Emanuel Demontee, and they had two sons together.  However, whilst away at sea, Demontee was drowned, before the birth of his second child.   A widow, mother and carer of her own sick mother, Kitty managed to find domestic work.  She was able to earn enough money to keep herself and her family out of the dreaded workhouse, as well as refusing to send her sick mother to an asylum.

Kitty found domestic work with the Braik family of Pitt Street, Liverpool.  Kitty soon began assisting Mrs Braik with her charity work, and when Mrs Braik died, she left instructions with her husband to look after Kitty.  Mr Braik provided Kitty with her own mangle, which made her more useful to prospective domestic employers.  With the money she now earned, Kitty could afford to rent a small house in Denison Street.  Here, she continued to help unfortunate people in her neighbourhood, taking in orphans and young widowed families, and sending the children to the Bluecoat School whenever she could afford to.

In 1823, Kitty married again, this time to Tom Wilkinson, a porter at the Rathbone’s mill in Lancashire whom she knew from her days at Caton. Tom was also keen to help the unfortunates of the neighbourhood, and was happy for their Denison Street house to be thrown open to the poor and orphaned.

The 1832 there was a cholera epidemic in Liverpool and Kitty risked her own life to care for the sick and dying during the epidemic. The only wash boiler in the street was in her basement and she let her neighbours use it to wash affected clothes and bed-linen. Later she fitted out her cellar as a wash-house and disinfecting room for the clothes from both the infected and non-infected homes. She managed her washhouse well and non of her workers became infected. The idea of a public wash-house had been born. She also took in twenty homeless orphaned children and taught that cleanliness was the main weapon against disease.  Kitty promoted the washhouse concept and the first ever council-run 'Public Baths and Wash-house' opened in Frederick Street,  Toxteth, Liverpool in 1842.  Kitty and her husband were appointed as its first superintendents. People came from many parts of the UK, Europe and the United States to look at the Washhouses that Liverpool built.

At the age of 60, Kitty was presented to Queen Victoria as she visited Liverpool, in recognition of her services to the city.  Kitty Wilkinson died in 1860, aged 73, and she is commemorated in a stained glass window near the Lady Chapel in Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral, which honours Liverpool`s  noble women .

Kitty Wilkinson could become the first female to be commemorated by a statue in Liverpool’s famous St George’s Hall, which was built in 1842. City Councillors are to discuss whether Kitty’s statue should be placed in the hall to recognise her pioneering work in Liverpool post 1832.