Tag people

International Women’s Day – Liverpool Heroes 2: Kitty Wilkinson

Today is International Women’s Day, and to mark the occasion this edition of the ‘Liverpool Heroes’ series (see the last post’s coverage of J.A. Brodie) discusses a remarkable women whose effects on Liverpool were felt for decades after her death.

Photograph of the interior of Frederick Street wash house

Interior of Frederick Street wash house, built in 1842

Kitty Wilkinson’s story is classic Victorian Liverpool: born in Londonderry in 1786, Wilkinson moved to Liverpool with her parents when she was just 8 years old. Tragically her father and sister were drowned at the end of the crossing when their ferry hit the Hoyle Bank.

Despite being faced with the terrible hardships of the time, she was known for opening her house to anyone who needed help. One of the services this entrepreneurial woman took on was to allow people to use her house and yard to wash their clothes for a penny a time. During a cholera outbreak in 1832 she offered her scullery boiler to all who wished to wash their clothes and linen.

This proved so popular that her cellar gradually evolved into a wash house. None of those who worked here became infected by cholera, so effective were her disinfection efforts (e.g. the use of bleach to help clean clothes), and Kitty’s efforts led directly to the opening of the first public wash house. This was in Upper Frederick Street, and opened in 1914.

Given support by the District Provident Society and William Rathbone, Wilkinson was made superintendent of bath, and through the newspapers was crowned ‘Saint of the Slums’.

In 2010 it was announced that a statue was to be erected in her honour, and would be placed in St Georges Hall. As councillor Flo Clucas, who campaigned for the statue, said: “Through rising from abject poverty to achieve lasting reforms in public health Kitty Wilkinson is a real inspiration for every woman in this city.”

So how did Kitty Wilkinson shape the landscape? She pioneered the public wash house movement, and the last wash house closed only around a decade ago. The Upper Frederick Street building was a monument to her efforts, and in a sense the rest of the wash houses were also. In less concrete terms she also affected the human landscape of Liverpool. For the first time there was a place to go to clean your clothes properly, and the effects on stemming the spread of disease through the city are a legacy of Kitty Wilkinson’s generosity and hard work. This woman was a testament to fact that even those born into the poorest levels of society can make a massive difference to the built and experienced landscape.

Further Reading

Cover of the book The Life and Times of Kitty Wilkinson, by Michael KellyCover of the book Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing, by Katherine AshenburgFor a detailed look at the achievements of Kitty Wilkinson, see Michael Kelly’s 2007 book The Life and Times of Kitty Wilkinson.

For an overview of the history of personal hygiene read Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing by Katherine Ashenburg.

 

Liverpool Heroes 1: John Alexander Brodie, City Engineer

Black and white photo looking along the length of the East Lancashire Road as it was being built

Building the East Lancs Road, by Mr Robert Wade via Flickr

In writing about the historic landscape of Liverpool, it’s often the case that the people get mislaid, or hidden from the narrative. This post is the first in a series which aims to redress the balance, and ties in (rather loosely) with Liverpool’s Year of Radicals. These people weren’t radical in a left-wing sense (some far from it) but they were the pioneers, the bringers of change. They certainly left their mark on the landscape, some in subtle ways. A couple of these people are obvious choices, and some less so. Either way I hope you learn something new and interesting.

And so without further ado, and in no particular order, we begin with…

J.A. Brodie (1858 – 1934)

J.A. Brodie was the Liverpool city engineer from 1898 and due to his achievements was the first local authority engineer to be made President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. The list of accomplishements is impressive, as is the effect he had on the shape of the city.

Brodie was one of the first to suggest an electric tram system for Liverpool. The city’s electric trams ran from 1898 to 1957, and even today the tracks pop up from time to time during roadworks. The central reservations where the trams often ran along main roads are still to be seen in Queens Drive and Prescot Road.

He proposed the development of a ring road, the aforementioned Queens Drive. Roads such as Black Horse Lane in Old Swan were diverted or straightened and widened in the 1920s and 30s. At this time the suburban sprawl of West Derby, Tue Brook and Childwall were yet to be realised, but even today Queens Drive holds up well with the volume of traffic which couldn’t have been foreseen 90 years ago.

In 1905 the first pre-fab concrete tenements were built in Eldon Street. Brodie had been experimenting with concrete as a solution to the housing shortage, and in 1905 he exhibited a pre-fab cottage at the Cheap Cottages Exhibition in Letchworth. There’s probably little need to elaborate on the use of pre-fab concrete in Liverpool buildings in later years, but for better or worse (and despite trade union opposition to Liverpool’s production of concrete prefab parts) J.A. Brodie was a pioneer here.

As if being responsible for one of Liverpool’s major thoroughfairs, and a pioneer in building technology we still live with wasn’t enough, Brodie also put forward the idea for the East Lancs road, so that we can more quickly get to our neighbours in Manchester. And finally, of course, he invented the goal net, an invention of which he was particularly proud.

So: J.A. Brodie: engineer, architect, footy dispute preventer. And a man who’s effect on the landscape of Liverpool can be seen almost a century after he died.

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