This article was originally inspired by International Womens’ Day, which takes places on March 8th each year)
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.
For 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.