In an attempt to combat these conditions of squalor and filth, parishes opened public baths, which were exactly as you’d expect; buildings in poor neighbourhoods where poor people could wash themselves and their clothes. The first of these appeared in Liverpool in 1828, when the Corporation of Liverpool opened a salt-water bath at St. George’s Pier Head, but it wasn’t until the 1840’s that public baths and wash-houses really took off in earnest, with the first fresh, warm water public bath being opened on Frederick Street in Liverpool in 1842.
Two years later the Association for Promoting Cleanliness Among the Poor was founded, and set about establishing bath and laundry houses in London. The first appeared in Glass House Yard, East Smithfield, and for the price of a penny each the poor could bathe and wash themselves. Cleanliness at home was also encouraged and to help with this the APCA handed out whitewash (an extremely cheap and mildly antibacterial white paint containing lime) and paintbrushes so the poor could paint the walls of their tenements, rooms or filthy garrets clean.
The first “model” baths opened in 1847 in Goulston Square, Whitechapel, and by 1851 seven parishes had raised enough money through ratepayers to open public baths, including St. Pancras, Marylebone and St. Martin-in-the-Fields. In 1850 the Whitechapel, St. Martin-in-the-Fields and Marylebone baths were used by a combined total of half a million people.
Of course, public baths and whitewashing alone could not stop the spread of diseases, and it was one such outbreak that sowed the seed for the public bath and wash house movement to be born in Liverpool. An 1832 cholera epidemic in the city saw one plucky citizen rise to prominence in the war on slum diseases.
Kitty Wilkinson was born Catherine Seaward in Ireland in 1786 but at the age of nine left the emerald isle with her parents and sister and set sail for a new life in Liverpool. As they approached the city their boat capsized. Kitty and her mother made it to Liverpool, but her father and sister were swept out to sea, never to be seen again. They were alone and destitute.
At twelve she made her way to Lancashire and found work in a cotton mill as an apprentice- notoriously hard and dangerous work – before returning to her mother in Liverpool eight years later in 1806, at which time they both went into domestic service. In 1812 Kitty, then aged twenty six, married French sailor Emanuel Demontee. They had two children, but before the second was born the sea once again cruelly struck Kitty’s life; taking her husband whilst he was on duty aboard a ship and leaving her widowed and her children without a father. The incident must have brought back painful memories. Following Emanuel’s death she returned to domestic service, but this did not last long.
She had acquired a mangle as a gift and soon put it to good use, setting herself up as a laundress to support her two children, as well as her mother with whom she still lived. She married again in 1823, this time to warehouse porter Tom Wilkinson (from whom she takes her now familiar name), and lead an otherwise uneventful life.
For nine years at least.
And so the cholera epidemic struck Liverpool in 1832, and Kitty – being the only person in her neighbourhood with a boiler – quickly took matters into her own hands by inviting people from her street to use it to wash their clothes and linen. She also showed them how to use chloride of lime (bleach powder) to clean them. Effectively this was the first example of a public wash house, and Kitty’s actions saved who-knows-how-many lives during the outbreak.
After seeing the success of her wash house, and how effective her methods of combating disease had been, Kitty began to campaign for the opening of public baths in the city so the poor could continue to wash themselves. Her deeds had been noticed by Liverpool councilor and future mayor of the city, William Rathbone, who supported her initiative, which was ultimately successful, leading as it did to the aforementioned Frederick Street baths, of which Kitty was appointed superintendent.
Kitty, whose work earned her the nickname ‘The Saint of the Slums’ died in 1860 at the age of seventy four, and is buried in St. James Cemetery.
In September 2012 a statue of Kitty Wilkinson was unveiled in Liverpool’s St. George’s Hall, where the working class former cotton mill worker and domestic servant sits alongside fellow eminent Liverpudlians such as William Roscoe, Robert Peel, George Stephenson and Gladstone. Kitty’s statue is the first in the hall of a female.
In 1910 a memoir of Kitty’s life was published entitled ‘The Life of Kitty Wilkinson, a Lancashire Heroine’ written by Winifred Rathbone, and in 1927, Herbert Rathbone, the great nephew of councilor William Rathbone published ‘A Memoir of Kitty Wilkinson of Liverpool, 1786-1860: with a short account of Thomas Wilkinson, her husband’
Any Kindle owners interested in knowing more about Kitty may be interested in Michael Kelly's eBook, 'The Life of Kitty Wilkinson' available on Amazon here at a very reasonable price.