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Thursday 10 January 2013

“To Promote the Health and Cleanliness of the Working Classes…” Or: Victorian Public Baths and Liverpool’s “Saint of the Slums”:

As you can well imagine, health, hygiene and cleanliness in the nineteenth century city was far below the standards we are used to today. This lack of public sanitation led to outbreaks of disease – particularly amongst the poor in their crammed slums – in Britain’s Victorian cities.

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 East Smithfield bath proved a success, with over 85,000 people utilizing the facility in the space of a year. This triumph lead to the passing of the Public Baths and Wash Houses Act in 1846, which promised “To promote the health and cleanliness of the working classes, and as a necessary consequence, improve their social condition and raise their moral tone, thereby, tendering them more accessible to and better fitted to receive religious and secular training.” The act also – perhaps more importantly – gave parishes the power to raise money to provide more public wash houses, and so inevitably, following on from the success of the Smithfield bath, more quickly followed in London.

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.
Kitty Wilkinson

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.


  1. You're welcome, Miss Simmonds, thank you for taking the time to leave a comment!

  2. Thank you for such an interesting post. It actually brought back several memories for me. As a youngster in Liverpool in the 60s and early 70s I remember that some (one?) wash-houses still existed. Although symptomatic of poverty, the wash-house was one of the focuses of local social life - to such an extent indeed, that the regional TV stations (BBC Northwest and Granada) made at least one documentary on them. I think it was probably Granada as memory seems to suggest that the presenter was Ray Gosling. Also we must remember The Steamie ( a play written by Tony Roper of Rab C Nesbitt fame. based in a Glaswegian wash-house.

  3. What s super story this is.

    I came into this topic at the end, chronologically speaking, with Family health and the Peckham Experiment: 1926-50. The core facilities were the cafeteria, games rooms, pool, nursery and gym. The members were actively encouraged to initiate their own choice of classes and activities. Self help was key!. The doctors also recognised the importance of good nutrition, and had a farm providing the centre with fresh, organic produce.

    But even post-WW1 the facilities struggled against the wealthy classes, the "real" health professionals and the bureacracy. So I can imagine that when the first model baths opened in 1847 in Whitechapel, and by 1851 in seven other parishes, they had a real battle on their hands.

  4. To 'Just Thinking' and 'Hels' - Thank you for the comments - really interesting how public health has changed over the years and the role of councils and parishes in that regard.

    In the 19th century the wash house would have been a bustling place full if gossiping neighbourhood women!

    We don't really have social centres like that anymore; even pubs are rapidly closing.

  5. I hate to nitpick- but you misspelled "led" in the first paragraph as "lead"...when a verb, it should be spelled 'led' if past tense- when a noun, 'lead'

  6. Very fascinating I love this website I am very interested in all your stories.
    Thank you for your effort in teaching others our past.