St James' Cemetery. Liverpool
|Kitty was born Catherine Seaward in Londonderry, in 1786. When she was only a few years old, her working class parents took the Irish ferry to Liverpool in order to better themselves. At the mouth of the Mersey, their ship struck the Hoyle Bank, and her father and sister were drowned. How she and her mother managed for the next few years is hard to imagine. When she was ten, an old lady engaged her to run messages and to accompany her.|
At the age of twelve, she went to work in a cotton mill in Caton, near Lancaster, and, as an apprentice, had several privileges, not the least being the opportunity of improving her education at night school. She left the mill and went into service for a few years, then married a sailor. Sadly, soon afterwards, he was lost at sea, and she was left a widow with two very young children - one a hopeless weakling and the other a new-born babe. In addition, she had to look after her mother who was blind and insane and, with almost ridiculous hospitality, she opened her door to anyone who wanted help. At one time, she had a mother and family lodged with her, and on another occasion, a blind invalid neighbour whom she looked after for seven years.
After the death of her mother, she came back to Liverpool where she was to learn that conditions were far worse than at Caton. "Poor people lived, in cramped, crowded conditions in courts, alleys and cellars, with darkness dirt and destitution for their constant companions." (Rev. McNeill, ) She took in washing to be put through the mangle in her own wash-house to earn a little money. She took in three motherless children and, when the father died, brought them up as her own. She met and married a young man she had first met in Caton, Tom Wilkinson, who was a porter in Rathbone's warehouse. They settled down in her house in Denison Street Tom was also an hospitable man, so their home soon took on the status a atmosphere of an orphanage!
In 1832, cholera broke out in Liverpool (there were ten outbreaks between 1832 and 1840, according to one source). Kitty plunged in with her customary fervour and fearlessness. The only boiler in the street was in her scullery so she offered the use of it to her neighbours to wash affected clothes and bed-linen. They accepted the offer so enthusiastically that she had to fit her cellar as a wash-house, with the additional intention of using it as disinfecting room for the clothes from the cholera homes and those who, had not yet been infected by cholera. She managed it so well that not one her workers became infected. The idea of a public wash-house was born
(Terms like "infection" and "epidemic" probably did not exist at that time because it was thought that illness was brought by "bad air" ("miasma"). The term , plague" was more popularly used. The idea of germs being responsible was yet to materialise.)
|When the cholera epidemic passed, there were many fatherless motherless children who were neglected and even living rough. Kitty took in twenty of them every morning and read stories to them and taught them hymns in her bedroom. They enjoyed themselves so much that Kitty was forced to hire a room and employ another woman to teach them. Click on the thumbnail on the right to enlarge the picture.|
|Tom died in 1848. Kitty outlived him by twelve years, to die at the age of 73. This was considered to be a great age, in a time when people did not live far beyond their 40th birthday. The picture to the left is of Kitty's gravestone.|
The picture at the top of the page is part of a stained glass window in the 'Lady Chapel' of Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral.
|The interior of the first 'Wash House.' Instigated By Kitty Wilkinson and her husband. Opened in May 1842, in Upper Fredrick Street, Liverpool. This picture dates from about 1914.|
Michael Kelly, has written a splendid book called 'The Life
and Times of Kitty Wilkinson'.
Published by Countyvise, ISBN 1 871201 08 X, it is a superb insight into the life of one of Liverpool's unsung heroines. I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in 19th century Liverpool. It is available online from Wirral and Liverpool Books who will accept overseas orders.