Kitty Wilkinson – A Civic Myth

JohnDobieOBE`Kitty Wilkinson – a civic myth?’

This material has been reproduced from a series of articles published between February and May 1972 in Baths Service ‘The Journal of the Institute of Baths Management Incorporated’.

The Author is John Dobie who was, at that time, Principal Administrative Officer in the Further Education Branch of the Manchester Education Authority.

It was whilst teaching history in a Liverpool school that he first came across the Kitty Wilkinson story and doubted its veracity. Mr Dobie, who held a Master’s Degree in Education, very kindly gave permission for `Baths Service’ to use the book in serial form over a period.


The little lady in the white bonnet, the starched dress with its Paisley motif, and the gingham apron, has become enshrined not only in Liverpool folklore and in the windows of the Lady Chapel in the Anglican Cathedral, but also in the history of the development of communal concern in matters of public health and hygiene.

The story goes that Catherine Seward (as she then was) was born in Londonderry on the 24th October, 1786. When she was still a child her widowed mother sailed with the family for Liverpool. But the vessel was wrecked before it reached port, and the crew and passengers had to take to a small boat. Kitty and her mother were both saved but her infant sister, swept out of her mother’s arms by a huge wave, was drowned. Nor was this all that befell them. So violent was the shock to her distraught mother that she later lost both her sight and reason.

In 1797, at the age of 11 years, Kitty was sent to work in a cotton mill at Caton, near Lancaster, which belonged to Messrs. Greg who were related by marriage to the eminent Liverpool family, the Rathbones. After working in Caton for seven years she returned to Liverpool to look after her mother. She then spent four years in service, one year with a Colonel and Mrs. Maxwell and three with Mrs. Richard Heywood. In 1811 she quitted service and went to live, once again, with her mother. In order to maintain her mother, Kitty opened a private adventure school (a `Dame’ school). Within a year, however, she was married to John De Monte, a French Catholic sailor. The `Memoir of Kitty Wilkinson of Liverpool’ describes him as a

` very respectable man, and a kind, affectionate husband. He agreed to her stipulation that she was never to be asked to change her religion or her place of worship, and that her children were to be brought up Protestants.’

Her married life with him was very short, as, owing to his frequent absences at sea, they only lived together three months in all. The `Memoir’states that she gave birth to a son who was called John after his father; her second son was not born until after Kitty had become a widow. The circumstances were as follows

De Monte, on hearing of her second pregnancy, decided to return from Canada.

`He immediately sold all he possessed in order that he might send money to assist her. He did not, however, return, as the ship he was in, foundered at sea, and all on board perished.’

Kitty was at this time quite destitute and forced in her altered circumstances to move to a smaller house.

The reduced accommodation curtailed the number of children attend­ing her ‘school’ (at one time she had as many as 93 scholars paying threepence per week – they were taught in a large room, for which she paid an annual rent of £5), and in order to supplement her declining income, she went out to char and also to work in the fields. By this time she was under a considerable strain: her deranged mother, her first child not two years old, the hard labour in the fields, her remaining pupils dispersing, the financial pressures and the imminence of the birth of her second child drove her to a state of near despair. But help came to her from the mistress of one of the houses at which she had charred; with this help she and her child – another boy, Joseph De Monte, – survived, a feat in itself in those days of primitive midwifery!

Her recovery from this confinement, not helped by the news of the death of her husband, was long and tedious, but as soon as she was strong enough she went out to work in a nail factory. Kitty was paid threepence for every one thousand two hundred nails she made; her weekly wage averaged four shillings. As a result of the work, her fingers became badly burned by the hot nails and so terribly blistered and inflamed did they become, that she gave up the job – it lasted for – 12 months.

She was then obliged, most reluctantly according to Mrs. Eleanor Greg Rathbone (1790-1822), to apply to the Guardians for some assistance towards the maintenance of her two infant children.

`Having been born in Ireland, she doubted her claim to relief; with her accustomed scrupulous sense of right, she informed the overseer of every circumstance which she thought unfavorable to it. Her claim, however, was admitted and for seven years she received two shillings a week for her children.’

To supplement this, she once again turned to charring and doing odd jobs in the fields, until she was befriended by the wife of a Mr Alexander Braik, a dyer, who lived in Pitt Street. During the last 18 months of her life, Mrs. Braik suffered painfully and Kitty was constantly occupied in nursing her. When the lady died, her husband presented, as a small token of his gratitude, a mangle to Kitty, and presently she began to take in washing. She now toiled more laboriously than ever, often working round the clock with but little substantial food to sustain her. This was for Kitty a period of grinding poverty and such was her nature that when she did have money or food to spare, it tended to be given to other people in distress.

In 1823, on the 1st December at Holy Trinity Church, Kitty married for a second time. Her husband this time was Thomas (also known as John) Wilkinson, who had been an apprentice in the cotton mill where she had worked as a child (Caton). The story goes that Wilkinson, having come to work in Liverpool as a porter in Mr Rathbone’s cotton warehouse, was walking one day through the grimy Liverpool streets when he heard someone singing one of the old Lancashire songs that he knew so well.

`Listening intently, he seemed to recognise the voice of the singer, and it was in this way that he met again, after so many years, the girl he had loved and lost at Caton.’

` . . . Of course they were married and spent nearly a quarter of a century together in the most perfect harmony.’

At this time Kitty was living in Benison Street in one of the cellar dwellings in which the poor lived in those harsh times. During the years following their marriage the Wilkinson home became a refuge for all sorts of unwanted children and aged folk who had no one to care for them. Kitty apparently shouldered these burdens without a thought, and how she managed must be something of a mystery. At one period she was keeping a family of 14 on £2 4s. 6d. per week, 10 shillings and sixpence of which went in rent and water. Yet for all its lack of luxuries, the Wilkinson household seems to have been a happy one where ample, if plain, meals were provided, and the long summer evenings were passed in playing games, listening to music (?) and reading aloud. In fact, a home humble though it was which attracted the regular visits of teachers from the Liverpool Mechanics’ Institute.

Whittington-Egan thinks that, thus far, Kitty had already lived a truly saintly life of selfless devotion to others, but it was in 1832 when the cholera epidemic broke out in Liverpool, that she was to do her most heroic work. He goes on to say that;

`Day and night this courageous woman flitted in and out of the houses of the sick and dying. She became the ministering angel of the epidemic and apart from fearlessly nursing the sick and helping the overworked doctors, she made every morning sufficient porridge to feed 60 children and gave up her very bedroom so that 20 children whose parents had the fever might be washed and tended there. She contributed sheets and blankets for sick beds from her own slender stock and placed her tiny kitchen, which contained a boiler, at the disposal of her neighbours so that they might wash and disinfect with chloride of lime those disease-laden clothes and bedding which their poverty-stricken owners could not afford to lose. It was in this kitchen of her’s that the idea of a public wash-house first originated.

Fourteen years after the cholera outbreak, a public wash-house was opened in Frederick Street, and Kitty and her husband were appointed as its first superintendents.’

Whittington-Egan continues his story by saying that all that she had done so quietly during the time of the cholera was eventually recog­nised,

`for it came to the attention of some important local personages. In the same year, 1846, Kitty was summoned to Carnatic Hall where she found many people gathered to do her honour and the Lady Mayoress presented her with a silver tea service, on which was inscribed

‘The Queen, the Queen Dowager and the Ladies of Liverpool to Catherine Wilkinson, 1846.’

Two years later on the 18th January (1848), Thomas Wilkinson died. Kitty lived on for 12 more years after his death. For four years the widow and her son looked after the Frederick Street wash-house until in 1852 it was pulled down in order to erect a larger and better equipped one on the same site. Whittington-Egan says that;

 `Mrs. Wilkinson was “compensated” for the loss of her job by being allowed to make and hem all the towels for a new establishment at a salary of 12 shillings a week.’

She died, aged 73 years, on 11th November, 1860.

`Her memory and that of “all poor helpers of the poor was perpetuated in the staircase window of the Lady Chapel of Liverpool Cathedral. Kitty is buried a few hundred yards away in St. James’ Cemetery And surely she rests content in the knowledge that she did most wonderfully keep that childhood vow to her beloved friend, Mrs. Lightbody.

And every now and then a few simple flowers, carefully arranged in empty milk bottles, are placed on her grave, doubtless the grateful tribute of the poor who still remember their gallant little champion acid friend – Catherine of Liverpool.’



It has been necessary in order that one might trace the development of the Kitty Wilkinson `myth’ to retell it, first of all, in a shortened form. Briefly recapitulating, it could be said, leaving aside all embellish­ments, that she was an Irish Protestant immigrant who came to Liver­pool early in the nineteenth century. Her early years were spent almost entirely in the company of her mother, her father, a soldier, died when she was very young. Her mother became mentally deranged as a result of an unfortunate accident whilst they were migrating to Liverpool. Her deprived childhood was one that was more conducive to producing an anti-social type rather than the unselfish and co-operative character that emerged. Her working career was, to say the least, somewhat varied, including work in a nail factory, charring, agricultural labour­ing, running a `Dame’ school, being an operative in a cotton mill, and the management of a public baths and wash-house. This flexibility in using her labours was not uncommon for her times, as ill-health and the fortunes of trade militated against continuity in employment.

Her marriages were not untypical of those of her station at that time. Her first marriage with a sailor visiting one of the country’s leading ports can be described as a `mixed’ one. Her husband was a French Roman Catholic, Emmanuel De Monte (though variously spelt on the marriage certificate and in the parish baptismal registers) and he does not appear to have spent very much time with her. The `Memoir’ states that it was only three months in all and also that the birth of their first child was in 1815, three years after they were married at St. Peter’s Parish Church. But the baptismal registers at the church tells a slightly different tale.

Christened 18th July 1813. John Demont.

Father . . . Manuel (mariner).

Mother- . . . Kitty. Both of Frederick Street.

As the wedding took place on the 5th October, 1812, and christen­ings in the Church of England usually take place some four to six weeks after the birth, then it is very possible that Kitty had given proof of her fertility before she and Emmanuel met the Reverend John Pulford at the altar in October 1812. The `Memoir’ also states that when he heard that she was pregnant for the second time, that he was living in Canada and sold up all his possessions to send her money and immediately set sail to join her. Sad to say, the ship is supposed to have sunk, with all hands lost. Now the information for the `Memoir’ was supplied by Kitty to Mrs Eleanor Greg Rathbone. If she was in fact deliberately misleading Mrs Rathbone, a Victorian Unitarian whose views on such immorality could hardly have been `progressive’, then it is also possible that the ship sinking at sea could also have been less than the truth. It is just possible that Emmanuel De Monte like many other mariners, had a wife in every port. Her second son, Joseph, was christened on the 7th May, 1815, the father being given as Emmanuel, but not described as dead, and the mother as Kitty.

Her second marriage, (it could possibly have been bigamous) was to a much more conventional person, a cotton warehouse worker whom she had known when they both worked at the mill at Caton. This marriage to Thomas Wilkinson took place at Holy Trinity Church, St. Anne Street, (built in 1792 under the Trinity Church Act) on the 1st December, 1823. Thomas, who was stated as living at 63 Frederick Street, made a mark in the register – indicating that he was illiterate.

The witnesses were William Fisher and Mary Howell or Powell (the register is somewhat indistinct); this same woman also, along with a Thomas Markhof and Elizabeth Thompson, witnessed Kitty’s first marriage, suggesting that she was probably her closest friend. One puzzling feature is that Kitty, who when she married De Monte had insisted that she was not to be forced to change her place of worship, chose a different Anglican church in which to marry. However, there was a boy christened at St. Peter’s on the 5th July, 1824, whose name was given as `George Wilkinson’ and the parents were listed as John and Catherine Wilkinson of Gibraltar Street.

Thomas Wilkinson came to Liverpool to work in Rathbone’s ware­house. How he obtained this position can be explained by the fact that the mill at Caton where he had previously worked was owned by Rathbone’s brother-in-law, Samuel Greg. In all probability during a time of recession in North Lancashire he had received an `introduction’ and come to seek employment in the rapidly expanding seaport. It would be through his employment at Rathbone’s warehouse that Mrs Eleanor Greg Rathbone would hear of Kitty’s efforts during the cholera epidemic. Thus it was that Kitty and Thomas Wilkinson became one of the channels through which the Liverpool District Provident Society of which Mrs Rathbone was one of the leading lights, passed money and clothes to the poor and afflicted.

So how then did this good but poor woman, who lived in the dock­land slums and whose work with the mangle and her general attitude of Christian charity, become the `Queen of the wash-houses’?

To explain this, it is necessary- first of all, to place her story in its historical context – that is, mainly in the Liverpool of the 1830’s and 1840’s. Prior to the great Irish exodus following the failure of the Irish potato crop in 1846, there was already a steady stream of Irish immigrants paying a ten-penny fare on the cattle boats, coming into Liverpool. The expansion of the docks provided a great stimulus to the employment of unskilled labour – firstly to help to build the docks and subsequently to work on them.

Other `immigrants’ into Liverpool at this time were the North Welsh, the Lowland Scots and the English from the rural districts of Lancashire and Cheshire. The demand for low-priced hous­ing was therefore considerable, and not only were cheap back-to-back houses thrown up but also their cellars were sublet to desperate families.

These conditions, which partly explain the `religious difficulties’ experienced in Liverpool (i.e. the competition for houses and jobs leading to a general depression of standards with the consequent communal tensions becoming centred around the religious rallying points – the churches or chapels and their schools), were to change Liverpool from a comparatively healthy place to live in, to that state of squalor and disease which made it the most unhealthy urban centre in the country.

When the cholera, which emanated from Teesside, reached the town, the consequences were disastrous. Between the 12th May and the 13th September 1832, there were within the city 4,977 cases of cholera, of which 1,523 were fatal.’ By the week ending the 13th September, there were but nine new cases, six deaths, 19 recoveries and 67 remaining cases. On the 5th October, the city was declared free of cholera.

Had Kitty Wilkinson’s work during this terrible epidemic been so outstanding, it must surely have come to light immediately. The Liver­pool newspapers in 1832 contain no mention of her name or work. There is, however, a letter dated 25th September and published three days later in the Mercury from Dr. W. W. Squires and Dr. J. Hunter Lane. Its purpose was to publicly thank the Protestant and Catholic clergy, the District Provident Society, and Mr Overseer Henshaw for their help during the epidemic.

The Overseer was particularly commended for his;

 `economical and judicious management of the Refuge House’.

Dr. Lane and Dr. Squires had been appointed the honorary physicians to the Liverpool Cholera Hospital in May 1832, which had been erected on a large piece of ground between Shaw’s Brow and the Haymarket.

Adjoining it was the former public asylum which had been used as the House of Refuge. Dr. Squires published an article in the Liverpool Medical Gazette about the epidemic in Liverpool. But in the `Memoir’ it is specifically claimed that;

 `as the medical men were quite unable to meet the calls upon them, Kitty went to them for advice as to how to act, administered the remedies they ordered and carried back to the doctors intelligence of the results.’

It is therefore strange that the doctors failed to record such co-operation or the local newspapers, ever keen to extract stories of local human interest from the records, failed to hear about her work.

Further, were the medical men quite unable to meet the calls made upon them? Again there is no evidence for this claim. Quite the contrary. The physicians were met with great hostility and were subjected to physical violence – occasions that called forth strong condemnatory leaders in the pages of the Mercury during July. Surely, had they known of such sterling work that Kitty is supposed to have done, they would have mentioned it as a suitable example to the ungrateful poor.

It would appear then that the Memoir’s author and Mrs Eleanor Greg Rathbone, whose manuscript is the chief source of knowledge about Kitty, accepted without corroboration Kitty’s tales about this period. It is therefore possible, in view of her rather `vague’ information about her husbands, children, etc., that Kitty’s tales might have been somewhat coloured, and that Mrs Rathbone, in her middle class naivety, accepted them without reservation.

In June 1837 when the District Provident Society began to run short of funds for their washing cellar, there was printed an appeal to raise money to continue to finance it. (See Appendix A, a copy of the appeal.)

In the appeal there was no mention of Kitty Wilkinson as being the superintendent of the cellar. Yet she was – one can therefore conclude that even in the eyes of the visitors of the cellar, Mrs H. Jones and Mrs William Rathbone (i.e. Eleanor Greg Rathbone), that the work of Kitty Wilkinson was not at that time considered to be worth; of note, nor of particular interest, as an example of working­ class self-help, to be brought to the attention of the more well-to-do citizens of Liverpool, for whose benefit the appeal was published and who were expected to contribute to the society.

The appeal flopped and the District Provident Society was obliged to withdraw its annual grant of £26. At the same time Kitty Wilkinson, no doubt worn out by her exertions in superintending the cellar, was taken ill and resigned her post  . . for which she had received four shillings per week.

Deposited in the Liverpool Record Office is a letter to Kitty from Dr. Joseph Tuckerman of Boston, Massachusetts, which refers to this ill­ness. Tuckerman was a close friend of the Rathbones and during a visit to this country he had visited the wash cellar and also met many of the orphans who had at that time attached themselves to the Wilkinson household. Tuckerman had heard of her illness from William Rathbone, and had subsequently written to comfort her.

Though Kitty’s fame had crossed the Atlantic, it was not until 1844 that she gained some measure of recognition in this country. This was a `contemporary biography’ entitled `Catherine of Liverpool’, which was included in Chamber’s Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Tracts, and was one of a short series entitled `Annals of the Poor Instances of Female Intrepidity and Industry’.

The tract, which Winifred Reynolds Rathbone thought;

 `was written in a quaint, old-fashioned style that makes it rather attractive reading’,

was full of inaccuracies which Miss Rathbone was quick to point out unfortunately in so doing she corrected minor items of detail but based her interpretation on her grandmother’s manuscript and grandfather’s and father’s papers . . . which in their turn were based on what Kitty told them. Thus the errors were perpetuated !



The next phase of Kitty Wilkinson’s life is not well documented, her period of recuperation was no doubt a long one. At any rate the wash­-cellar had ceased to function, and it is to the activities of the town council and the formation of a special committee of that body, known as the Public Baths and Wash-houses Committee, that the story of the development of wash-houses next comes to prominence.

 On the 15th June, 1840, a leading article in the Liverpool Albion advocated the use of the Town’s Improvement Fund to provide parks and bathing places. At the town council on the 1st July, Mr Henry Lawrence brought forward a motion on the subject of public baths.

 During the course of his speech to the council he mentioned the revival of interest in the subject as a result of the article in the Albion but, like many other politician, reminded his listeners that he had, whilst serving on the finance committee `many years’ earlier, urged the council to provide bathing accommodation for the public, two sites, one in the north and the other in the south end of the city, and that it had been deferred because finances were not available. Referring to his present motion Lawrence went on to say;

`he was sure that this was a proposition which would be supported by gentlemen of all sides in politics. (Hear, hear).’

 William Rathbone, in the same debate, said that it was a matter of very great importance and moved its reference to the finance committee for consideration. Councillor Mr Bolton also joined in the debate say­ing that;

‘he hoped the terms “bathing” was comprehensive enough to include warm water baths.’

 A favourable climate of opinion was gradually being prepared in which to carry forward a measure for public baths. On the 10th July the Liverpool Mercury reprinted an article on a `sea-bathing infirmary’ which had first appeared in the Leeds Mercury.

 A leading article on the same day said;

 `there can be no doubt that such an institution would be productive of extensive good, and we are sure there are very many public spirited and humane individuals who have both the will and the power to lend a hand in the good work. The present time, when we confidently hope the corporation is about to provide bathing accommodation for the public generally, seems partic­ularly appropriate for taking the subject into consideration.’

 William Rathbone certainly did take `the subject into consideration’ and went to the lengths of printing a paper on the subject of public baths and wash-houses. (See Appendix B.)

 This supported a resolution which he had placed before the town council on the subject and it was circularised to all members of the council. In it he described the living conditions of `our labouring classes’ and the workings of the washing cellar at No. 162 Frederick Street. Rathbone refers to how it declined, viz

`The depression of funds of the Provident District Society and still more the failure of the health of the superintendent caused this very useful charity to be discontinued-for a time only it was hoped, as its great value was thought to have been fully proved.’

 Another item of interest in the paper was a reference to the fact that a group of interested people had received a plan for an establishment comprising eight public and two private warm baths, a cellar, where from 200 to 250 women weekly might wash their clothes, a separate cellar for washing infected clothes, a drying stove, a superintendent’s house; with engine, tank, boiler, tubs, etc., which would cost, exclusive of the ground, £720.

 The plan was prepared by Mr Franklin who subsequently became the corporation surveyor. (Franklin `came in’ with the Reform Party after 1835.)

 Rathbone’s motion on the provision of public baths and wash-houses came before the town council on the 2nd September. It was item 12 on the agenda:

12. ` The following motion, of which notice has been given by Mr Councillor Rathbone:

That a special committee be appointed to consider and report, after such enquiries as may be found necessary, upon the propriety of erections, in three several parts of the town, for baths for the use of the poor, with conveniences by means of cellars, or otherwise, for the washing of their clothes, according to a plan which will be submitted to the council: the financial consideration of the subject being reserved for the finance committee, after the report of the special committee who are to accompany the same with an estimate of expenses.’

The members of the town council who were present, the mayor, 10 aldermen and 30 councillors, agreed unanimously to the resolution and appointed the following members of the council as the special committee.

Appointed the following member committee

of the council

As the special

Councillor William Rathbone (Reform) Pitt Street
Councillor Henry Lawrence (Conservative) Rodney Street
Councillor Henry Robertson Sandbach (Conservative) Vauxhall
Councillor Hugh Hornby (Reform) Pitt Street
Councillor Richard Vaughan Yates (Reform) Pitt Street
Councillor Thomas Blackburn (Reform) Lime Street

A brief account of the debate on the resolution appeared in the Mercury on the 4th September. Under the heading `Public Baths’, it said;

‘Mr Rathbone, in bringing forward his motion on this subject, said that as he had already stated his reasons to the council he would simply move the resolution. An anonymous communication had been sent to him from which it appeared that a very large portion of the labouring classes were in a very destitute condition. In some instances a whole family occupy only a single room or cellar. They slept three, four and even more in one bed, and sometimes in a back cellar, in which there was no air except what came from the front one. He concluded his remarks by moving the resolution.’

Councillor Mr Mellor seconded the motion and Councillor Mr John Smith said that he cordially approved of the resolution and hoped that the council would be ready to carry it into effect immediately, for many of their resolutions became dead letters from the length of time that expired before they were carried into effect.

The Albion on the 7th September made some general observations on the state of Liverpool and in particular on the health of the town.

 It thought the citizens should be ashamed of the way in which their once healthy town had deteriorated. They reflected that;

 `the subject has to a slight extent been opened by Mr Rathbone’s resolution’

and noted the limited objectives of his committee.

 Later that day (2nd September) the special committee met but only four of them attended.

 The committee acted with such alacrity that one can only presume that Rathbone already had everything ready. Their report with its itemised expenditures, including suggestions for suitable sites, and detailed plans of the type of building to be erected, was approved and passed on to the finance committee for consideration. The presence of the four Reform candidates, three of them being the Pitt Street Ward representatives in which the first wash-house was to be built, and the absence of the two Tory members would leave one to suppose that this committee was merely a rubber-stamp for Rathbone’s scheme.

 It is interesting to note that the two wash-houses that were to be built first were on sites near to the north and south corporation schools. These schools, and the accompanying controversy, were very much the concern of two of the councillors on this special committee – William Rathbone and Thomas Blackburn, the two councillors who were the leaders of the Liverpool Reform Party.

 The schools and the wash-houses, taken together, seem to represent a genuine attempt at poverty programmes in what we would today call under-privileged, ‘down-town areas’.

 Both these `experiments’ involved financial assistance from the town council, though we shall see that when Rathbone and Blackburn commended the wash-houses to the council it was their hope that they would eventually become self-supporting institutions.

 The report of the special committee was presented to the town council on 7th October, 1840, when it was Item XI on the agenda.

 The council gave their approval to the report and the matter was sent to the finance committee for further considerations.

 Two days later the report of the meeting appeared in the Mercury. Rathbone, in moving its adoption and reference to the finance committee, said that he believed that no additional expense would be incurred beyond the erection of the required buildings.

 The payment of one penny per week for washing and of threepence, or whatever should be charged for the baths would be sufficient to meet the current expenses.

 Blackburn, in seconding the motion, said that one of the strong recommendations of the plan was that it would be a self-supporting institution.

 Alderman Evans asked if any example could be mentioned, and observed that it would be consolatory to know that the plan had been tried elsewhere and succeeded.

 Rathbone replied that the baths were rather in the nature of an experiment, though he did know of plans to erect them in London and Edinburgh.

 With respect to washing, Rathbone instanced the five years experiment in Upper Frederick Street and how it had worked admirably and that 250 women in one week, paying one penny each, had washed their clothes and that with very small apparatus compared with what was proposed. Alderman Earle, who was in the chair, and sitting in for the mayor, said that he thought that there were baths at places where there were steam engines and that the workmen belonging to these particular establishments had the use of them.

 Rathbone said that as far as factories were concerned, a brother-in-law of his had one at Lancaster and another at Manchester; there were baths at both, and it was found that they were adopted by the poor with great avidity and with great benefit to health, and at a very small expense.

 But all had not been complete harmony as Rathbone’s plan had been attacked in an anonymous letter to the Albion on 29th September. This had spoken of `demoralising the poor’ with such schemes and compared his action with that of his grandfather, Richard Reynolds of Bristol, whose philanthropic gestures had aroused the reactionaries of his day.

  Rathbone vigorously defended his grandfather’s works and his own plan in a reply, published in the following edition, seven days later.

 The last meeting of the council for the mayoral year, and prior to the annual elections (usually held on 1st November), took place on 31st October. This was traditionally the meeting at which the council tied up any loose ends. The baths question was the first item on the agenda and, as a result of a favourable verdict by the finance committee, the plan for the first new building was approved unanim­ously.

 At the same meeting, notice of a motion regarding the health of the town was given by Mr Councillor Case. He alluded to the number of people mentioned by the Registrar General in a survey of the health of Liverpool who lived in cellars. It was estimated that there was not less than 50,000 people in such accommodation and that many of them were Irish immigrants. The Councillor stressed that diseases were easily communicated to others in these low, damp apartments that lacked ventilation. The motion which he gave notice of was as follows;

`That a committee be appointed to make all necessary inquiries and to take into consideration the subject of  inhabited cellars and small dwellings in back courts, with reference to the health of the town and the comfort and convenience of the poorer inhabitants and to report to the council herein with any recommendations that may seem proper to such committee.’

 William Rathbone expressed his gratification that Mr Case had brought the subject forward. He said that it had been his intention, if re-elected, to move, in the re-appointment of the committee on the baths, that they should take the wider question of the health of the town also into consideration.

 Rathbone’s reservations about re-election, though no doubt an example of his natural modesty, were soon put to the test, for on the day following the successful passage of his motion through the council he was defeated in the Pitt Street Ward annual municipal election by the Conservative, Thomas Toulmin. The margin of defeat could not have been narrower, 189-188 – just one vote. The result, one of great rejoicing for the Conservatives, was very controversial as there were doubts about the credentials of certain voters. However, Rathbone refused to appeal to the mayor to have the voting procedures investi­gated, though he did not altogether accept the situation with good grace.

 The reasons for Conservative rejoicings over the defeat of Rathbone are quite understandable. He was one of the leading members of the Reform Council, he had been instrumental in pushing through the new policies on the corporation schools and in the agitation for the Reform Bill, when discontent was widespread, revolution in the air and Habeas Corpus suspended, his name was on Lord Castlereagh’s special list . . . he was described as `dangerous but has done nothing yet ‘.

 At the following council meeting – the first of the new municipal year – a health of the town committee was established and the special committee on public baths and wash-houses was incorporated within it. The subject of wash-houses then disappears from the public stage for the new health of the town committee becomes involved in the provision of sewers, the regulation of courts and the clearing of cellars.

 On 1st December, 1841, the surveyor reported that the Upper Frederick Street wash-house would be ready for use about the middle of February, and the committee decided to give its attention to the appointment and salary of a superintendent and rules and regulations for the wash-house. By 14th February, 1842, the health of the town committee no doubt having received a further intimation from the surveyor that the Upper Frederick Street baths were approaching completion, salaries of £60 per annum for a superintendent and £30 per annum for a matron were subsequently recommended.

 On. 1st April, the committee was notified that the wash-house and baths was ready for use.

 They resolved that an advertisement be inserted once in each of the Liverpool newspapers for a competent person and his wife for the posts of superintendent and matron.

 Testimonials were to be delivered to the town hall on or before 11th April. At the next meeting (14th April 1842) a sub-committee was appointed, consisting of Coun­cillors Yates, Cooper, Bright, Edwards and Kilshaw, `for the purpose of opening and examining the several applications and testimonials, and that they be required to report at an early date’.

 This sub-committee in effect consisted of all those health of the town committee members who attended 14th April meeting with the exception of the committee chairman, Robertson Gladstone.

 By 20th April, 1842, a short list of 11 had been compiled from 104 applications. On that date Andrew Clarke and his wife were selected `as proper persons to fill the situation’.    

 They were required themselves to give a surety for £100 and to find two other people willing to stand surety for them for £50 each.

 The committee further decided to inspect the premises and to see for themselves if in their opinion the baths were in a state of readiness for immediate occupation and use.

 At the town council meeting on 6th May, 1842, item nine on the agenda was a resolution from the health of the town committee:

‘Recommended that Andrew Clarke and his wife be appointed keeper and matron of the baths and wash-house in Frederick Street.’

 The resolution was agreed unanimously.

 I have dwelt at some length of the question of this appointment in order to clarify certain misconceptions that have arisen.

 The evidence clearly demonstrates that

(1) The first public baths and wash-house in Liverpool was opened in 1842 on the 28th May and not in 1846.

(2) That Andrew Clarke and his wife, and not Kitty Wilkinson and her husband, had charge of it.

 The evidence also helps to refute, as far as can be reasonably established with the existing information available, the imputations made in `The Memoir of Kitty Wilkinson’.

It is stated re the appointment that;

`It was thought by the friends of Catherine Wilkinson that her claims to the superintendence and management of this establishment were very strong, but other interests prevailed and hers were set aside till some time afterwards.’

 `But other interests prevailed’ seems to ignore the fact that this public position was put out into open competition.

 The fact that it was widely advertised in all Liverpool newspapers (whatever their political persuasion; that it attracted 104 applicants, that a special sub­committee sifted them; all these factors point to it being an appoint­ment that was open and above board.

 It is strange, therefore, that the Rathbones, the so-called local champions of `Reform’ should castigate such an obviously democratic appointment. Perhaps they felt that as the initiative was William Rathbone’s, then perhaps the appointment should be his for the giving?

 The plain fact was that he was out of power and that the new Conservative council was in no mood to pander to his wishes. In the municipal elections of November 1841, he had attempted to get back on the council, this time for the Great George Ward. He was unsuccessful and took the reverse rather badly. In an address to the electors of the ward, published in the Liverpool Mercury on 5th November, 1841, he attacked;

`the virulent bigotry of the clerical and political leaders of the Conservative Party’

and hinted that their success was aided by bribery, ` treating’ and intimidation.

 The Upper Frederick Street establishment seems to have got quietly­ and efficiently underway. A news item in the Liverpool Mercury on 3rd June, 1842, read as follows;

`Public baths and wash-house. The building in Upper Frederick Street, which has been fitted up at the expense of the corporation for the convenience of inhabitants, is now open to the public daily. The terms for cold and warm baths are exceedingly reasonable and the use of the wash-house and drying place may be had for a mere nominal charge. We have no doubt that this place will prove a great convenience to the inhabitants of the densely populated neighbour­hood in which it is situated, and will do much, if its advantages are duly appreciated, to improve the health and appearance of the humbler classes of society.’

 On 5th August, 1842, the Mercury gave space to a correspondent who wished to direct the attention of the public to the cheapness, cleanliness and the exclusive accommodation of the baths. The insertion was obviously designed to attract middle class patronage and it described the privacy of the baths – ` each neatly partitioned, with a door which can be locked or bolted at pleasure’.

 On 2nd September, 1842, the Mercury published an interim report on the corporation baths and wash-house.

`It is with pleasure we state that these baths are now in a fair way of being duly appreciated by both the middle and humbler classes of our townsmen – more particularly the latter. During the past week, 439 persons attended them, and when we state that there are in the establishment only eight bathing rooms, we think that the expectations of those philanthropic individuals who originated this boon for the humbler orders of our townsmen have been realised and that their advantages are every day becoming more apparent.’

 The article went on to urge the erection of similar baths in other parts of the town as it had been ascertained that people travelled considerable distances to use the facilities. But by the time of the health of the town committee’s report to the town council on 29th October, 1842, there was a move to increase the charges for the baths from one penny to two-pence for a cold bath, and two-pence to four­-pence for a hot bath.

 During the first four months nearly 5,000 people had visited and bathed in them.

 After discussion on the propriety or impropriety of raising the charges, the motion was referred back for further consideration. Clearly many Conservative members were not too cost-conscious at this stage and saw its beneficial effects for the `humbler classes’.

 Plans went ahead for the erection of a second wash-house in Paul Street, adjacent to the North Corporation School.

 The second annual report presented on 23rd August, 1843, to the health of the town committee, had been satisfactory and a report from the surveyor contained plans for the new establishment; by 6th September the matter had been passed on to the finance committee and the building programme appeared to be rolling. But progress was slow and by 3rd June, 1846, there were numerous complaints in the register at Frederick Street from bathers who came from the north end of the town, about the delay at completing Paul Street.

 The sub­committee, which was dealing with the project, regretted that;

 `so much of the finest season of the year will have previously passed away before their completion’.

However, they were quite sure that the baths would be ready for opening by the end of July.



 The weekly supplement of the Liverpool Mercury, issued on 3rd July, 1846, described the new establishment as;

 `a neat, modest-looking edifice of the Tudor-Gothic style of architecture, 168 feet long and 57 feet broad, including a committee room ‘. The architect was the corporation surveyor, Mr Joseph Franklin, the contractor a Mr Thomas Haigh and the total cost for the new building £6,500. Such was the delight with the new building by the sub-committee that Councillor Mr Tinne said he ` would propose a motion for the erection of an additional number of baths on the same principle as those in Paul Street’.

Alderman Earle said he hoped to see a great extension of the scheme.

`Nothing could be more conducive to the health and comfort of the inhabitants of the town as such establishments for bathing and washing.’

 When the town council met on 2nd September, Councillor Tinne’s motion on the provision of more baths and wash-houses was debated. He proposed the erection of one to cater for the Mill Street, Sefton Street and Toxteth Park area. He said that this area was densely populated and as poor as anywhere in the city.

 Councillor Mr Parker, in a speech reminiscent of one he made during an education debate, said he hoped that baths and wash-houses would be erected in every ward in the town. Councillor Mr G. H. Lawrence was even more ambitious proclaiming the need for a crash-building programme rather than erecting them one at a time.

 But the more immediate problem facing the sub-committee on public baths and wash-houses was the appointment of a superintendent and a matron for the Paul Street establishment, and it is at this stage that Kitty Wilkinson and her sponsor, William Rathbone, reappear on the scene.

 The sub-committee on 3rd June, 1846, had reviewed the good progress made at Frederick Street over the first four years. In their minutes, included in the health of the town committee Minutes for 1846, they said that they;

 `have much pleasure in observing that much of this gratifying result is owing to the unwearied zeal and assiduity of Mr and Mrs Andrew Clarke, the superintendent and matron respectively – of whose attention also to the comfort and convenience of the frequenters of the establishment repeated mention has been made to the sub-committee’.

 At the same time notice of the need to consider the appointment of staff for Paul Street was given and it was decided that all members of the health of the town committee should be informed so that they might be present at the next meeting when the matter would be raised. This came six days later, on 9th June when it was unanimously resolved to make the Clarkes superintendent and matron at Paul Street at the increased salary of £120 per annum.

 The committee further resolved to replace the Clarkes and the appoint­ment was to be considered in 14 days’ time, on the 23rd June. All the members of the committee were to notify all who had approached them in connection with a baths appointment, and all the people who applied in 1842 were to be similarly notified. There was to be no public advertisement this time.

 In the previous November elections (1845) Rathbone had been re-elected to the council in the `safe’ Reform Ward of Vauxhall. On 1st July, 1846, he had cause to be printed a testimonial on behalf of Thomas and Kitty Wilkinson for circularisation of the members of the town council. (See Appendix C.) Clearly this time he was leaving nothing to chance and was backing Kitty openly and strongly. He said;

`The singularity of the case must be my excuse for bringing the application of Mr and Mrs Wilkinson for the situation of superintendents of the baths and wash-houses in Frederick Street, before the members of the town council in this uncommon manner, instead of confining myself f to giving testimony in their favour in the com­mittee, with whom the recommendation to your appointment naturally rests.

 He then proceeded to speak of her talents for management and economy, her ` national recognition ‘ in the Historical Register (an article in the January edition 1845, in all probability supplied by Rathbone himself, and possibly with this appointment in mind), her fearlessness during the cholera outbreak, and finally he spoke of the fact that when the original machinery had been installed at Frederick Street, the engineer who had been responsible for its installation, had lodged with the Wilkinson’s, and that Thomas Wilkinson had observed what was going on and how the machinery worked. Perhaps, though, Rathbone’s real motives are revealed best when he said:

`I am anxious about it for its effect upon the poor, as encouragement to follow her example.’

 He was no doubt fearful of a revolution as were many Victorians at this time, for this was the period of Chartist agitation, economic depression and the potato blight in Ireland. But it is in this ` public ‘ testimonial that Rathbone in his desire to help Kitty Wilkinson, prepares the way for the `myth’ building that was to follow. He says;

`I would appeal to you whether the institution itself, owing its origin to her- benevolent and self-denying activity, and its prosperity, and subsequent adoption by the corporation, to her clever manage­ment, does not give her a claim above other applicants, if she and her husband are found fully competent to carry it on.

 I feel that he over-emphasises what she did and underplays the work of the District Provident Society and, more particularly, his own part. Certainly the Liverpool Mercury recognised the important part that he had played as early as 1842. This is instanced in their column ` Replies to Correspondents ‘.

`Corporation Baths, Frederick Street. ” . . . It would be idle to comment on the great advantages of bathing as regards health or for the value of the boon conferred or the public; but it may be as well to remind our readers that for it the town is principally indebted to Mr William Rathbone, a gentleman whom, much to his honour, Tory papers delight in abusing “.’

 Rathbone’s efforts were not in vain. On 7th July he was appointed to the sub-committee of five councillors, who were to read the 12 applications and to recommend the three most suitable to the health of the town committee. Their recommendations were discussed on 14th July, 1846, and it was resolved that Thomas and Catherine Wilkinson be recommended to the town council for the appointments. They, like the Clarkes, had to put up bonds for £200 and find two other sureties of £200. The Clarkes’ appointments were confirmed by the town council on 5th August and the Wilkinsons’ on 2nd September.



 Thomas Wilkinson died on 14th January, 1848, barely 17 months after being appointed superintendent. That his end was near must have been apparent to Kitty for some time for on 13th January, 1848, the health committee (as the health of the town committee had now become) considered a memorial from her requesting to be allowed to continue, with the assistance of her son, the superintendence of the Frederick Street Baths.

 We have seen how much sought after these positions were, and the same meeting also received a request for the post from a Thomas Chapman, all this, nine days before Thomas Wilkinson died and 13 days before he was in his grave. Whilst the sub-committee on the baths approved Mrs Wilkinson’s memorial, it was thought necessary to the health committee to arrange for the baths visitors (i.e. the sub-committee including Rathbone) to consider both applications. They reported on 27th January, 1848, thus;

`That having considered the applications of Mrs Wilkinson and Thomas Chapman for the situation of superintendent of the Upper Frederick Street Baths, they recommend that in consideration of the good work of Mrs Catherine Wilkinson in establishing the practica­bility of the system of baths and wash-houses and the important benefits of their adoption, from actual trial, sloe be recommended to the committee to continue as the superintendent of the said baths and that it be left to her to obtain a suitable person, subject to the approval of the committee, to undertake the official duties of her late husband, and that she be paid the same amount of salary as was paid to her late husband and herself jointly. That the testimonials of Thomas Chapman are highly satisfactory and they recommend the same to be retained for future consideration.

 The phraseology is typical of Rathbone and I have no doubt that he was responsible for the decision and the wording of the minute.

 Mrs Wilkinson’s superintendency did not, however, last very long. The Public Baths and Wash-houses Acts of 1846 and 1847 had given local authorities borrowing powers to facilitate the establishment of such places, Liverpool’s building programme included the Cornwallis Street Baths and the rebuilding of the Frederick Street wash­house.

 On 22nd April, 1851, the Frederick Street wash-house was closed.

 Mrs Wilkinson stayed on and continued to receive her salary but had no other duties but that of caretaker.

 The methods of book-keeping and the honesty of the money-takers at the various establishments began to cause the town council considerable trouble. In 1852 it was decided to separate the admini­stration of the baths and public wash-houses from the other matters concerning the health of the town, and so on 9th February a baths committee of the town council was set up. On 23rd August, 1852, this committee resolved;

`That the services of Mrs Catherine Wilkinson be dispensed with, the building in Frederick Street being required for the purpose of enabling the contractor to carry on the works, and that she be allowed four weeks wages in lieu of notice, on condition of her leaving the premises within a week.’

 This resolution had been made necessary because of a decision made, at a previous meeting on 28th July, 1852, to accept a tender by William Tomkinson of £7,187 to build a new wash-house in Frederick Street and to convert the wash-house at Cornwallis Street into a bath.

 The new Frederick Street Baths were opened on 1st May, 1854, and some eight weeks earlier, on 6th March, John Clarkson and his wife had been appointed superintendent and matron at the combined salary of £ 104 per annum. This appointment was to a great extent inevitable as Kitty was now nearly 68 years old and there is no mention of her son at this stage.

 On 12th April, 1854, at the town council it was moved by two Reform councillors, Mr Holt and Mr Hornby, both friends of William Rathbone and resolved unanimously by the council:

`That it be referred to the baths committee to take into their favourable consideration the case of Mrs Wilkinson with a view to affording her some employment or remuneration for the public service she has done by instituting wash-houses in Liverpool.’

The baths committee met on 17th April and the Minutes record that:

‘The committee proceeded to consider the resolution passed at the last meeting of the council, and referred to this committee being the case of Mrs Wilkinson Upon full investigation it appeared that there was no situation which could be offered to her, and that this committee had no fund at its disposal out of which to grant any pecuniary allowance But in consideration of her’ former usefulness and meritorious services it was resolved;

`That it recommended to the council to allow her the sun of 12 shillings per week during their pleasure.’

 When the town council on 3rd May, 1854, considered the proceed­ings of the baths committee, they could not accept the recommendation to allow her 12 shillings per week as they had been advised by the town clerk (whose salary was then £2,000 per annum !) that they did not possess the legal powers to do so. The council therefore resolved to refer it back to the baths committee with instructions to find some employment for Mrs Wilkinson which she is capable of performing.

 On 12th June, 1854 the baths committee found their way around the problem and engaged her as mender and hemmer of towels at the salary of 12 shillings per week. Whilst it would appear that this was in effect a pension and that very little was expected of her, there is an entry in the baths committee Minutes that does show that she was from time to time called upon to do some work. The entry reads;

`Resolved that 500 linen cases be purchased from William Ackers at the rate of nine-pence each and that Mrs Wilkinson he directed to make them up into towels for the use of the bath (the new Frederick Street ones).’



The next occasion that Mrs Wilkinson’s name appears in the baths committee Minutes is on 12th November, 1860:

K`The chairman (Councillor Thomas Wagstaffe) reported that Mrs Catherine Wilkinson died on 11 November inst.’

There was no resolution of regret or sympathy recorded. The town council was equally remiss; there was no reference to her at their meetings on 14th November and 5th December. One might have thought that their memories would have been stirred for on 5th December there was a memorial from Ratepayers, Inhabitants and Medical Practitioners petitioning for the erection of public baths in Creswell Street to cater for the Everton area. This was agreed and £4,000 made available for an immediate start. Nor did her death arouse wide notice in the Liverpool press. The 17th November, 1860, edition of the Liverpool Chronicle noticed the death of a Mr Griffiths `an early member of the Reform Council’ and also of Mr Richard Rathbone (cousin of William Rathbone), of whom it said;

`He was so well known and deservedly respected in this town . . . he now sleeps with other Liverpool worthies in the Ancient Chapel at Toxteth.’

But it was left to the Liverpool Mercury – and one would suspect – to William Rathbone to make good this oversight, viz:

`The Death of Catherine Wilkinson – the Originator of the Wash-houses.’

`This humble but not unknown philanthropist died on Saturday last at the age of 73, and a highly respected correspondent has sent us the following notice of the deceased – a tribute to her memory emanating from one who has an instinctive appreciation of all that is good and generous:

`”It may be well for those of small means as well as those more largely endowed occasionally to review the respective responsibilities of the position in which they are placed, and to take note of what may be accomplished with very small means but a very large heart. This was eminently the case in the humble individual whose death this day we record. The good deed was sown at a very early age by her attending upon an infirm old lady while going her rounds to relieve the sickness or sorrows of the poor. The seed fell upon good ground and produced art abundant harvest through her long and useful life, during which her poor neighbours were always sure of her sympathy and advice, and such aid as her small means but self-sacrificing energy could make available. As to her own necessities which so circumstances must often haze been pressing, she was remarkably unrequiring and reserved During the uneventful season of the cholera in this town her efforts (fearless of risk to herself) were unceasing both by day and by night and they were rendered the more valuable by her practical knowledge and inventive power to meet emergencies as they arose. It was during this period that .she originated, in her own cellar, the plant for wash-houses for the poor which have since been generally adopted. Though labouring for her daily bread, yet site and her husband (who died some years before her) at different times received many orphans in their dwelling, with no claim on them but their destitution, taking charge of them with parental care until able to support themselves or otherwise provided for. In a truly Samaritan and Christian spirit her efforts to relieve knew no limit but in her power to serve. The widow’s mite was trot unfrequently all of this world’s wealth which she had to give.” ‘

 This account of her death was reprinted in the weekly edition of the Mercury on Saturday, 17th November, with the following additional paragraph;

`The remains of the deceased were interred on Wednesday after­noon at St. James’ Cemetery and amongst those present was Mr William Rathbone, whom the deceased had served for nearly half a century.(!) Though she had no child of her own to see her laid in the grave she had many that could well be called (as she has called them) her own, having brought up many orphans in her time, and there were many of her adopted children present. Mr Shimmin of Pitt Street had the conducting of the funeral.’



Thereafter the memory of Kitty Wilkinson for most Liverpudlians faded from view and it was not until 11th March, 1909, that her story regained the public’s attention. The occasion for this was the receipt by the then chairman of the baths and wash-houses committee (Alder­man W. Roberts) of two photographs of Kitty Wilkinson. They had been sent to him by Mr Theodore F. S. Tinne of the Hall House, Hawkshurst, Kent, who was the son of the first chairman of the baths committee (as constituted in 1852). Mr Tinne, who was ‘putting his affairs in order’ wrote:

‘Herewith I send you two photographs of Catherine Wilkinson; they both have writing on their backs, telling some history of her. I hope the portraits will be preserved in a way worthy of the noble Liverpool heroine they represent.’


The baths committee then had read to them by Mr Court, the baths superintendent, an extract from the book of James Newland, who was appointed borough engineer in 1846; written in October 1856, it said:

‘In 1832 when the cholera ravaged the town, the necessity of cleanliness as a means of arresting or abating the plague became apparent; but poor families huddled, healthy and sick together, often in a single apartment, and that art underground cellar, had not the means for personal cleanliness and still less for washing their clothes and bedding, and thus nothing could be done by them to prevent the spreading of the infection. It was left to one of their own class and station, Mrs Catherine Wilkinson of Frederick Street, Liver­pool, to provide a remedy. She, the wife of a labourer, living in one of the worst and most crowded slums of the town, allowed her poorer neighbours, destitute of the means of heating water, to wash their clothes in the back kitchen of her humble abode, and to dry them in the covered passage and backyard belonging to it.

`Aided by the District Provident Society, and some benevolent women, this courageous self-denying woman contrived to provide the washing of, on an average, 85 families per week. Poor people contributed one penny per week towards the running expenses.

`The great supporters of Mrs Wilkinson in her praise-worthy efforts were Mr and Mrs William Rathbone. To their fostering care we owe the recognition of her services, and the institutions to which these gave rise. Here then was the germ of public wash-houses­ institutions called into existence as a means of palliating a great evil.’

Alderman Roberts, after thanking Mr Court for reading the account to the committee, commented upon the unique gift of Mr Tinne, and said:

`Kitty Wilkinson was evidently one of Liverpool’s heroines who did a great amount of good in her day and generation. It was a great pleasure to the committee to become the possessor of a photograph of the pioneer of baths and wash-houses not only in Liverpool, but in the Kingdom. Liverpool would hold in grateful remembrance such an honourable woman.’

Thus local pride in achieving a ‘first’ now enters into Kitty’s story. Councillor Mr King, who seconded the vote of thanks to Mr Tinne for his gift, said:

`This was an instance of one of the humble citizens doing a good work. They (the committee) ought to be proud that a woman of such humble origins had been able to do so much for Liverpool. If she had been a rich woman, a monument would have been raised to her. (Hear, Hear).’

Other members followed with similar remarks and a vote of thanks was passed, and it was agreed that the photograph should be enlarged and a copy hung in each of the baths and wash-houses.

It was shortly after this revival of interest in Kitty Wilkinson that the first stage of the Anglican Cathedral – the Lady Chapel – was being completed. At that time, discussions were being held to decide who should be commemorated in the windows of the chapel. In the pamphlet entitled `Noble Women : Windows in the Lady Chapel’, the compiler, C.F.H.S., states that Sir Frederick Radcliffe, who was concerned with the promotion of the cathedral from the start, wrote in the Cathedral Committee’s Quarterly Bulletin for December 1944, that:

`These windows do not adjudicate prizes for holiness or priorities in merit. They exhibit typical examples . . . Of course no one would say that they were the only possible or the best examples through­out the ages of a particular virtue. Two rules were among those adopted in making the choice –

(a) that no living person should be selected as the example of a particular virtue, and

(b) that whenever a woman connected with Liverpool or district happened to be eminently suitable, she should be chosen.’

Sir John Marriot, the Oxford historian, when looking at the original windows was asked what he would say about them as a historian; he replied:

`First, it is interesting and valuable to a historian to learn what kinds of people were admired at the time when Liverpool cathedral was begun. All the women here depicted were admired between 1904, when the foundation stone of the cathedral was laid, and 1910 when the first portion of the Lady Chapel was opened. Secondly, see the wide variety of thought and outlook represented by these different women.

`Elizabeth Fry’s views must have been very different from those of Lady Margaret Beaufort. English people, however, do not ask what views did these people hold. They ask, what did they do to help the world? All these women in one way or another helped the world. I call these very English windows.’

C.F.H.S. goes on to say that the windows commemorating Noble Women of Modern Times has been one of the features of the cathedral found most interesting by visitors.

`Innumerable addresses on subjects taken from them have been given by leaders of bible classes, study circles and women’s organis­ations. Now when the portraits are about to be replaced in new glass (in the summer of 1951) the lives of these noble women have been freshly studied, and this little booklet has been prepared, both as a souvenir for the interested visitor and as a small source of inform­ation and idea for those who desire a few lecture notes.’

Unfortunately, however `freshly studied’ repeated the fact that:

`Later she and her husband were appointed the first caretakers of the first public baths and wash-houses, built because of her example.’!!

Some two years later, the Liverpool Daily Post mentioned Kitty’s work in an article to commemorate her birthday, 24th October. Once again the error re the date of the opening of the first establishment and the personnel who superintended was made, viz

`During the cholera outbreak, Mrs Wilkinson – Catherine of Liverpool – as she became widely known, not only bore a foremost part in the nursing of the sick but carried the self-abnegation to the extreme degree of sacrifice by washing the bedding and clothing of the afflicted in her own house. Her noble example and endeavour were the direct instigations of the movement which culminated in the establishment of public baths and wash-houses. The first of these buildings was opened in 1846, with her and her husband as the first supervisors. A window is appropriately dedicated in her honour in the Lady Chapel of Liverpool cathedral.’



Interest again revived in Kitty’s work in 1925. The public baths and wash-house (the one rebuilt in 1852) in Upper Frederick Street was judged to be inadequate for the times and a new building was erected in Gilbert Street to replace it. The Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury reported the annual inspection of the public baths and wash­houses, which took place on the 10th September. The opening of the Gilbert Street wash-house was the central incident of this annual inspection. It was officially opened by Alderman J. Dowd, J.P. and amongst the party of civic dignatories was Eleanor Rathbone. After listening to a speech extolling Kitty’s virtues which emphasised that the building was to be called after Kitty in order to perpetuate her memory as the founder of such institutions `not only in Liverpool but throughout the country’, Eleanor Rathbone, in a comment to the Press said : `I used to hear a great deal about Kitty Wilkinson when I was a child.’

More was heard also of her when, three weeks later, the Baths and wash-houses committee published a brochure about their new wash­house. But it was the following year which saw the most concerted civic efforts to publicise Kitty’s work. The occasion was Liverpool’s Civic Week of 1926 (the week opened on Saturday, 16th October.)

The Liverpool civic weeks of this period were mainly the work of the Lord Mayor’s secretary, Percy Corkhill, assisted by the deputy city librarian. George H. Parry (who became chief city librarian from 1929 to 1933;. Known as `Liverpool’s Pageant Master’, Corkhill’s aim was `to make a modern city gay’.

The programme for the start of Civic Week 1926 consisted of the Lord Mayor, Councillor F. C. Bowring `opening five pages of Liver­pool History’. The ‘pages’ illustrated events of special interest and the Lord Mayor and his retinue visited different parts of the city to witness mini-pageants and to deliver suitable homilies to the citizens. The five episodes were the Granting of the First Charter, 1207 (Castle Street), the Opening of the First Ferry, 1292 (Pier Head), the Foundation of the First Charity Buildings, 1728 (Bluecoat Buildings), the First Public Baths and Wash-house, 1832(!) (Gilbert Street), and the opening of the Anglican Cathedral, 1924 (St. James Road – tree planting).

Episode IV at Gilbert Street was designed by Corkhill as follows:

CIVIC WEEK, Oct. 1926


The Opening of

The First Public Baths and Wash-house,

Frederick Street (1832).

    11-00 to11-30   



The Boys Brigade and Soldiers dressed in the uniform of the Period will line the enclosure.” Kitty Wilkinson ” (Miss Marie Lohr) and her companions will assemble in the wash-house.Selection of Music by Bibby’s Band.Two boys will bring two forms out of the wash-house and place them in position and eight boys and eight girls will sit on the forms.When the Band ceases playing a call will be sounded on trumpets –” Kitty Wilkinson,” preceded by a small boy and girl will leave the ” Kitty Wilkinson wash-house,” Gilbert Street.The Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress will drive up and on alighting they will shake hands with “Kitty Wilkinson.”“Kitty Wilkinson” will then give a lesson to the class, eulogising the life and character of this Noble Woman, after which they will rise and sing the Old Folk Song : “Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron.”As the singing is finishing two working women Miss Muriel Randall and Miss Diana Wynyard) leaving the Baths carrying baskets of unwashed linen will walk up to Kitty and place them on the ground and the three women stand together, Kitty slightly in front.The Lord Mayor, Lord Derby and The Right Hon. T. P. O’Connor will address the gathering.

The Lady Mayoress will then make a short speech :­

“As my predecessor of old, Mrs. Lawrence, presented in t8¢6 to Kitty Wilkinson a silver tea-set I have now the pleasure to present you with a miniature replica inscribed as follows (reads):­

`Presented to ” Kitty Wilkinson” (Miss Marie Lohr) by the Lady Mayoress (Mrs. E. W. Hope)-Civic Week Pageant, October, 1926.’

“Kitty Wilkinson ” will reply-finishing up with the words ” My Lord Mayor – to my washing-to my washing.”

“Kitty Wilkinson” bows and led by the two women and the school children returns to the wash-house.

The Band will play the ” National Anthem ” and the Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress will leave.

The Lord Mayor in his speech, said

`Kitty lived in a squalid neighbourhood, no doubt much worse than it is today, but she was a woman of fine inspiration, courage and perseverance. Without publicity and without hope of reward she laboured and though she worked in obscurity, she eventually attracted to her work the attention and help of one of our most honoured citizens – Mr William Rathbone. As you know the name of Rathbone has for generations been associated with nursing and other philanthropic movements in this city, and I now pay my respectful and sincere tribute to that family.’

In an interview in the Liverpool Evening Express, 19th March 1935, Corkhill, who was awarded a C.B.E. for his public services, reminisced about how he secured Marie Lohr to ` play’ the part of Kitty Wilkinson.

`I wanted for one of my pageants, a woman to take the part of Kitty Wilkinson, the woman who founded the great wash-house system. Who could I get? Marie Lohr was due in Liverpool during the week. I dared – I wrote to this distinguished actress who was away on tour in the country, and much to my astonishment and joy she consented….’

Corkhill finally observed

`What more natural, therefore, that the modern world should celebrate, its great works and progress by pageantry?’!!

But Percy Corkhill was not the only person interested in Kitty Wilkinson. The following letter appeared in the Liverpool Daily Post.

d Gambier Terrace,
1st October 1926.

`To the Editor.


I have been wondering whether in Civic Week preparation a small but not insignificant piece of commemoration could be achieved. The grave of Kitty Wilkinson in St. James’s Cemetery, is strangely neglected. Everybody’s business is nobody’s. Still, perhaps the trustees of the cemetery might deal with it by reciting the words, clearing the weeds and putting the stone upright. I daresay they would if they thought of it. Perhaps this suggestion may reach . . . I hope so.

Yours etc.,
G. F. Howson.’

Of Archdeacon Howson we will hear more later.

In the following January (1927), Messrs Henry Young and Sons Ltd. Booksellers, of 12 South Castle Street, Liverpool, announced that they would be publishing the `Memoir of Kitty Wilkinson of Liver­pool 1786-1860′. In the pre-publication promotional release it was claimed that it was written about the year 1835 and was now to be edited by Herbert R. Rathbone with a foreword by the Right Honour­able T. P. O’Connor, P.C., M.P. The manuscript had ` recently been discovered among papers left by Mrs William Rathbone (1790-1882) and although she was not the author, it was written by a member or friend of the Rathbone family, from extensive notes made by Mrs Rathbone during her frequent intercourse with Kitty Wilkinson. It is the only known contemporary ` Memoir of a woman whose distinction is of more than local importance ‘.

The initiative for publishing the `Memoir’ came, as far as one can judge, from the Rathbone family. The Preface of the book said:

The inclusion of Kitty Wilkinson among the noble women to whose memory a window has been placed in the Liverpool Cathedral, and the great interest shown by the Liverpool public in the Kitty Wilkinson tableaux during Civic Week, justify, it is thought, the printing of the following Memoir.’

The present head of Henry Young and Sons Limited (Booksellers) is `pretty certain that the initiative for publishing would come from some members of the Rathbone family’. All the firm’s records for the period and the remaining stock of the two Kitty Wilkinson books (the 1910 and 1927 publications) were destroyed in the air raids of 1941.

As the firm was first and foremost booksellers rather than publishers, it can be presumed that not only would the initiative come from outside the firm, but also guarantees to cover costs would have been required.

Thus on Friday, 1st April, 1927 the Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury had an article which read:



`The memory of Kitty Wilkinson, the heroic woman of humble birth, who performed great public service by the institution of wash­houses in Liverpool during the cholera plague of 1832, will be more firmly and widely held in admiration as a result o f a gift-book scheme which the Lord Mayor (Mr F. C. Bowring) has offered to finance. By this scheme a book of the life of Kitty Wilkinson will be presented annually in every senior girls’ school in the city.

` The prize will be awarded to elementary school girls who, in the opinion of their teachers, have earnestly and successfully tried to carry out the direction `Thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself’. The book is the `Memoir of Kitty Wilkinson’ edited by Mr Herbert H. Rathbone, with a foreword by Mr T. P. O’Connor, M.P…. The book is published by Henry Young’s at two shillings and sixpence. Two thousand copies are to be reserved from sale, and from these there will be presented annually in every senior girls’ school in the city a copy of the Memoir to the girl considered most fit to receive it. The Lord Mayor has generously offered to provide the funds necessary to carry out this suggestion.

`The Council of Education are to be asked to receive and hold the proceeds of the sale of the book to the public, with power to use such proceeds for the purpose of printing a fresh edition when the 2,000 set aside for prizes are exhausted – that is in about 10 years time. Power will be given to the Council to use the money for other purposes, according to their discretion, as it is thought not wise to legislate in a matter of this kind too far ahead. The prize-books will, it is suggested, bear the inscription:




The Lord Mayor of Liverpool F. C. Bowring Esq., J.P.

Presented to


for having earnestly endeavoured to act in accordance with the direction ‘Thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself ‘.

Interest in Kitty’s work was not allowed to wane as by now the Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury and the Liverpool Echo were fully committed to her cause. In the weeks following Civic Week their columns gave accounts of her life and work. A feature writer known as ‘Grey Quill’, writing on `Liverpool Pioneer City’, wrote of Kitty

That great, loyal queers of pity was teaching the poorer districts of Liverpool and wondering medical Men, the art of nursing The amazing practical work of this glorious woman seems incredible to the envious; she founded the first infant school in Liverpool, probably in England and anticipated the kindergarten by 50 – years; she lent money without interest to crush the moneylenders; she was the pioneer of night schools, mechanics’ institutes and the public baths and wash-houses system.’

Superlative follows superlative, and thus the legend grows!

Interest in her was also sustained by the Society of Lovers of Old Liverpool. This learned society was founded in March 1925 and held regular meetings in the Angel Hotel, Dale Street. Its first president was George Milligan, J.P., Christopher A. Healey was the Secretary, and talks were given on the history and development of Liverpool. The Society survived for 10 years and was wound up in somewhat acrimonious circumstances in 1935. By 1927 Robert Gladstone had become the president and interest in aspects of Kitty’s history were pursued during that year. C. A. Healey, writing in the Weekly Post, 20th August, 1927, under the title `Our Special Commissioner’, wrote an article telling the story of the tea service presented to Kitty by `the two Queens and Ladies of Liverpool.’ This, in its turn, supple­mented an article in the Echo on the 18th August. Both of them are reprinted here.



AUGUST 20, 1927


A few days ago I had the privilege of speaking to a grandson of the illustrious Kitty Wilkinson, whose name is written in golden letters across the doorsteps of every hospital and nursing home in the world. His name is Victor Demont, and he is a sturdy, stalwart middle-aged youth of 68, working in a Reddish mill, just as his great ancestress worked in another when she was a mere child of 11.

He showed me some treasured relics of the great, the wonderful Kitty – the cream jug and the tea-service presented to her in 1846 by two Queens – Victoria and Charlotte – by the Countess of Derby ` and the ladies of Liverpool ‘ as a tribute to her wonderful services to the good old town of Liverpool. The presentation was made 12 years after the event. That cream jug is now in the keeping of Mr Robert Gladstone, president of the Society of Lovers of Old Liverpool. I am tracing the whereabouts of the rest of the service so that our president (for I am privileged to be the secretary of that unique society which has Mr T. P. O’Connor, Sir Leslie Scott, and Mr Jack Hayes as its vice-presidents) may hand it to the Lord Mayor for exhibition during Civic Week.

I have been reading some of the ancient literature written about that great, amazing woman, and when I think of the religious gnats who buzzed about her and tried to sting her into their own narrow groove, then I marvel all the more that this grand, glorious woman went steadily on her way, knowing that there are no banners, no coloured regiments in God’s army of service. She did her work greatly, fearing no reward or reproof.



A tea service presented by two queens and a host of wealthy ladies might well intoxicate the head of a woman who looked with reverence upon earthly rank. I do not suppose that Kitty Wilkinson ever had two cups of tea out of that service. She had no time for vanity, brave heart. Right to her dying day, she was ever working and now I do believe that she is ever on the move throughout heaven with a duster.

She had two children by her first husband, Manuel Demont, and bred children by her second husband, Thomas Wilkinson, who died, their father following them soon to their fruitless grave. Yet her first marriage has prospered to a second, a third and even a fourth generation.

Mr Demont lives in a quiet little suburb of Stockport, works in a Reddish mill, and at the age of 68 is younger than men of half his years. He has an enthusiasm and a vim well worthy of the stock from which he has sprung, and he has an intense love of Liverpool well worthy of the great Kitty Wilkinson. He told me a pathetic story:

Fifty years ago his mother and himself made a pilgrimage to Liver­pool to see the grave in St, James’s Cemetery in which lies all that is mortal of the foundress of public baths and wash-houses, night schools, kindergartens, mechanics’ institutes, and the art of nursing, whether in the home or the hospital. And neither the daughter-in-law nor the grandson could find the grave. It was rescued from its obscurity by Archdeacon Howson just a year and a half ago, and now, thanks to his loving care, the grave has become a shrine outside Liverpool’s beautiful Cathedral.



In the latter part of 1846 two Queens, a Countess and the ladies of Liverpool all united in making a presentation of a tea-service to the heroic Catherine Wilkinson for her wonderful civic service to Liverpool during the great cholera epidemic of 1832.

This tea-service is still in existence. The silver cream jug is the property of her grandson, Mr Victor Dumont, of Stockport. The remainder is somewhere in Liverpool, and efforts are being made by the Society of Lovers of Old Liverpool to trace it so that it may be on exhibiton during Civic Week.

Mr Victor Dumont has kindly consented to lend the cream jug, and it is now in the temporary possession of the editor of the Daily Post. The tea-service was designed by Mr Joseph Mayer, the silversmith, of Lord Street, in 1846, and the design submitted to Queen Victoria, Queen Charlotte, the widowed Queen of William IV, and the then Countess of Derby, approved by them, and duly presented to the great Catherine of Liverpool. The service consisted of a silver teapot, a cream jug and silver tongs, and a complete tea-set of old china cups, saucers and plates. Each piece of the silverware was inscribed

`Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’.

‘Presented by the Queen, the Queen Dowager-, and the Ladies of Liverpool to Catherine Wilkinson MDCCCXLVI’.

To a representative of the Echo who interviewed him at Stockport, Mr Dumont said

` I have carefully preserved certain relics of my grandmother’s, and this ere m jug is one of my family’s greatest treasures. Here is a letter which will explain why we have not the other parts:


Greenbank, Liverpool E.
27th October, 1893.

Mr. Dumont,

Sir, – I send you with this, a silver cream jog presented to your relative Catherine Wilkinson, in commemoration of her services to the town of Liverpool. Though she and her husband had only a cotton porter’s wages, yet they brought up 13 orphans, and she was indefatigable in the first outbreak of cholera in Liverpool, and established in her cellar a wash-house for the poor which was the origin of the idea of public baths and wash-houses.

Your mother parted with the plate, but I learn from my neice, Miss Greg, that you are a steady and respectable man and that you will value this memento of your very worthy and highly respectable relative.

In the hope that your life and that of your family will be worthy of her, and that you will preserve this memento in your family.

I remain, with all good wishes,

Yours faithfully,

                      William Rathbone.’


The silver was valued by Mr Rathbone in 1893. It was decided that the tea-pot’s intrinsic worth was £5 11s. 9d., the cream jug £1 1s. 9d. and the tongs 11s.

`The cups and saucers and plates were not valued ‘ added Mr Dumont, ‘because they were broken after close on 50 years’ service.’

Mr Dumont warmly expressed his thanks to Archdeacon Howson, the Rathbone family, and to the Daily Post and Echo for keeping green the work and civic service of his grandmother.

He paid a special tribute to the Cathedral authorities for their care of the grave. Fifty years ago, in company with his mother, he paid a special pilgrimage to St. James’s Cemetery to see the grave, but could find no trace. He hopes to be here in Civic Week, and pay a visit to the old cemetery, which will be more successful.’

Two interesting points emerge from these articles. Firstly the design for the silver tea service (where is it now?) was submitted to and approved by Queen Victoria, Queen Charlotte (the widowed Queen of William IV) and the then Countess of Derby: it would be of interest to see the correspondence related to it and to find out which Liverpool Lady had such influence at Court that she could secure this Royal patronage. Secondly, C. A. Healy mentions that she `bred children by her second husband, Thomas Wilkinson, who died, their father follow­ing them soon to a fruitless grave’. The `Life of Kitty Wilkinson’ by Winifred R. Rathbone and the ‘Memoir’ make no reference at all to their being children by her second marriage. The ‘Memoir’ after dwelling at some length as to how Kitty nursed her second son (Joseph De Monte) as he lay dying proceeds to speak of her eldest son, John De Monte:

‘Kitty’s eldest sort was also a great trial to his mother, although not in the same way as his younger brother. He was brought up at the Bluecoat School where, although hasty in his temper, he was a great favourite with his master. After leaving school he became a sailor and had always been liked both by the captains under whom he served, and by the seamen; but a constitutional weakness of the head caused the smallest quantity of liquor to produce complete insanity, and under the influence of it, he sometimes commited acts which caused his mother so much distress, both in circumstances and in mind, that her health often went under it.’

It was John De Monte whom Dr Tuckerman, in his letter to Kitty Wilkinson promised to look out for if and when he landed in Boston; but it is highly unlikely that he was the ‘son’ who helped Kitty to run the Wash-house in Frederick Street after the death of Thomas Wilkinson in 1848. The ‘Memoir’ further states that after her superintendence of the Frederick Street Wash-house was terminated, she returned to live with her son, his wife and family in her old house in Denison Street.

`Her overt health has become very inform, and the illness of her sort, combined with the habits of improvidence common to sailors, haze often placed her in great difficulty and distress.’

Thus the ‘Memoir’ seems to talk about a son who was a sailor with improvident and drunken habits and also a son who helped her to run the wash-house. The likelihood is that they were different `sons ‘, i.e. John De Monte, of the first marriage, was the sailor and the son who helped in the wash-house was probably the George Wilkinson to whom reference has been made on Page 10 of this book. A `George Wilkinson’ was appointed on the 24th July, 1851 to the Superintendency of the Pier Head Baths and his wife Elizabeth was appointed Matron. The Pier Head post was an important and well­ paid one with the Health Committee, and on his appointment Wilkin­son had to give a `satisfactory security to the extent of £100 for the faithful. performance of his duty’. This appointment followed shortly after the Frederick Street wash-house had been closed for rebuilding (22nd April 1851). Thus then it would be possible to assume that George Wilkinson as a result of assisting his mother for three years at Frederick Street was therefore qualified for the Pier Head position, for it is doubtful that the Health Committee would have appointed someone without experience to such a responsible post. It would also help to explain what appeared to be the rather peremptory and parsimonious way in which the Committee dispensed with Kitty’s service (23rd August, 1852, four weeks wages in lieu of notice). Perhaps then the Committee felt that they had done the best by her as Kitty’s son was now in a good position and able to maintain her, and also that she was now too old (66 years) to run an establishment.

On the 21st November, 1853 there is the following entry in the Baths Committee Minutes:

`The Chairman having reported that Mr Wilkinson, the Super­intendent of the Pier Head Baths, had been the worse for liquor on Saturday the 12th inst. and the Committee having investigated the matter, and Mr Wilkinson having admitted that he was the worse for liquor on that day

RESOLVED that the Chairman be requested to severely reprimand Mr Wilkinson for his conduct and to inform him that a repetition of the offence will be followed by dismissal.’

Mr Wilkinson was called before the Committee and reprimanded accordingly and acquainted with the foregoing resolution.’Within six months the Committee were in receipt of his letter of resignation (29th May, 1854) and he left the post on the 12th July, 1854. The impression gained from the Committee’s Minutes is that he was asked to resign as a result of further bouts of intemperance. These events fit the pattern that has been described earlier (Chapter 5) when in the spring of 1854 efforts were made to secure a pension for Kitty Wilkinson. Possibly at this time as a result of an argument during a drunken period, she had become estranged from George and Elizabeth Wilkinson and this is perhaps why all reference to George is omitted, and also why John De Monte became the beneficiary of her estate. Presuming that John De Monte was still at this time a sailor and away at sea, it would account for the fact that, as the Mercury said in the report of her funeral:

`She had no child of her own to see her laid in the grave.’

John De Monte being the beneficiary thus came to inherit the presentation silver which eventually was restored to his son Victor Dumont.

The story of Kitty Wilkinson re-surfaces again in 1930 when a short article on Kitty’s presentation silver appeared in the Echo the only new fact stated was that when John De Monte left Liverpool to settle in Stockport, William Rathbone advanced a £10 loan on the service. Interest again revived nearly two years later when the centenary of Kitty’s work during the cholera epidemic was due. The first manifestation was a news item in the Daily Post on the 15th October, 1931, which, after speaking of the centenary celebrations which marked the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester Railway (1830­1930) and the death of William Roscoe (1831-1931) went on to say that next year `it will be the centenary of Kitty Wilkinson starting the public wash-house movement, which was the beginning of that movement not only in Liverpool but in the world.’ ! ! By 3rd March, 1932 it was being suggested that it would be an appropriate oppor­tunity to celebrate the centenary in connection with the official opening of the Burroughs Garden Standard Towel Laundry. On the 19th March in the Weekly Post ` Grey Quill’ returned to the fray with superlative again following superlative.

` Woman outshines Poets and Warriors – Catherine Wilkinson – Mother of Modern Sanitary Science.’

ran the headlines above a rambling piece which invoked the memory of Scott and Goethe!

`Beside the figure of Catherine Wilkinson, the mother of modern sanitary science, warriors, poets and statesmen seem minor things. she is of the immortals, for being dead, her glorious work goes on for ever…’

The Corporation Baths Committee in a statement issued to the Press on the 20th May, 1932, said that though they were fully alive to the importance of the Centenary, `the need for economy will not allow of an expensive celebration’. But grandiose – though not expensive – plans were being made by other people. A Thanksgiving Service was proposed to take place in Liverpool Cathedral on the 13th November. An article in the Post said that two Liverpool women were being jointly commemorated, Catherine Wilkinson and Nurse Agnes Jones of the District Nursing Service.

`William Rathbone of Liverpool, curiously enough, was identified with the work of both women and the present Rathbone family are interesting themselves in the commemoration. The preacher will be Archdeacon G. F. Howsort.’

Details of his sermon, however, did not attract the attention of the Press. Prior to the Service there had been some further correspondence in the Press with reference to Kitty’s presentation silver, which by now was gaining a reputation far in excess of its craftsmanship. On the 17th June an article in the Post referred to the fact that the bulk of the service was in possession of the Rathbone family, and that Kitty had secured a loan on it and never redeemed it. But this assertion was quickly replied to by Evelyn Rathbone who, in a letter published on the 24th June, stated that it was not Kitty who had obtained the loan but her son. This arrangement had been made after Kitty’s death and William Rathbone bought in the silver because of his deep affection for Kitty. In her letter, Evelyn Rathbone states:

`The Wilkinsons had no children but adopted no less than 45 orphans at different times!!’

On 9th September, 1932, the Weekly News reported the Annual Inspection of the Public Baths and Wash-houses. Economy had prevailed, the Depression would not allow of an expensive celebration. However, the Lord Mayor did use the occasion of speaking to the Press about the opening of the first public wash-house in Frederick Street and of Kitty being the first manager. (The legend dies hard.) He also extolled the role of Liverpool as a pioneering city and emphasised the low charges for bathers and washers, mentioning a four-pence subsidy per bather – `as this makes for a clean and healthy city, the Corporation believes it money well spent.’

After this the story of Kitty Wilkinson disappears from the pages of the local press and reappears only occasionally in the tales of Whittington-Egan. But the myth is passed on to each succeeding generation as her story, based on the ‘Memoir’, has been enshrined in the local folklore reported in a textbook of local history produced for the Liverpool schools.



In conclusion one must seek to assess how Catherine Wilkinson came to achieve such fame, and to apportion the degree of responsibility to the various people who produced the myth which surrounds her.

It has been shown in Chapters two and eight that there must be considerable reservation when examining her story to Mrs Rathbone the elaborate deceptions surrounding the details of her marriages and resulting children must also cast serious doubts about her version of what happened during the local cholera outbreak of 1832. Therefore, some degree of blame for the fame which she achieved must be placed at her feet. Her misrepresentations were accepted in good faith by the Rathbones. Having told the lies initially, she felt it necessary to sustain them as the national recognition and the position of Baths and Wash-house Superintendent were made available to her by the Rathbones.

It would, however, be uncharitable to withhold from Kitty some of the praise for originating the idea. Possibly she did emerge as a `leader’ in her street during the time of crisis and did display com­mendable initiative and exceptional communal spirit in sharing her mangle and washing facilities. But it would be wrong to assume, as previous authorities have done, that she visualised its adaptation on a wide scale. Here the credit must be accorded to William Rathbone V, who fortified with the knowledge of how workmen in factories benefited from using water heated by the steam engines, realised that this could be most usefully developed to raise general levels of hygiene.

Having ascribed to William Rathbone V the praise for encouraging Kitty’s efforts and for producing the idea of Municipal enterprise in the matter of Public Baths and Wash-houses (it followed as a logical extension of the work, which he no doubt inspired, under the District Provident Society) it is necessary to emphasise that though his ulterior motives were good and sincere, the manner in which he strove to achieve them was somewhat unethical. It would not be unfair to assert that William Rathbone V used Kitty Wilkinson and `her idea ‘ as a way of circumventing a difficult political situation. How­ever, it is possible that he misjudged the temper of the Tories when they regained control in 1840. There can be no doubt that he was unpopular and that his opponents might have blocked his ideas out of spite, but the reactions of Tories like Tinne, Parker and Case reveal that they realised the benefits to the town of such facilities, and were prepared to give Rathbone’s ideas their support; perhaps, therefore, his deviousness was unnecessary.

An essential ingredient of the myth has been the emphasis given to Kitty’s work as an example of working class self-help. It is a theme emphasised in the tract `Catherine of Liverpool’ (Annals of the Poor: Instances of Female Industry and Intrepidity), in the appeal on behalf of the District Provident Society, in Rathbone’s testimonial on her behalf, in the `Memoir’, in the speeches of the Town Councillors from 1840 onwards, and in the pageant of Civic Week. Herein lies one of the chief reasons why she obtained such fame. It was an excellent example, applicable just as much at the times of popular unrest in the 1840’s as it was in the turbulence of Liverpool in the first decade of the twentieth century or in the bleak years of the late twenties or early thirties.

When this moral tale is allied to the fact that it was an idea which originated in Liverpool, it is understandable that the organs of the local press and the political worthies seized upon it to bolster civic pride. Liverpool’s superior and parochial airs are well known, but the exultation expressed in `Liverpool gentlemen, Manchester men and Bolton chaps’ and the pride in the pre-eminence of the port has always been tempered by the description of the town as `the Black Spot of the Mersey’. Hence then the emphasis given to the town being `FIRST’ in the field of the provision of public baths and wash-houses. It was to help mitigate the harsh image that persisted about living conditions in Liverpool, that the civic authori­ties, aided by the later Rathbones, inflated Kitty’s work to that of a local saint.

Finally one cannot help but be surprised by the occasional naivety of people who have written previously about Kitty; the fact that Evelyn Rathbone could state in her letter to the Post in 1932 that Kitty had adopted no less than 45 children or that Richard Whittington-Egan, in the most recent edition (1968) of his Liverpool Characters and Eccentrics, could speak of people placing a few flowers in empty milk bottles on her grave, and that at a time when vandals have played havoc with St. James’s Cemetery so much so that the Corporation have recently moved in to restore it, and have saved her gravestone as one of historic interest.

Therein lies, perhaps, the irony of this expose: her story will still be regarded as the truth: people tend to dislike the true facts of a mythical tale. The continuing belief that Richard III was responsible for the death of the Princes in the Tower, or that Churchill ordered the militia to fire on the miners at Tonypandy are evidence of how folk-myths linger on.



Primary sources used in this book have been the Liverpool news­papers of the period, parish marriage and baptismal registers, the minute books of the Town Council and the various committees which from time to time were responsible for the wash-houses, and Gore’s Directory of Liverpool. All these are available in the Liver­pool Record Office. Recourse has also been made to the papers of the Rathbone family which are deposited in the Cohen Library at the University of Liverpool: these papers were particularly useful and illuminating.

The main secondary printed sources used were the two books about Kitty Wilkinson by Winifred R. Rathbone (The Life of Kitty Wilkinson) and Herbert R. Rathbone (The Memoir of Kitty Wilkinson). These books are now out of print but are available in the Liverpool Record Office. Reference has also been frequently made to Richard Whittington-Egan’s account of her life in Liverpool Characters and Eccentrics. This book has recently been reprinted by Gallery Press, Liverpool.







Among a large proportion of the labouring classes, a whole family occupy only a single room or cellar, generally very inefficiently drained and ventilated. They sleep three, four or even more in one bed – and sometimes in a back cellar, in which there is no air except from the front one.

In this mingling of different ages and sexes, perhaps also of families, in one small apartment, even a sense of decency, so important, yet so difficult to preserve under such circumstances, would all attempt to counteract, by personal ablutions, the bad effects of a night so passed, even did their crowded room supply the necessary accommodation.

Nor can they wash their bedding and clothes without suffering greatly from the damp atmosphere during the tedious process of drying by their small fire, and the consequent necessity of using them while still damp. These causes, constantly acting, must necessarilygive rise to a great amount of the fever, rheumatism, consumption and stomach complaints which we find so prevalent among our poor.

The necessity of cleanliness, and of a change of linen in infectious illness, both to the recovery of the patient, and to the safety of the rest of the family, need not be dwelt upon. Yet the dread of infection, and the distress consequent on illness among those dependant on their daily labour renders a change of linen impossible.

Something ought to be done to mitigate these evils.

Warm baths by which thorough personal cleanliness could be attained, would do much to counteract some of the injurious effects of crowded dwellings. Cellars underneath the Baths might be furnished with hot and cold water, washing tubs and a drying stove, at a small expense, which would enable the poor to wash and dry their own clothes, and where, in cases of infectious illness, the sick might have their clothes purified.

Experience has proved that these accommodations may be given at a moderate expense and that the poor use them and value them, and that their advantages in improving the health and moral feelings of the people in promoting the recovery of the sick, and preventing the spread of infection, are as great as might be anticipated.

Several manufacturers have built Warm Baths for their work people which have been much used, and the people have expressed themselves surprised at the beneficial effects upon their health.

A cellar was fitted up with washing tubs, hot and cold water and a drying stove in connection with the Provident District Society, where for some years from 70 to 90 families washed their clothes weekly at a current expense of £9 for rent, coals and superintendence. In the same cellar any infected clothes were washed, free of charge.

The Washing Cellar has hitherto been supported chiefly by the Provident District Society who now allow 10s. a week and during the prevalence of cholera gave considerably more. There have been in addition a few subscriptions, but always inadequate to the expenses.

The largest number of infected clothes washed in one week was in August 183?, during the prevalence of cholera when 158 sheets, 140 dozen of clothes, 110 blankets, 60 quilts and 34 bed-ticks were washed for those ill of cholera, and 120 sheets and 60 shirts were lent them.

There has been much fever during the first quarter of this year. 767 sheets, 226 dozen of clothes, 121 blankets, 125 quilts and 54 bed­ticks have been washed for the sick, and 709 sheets have been lent, in addition to which, 883 families have washed their own clothes.

The expense of the two branches during this quarter has been –



  £   s.   d.   £   s.   d.
Superintendent, 4s. per
week ……………..:…



A stove, and setting it …


Rent of Cellar, 13 wks.
@ 2s. ………………


1. 6.0.

Calico for sheets ………


Rent of Room for stove,*
9 wks. @ 1s. ………



Repairs of boiler ………



2. 4.0.


3.1 5.0.

Soda ..:…………………




Soap ……………………

2.1 6.0.



61 days’ washing at 2s.

6. 2.0.

Current expenses ………

17. 4.6.

Mangling 304 dozen
clothes ……………………






£17. 4.6.

Total …………………


* The stove has only been up nine weeks but will be continued.

The Medical Officers of the South Dispensary, the Visitors of the Provident District Society, and the Parish Visitors send recommenda­tions. None has ever been required beyond infection and poverty, but unless funds can be raised sufficient to meet the calls upon them, some restriction will be necessary. As infected clothes are received from all parts of the town, many coming from Vauxhall Road and from the Park, it is hoped that in this branch general support may be looked for.

The object of this paper is to ask for this support and to prevent

the painful necessity of refusing this small but important assistance to the various and complicated distress attendant on infectious illness and poverty united.



June 1837.

Subscriptions and Donations will be received by Mr Shaw, Provident District Society Office and by the Visitors.






22nd August 1840

A large proportion of our Labouring Classes live in single rooms, or in cellars where there is no sufficient ventilation, generally sleeping several in a bed – often with two or three beds in a room, sometimes in back cellars, where there is no air except what comes through the front cellar; few use sheets, and all wear the same linen night and day through the week. Nor will their small fire and crowded rooms allow them to wash their clothes without suffering greatly from the damp atmosphere created during the tedious process of drying. The consequences to health are found to be such as might be expected.

A Cellar has for some years been hired at No. 162 Upper Frederick Street where from 70 to 90 families each week wash their clothes and bed-clothes, which are dried in a small room fitted up with a stove for that purpose, and are returned to them well aired. These advantages are highly estimated by those who use them, and habits of cleanliness are greatly encouraged; but much difficulty arises from the number of applicants, as the Cellar is small and low; considerably more might be accommodated by taking in the back Cellar, and a different fitting up of both, at an outlay of about £20 and, of course, a weekly additional expense in coals and rent.

The necessity of cleanliness, and of a change of linen in infectious illness, both to the recovery of the patient and to prevent the complaint spreading, need not be dwelt upon; while the dread of infection, and the distress attendant upon illness seldom leaves those most liable to infection the power of procuring a change. To meet this difficulty, for the last five years any infected clothes which have been sent to the Washing Cellar have been washed free of charge, and a change of sheets lent. A comparison of the number of sheets lent with the number washed, will show how seldom the sick had any but those lent them.

The weekly expenses of the portion of the establishment which enables families to wash their own clothes have been – rent 3s. coals 3s. soda 6d. suprintendent 3s. with occasional repairs of the boiler, tubs, etc.

The additional expenses attending the washing the infected clothes are – sheets to lend (which during the cholera required frequent renewal from many being buried), the superintendent, women to wash the clothes, soap, soda, and mangling; these of course vary with the number of clothes washed.

The instances were frequent where Cholera or fever seemed to have taken possession of a house, and when, after a complete washing of bed, bedding and clothes and whitewashing the room, not another instance of infection occurred. The confidence that clothes would be returned free from infection, made it comparatively easy to borrow a change even in Cholera; – and in no single instance was there reason to think that the means taken were not completely successful in purifying the clothes, and preserving from contagion those who washed them. This experience extended through five years and in one week in August 1832 -were washed for those ill of Cholera – 158 sheets, 110 blankets, 60 quilts, 34 bed-ticks and 140 dozen of clothes. The expense was under £6.

The dirty state of the clothes, in most cases of fever, told plainly the common origin of the disease, which was confirmed by the striking exemption from fever of those families who regularly washed in the cellar.

The depression of the funds of the Provident District Society and still more the failure of the health of the Superintendent, caused this very useful charity to be discontinued – for a time only it was hoped, as its great value was thought to have been fully proved.

A plan was furnished to some individuals who were some years ago anxious for such an establishment, by Mr Franklin, now our Corporation surveyor, which comprises eight public and two private warm baths, a cellar, where from 200 to 250 women weekly might wash their clothes; a separate cellar for washing infected clothes, a drying stove, and Superintendent’s house, with engine, tank, boiler, tubs, etc., which would cost, exclusive of ground £720.

One penny from each person using the washing accommodations would more than meet the current expenses of that part of the establishment:

Whether the low price at which the public baths must be afforded to put them within the reach of the class who most need them will meet the necessary expenditure, must depend on circumstances that can only be known by experiment. The private ones should be at a price which would place them within the reach of the artisan and small shopkeeper.

No part of the expense attending the washing of infected clothes can be borne by the parties themselves. There can be no doubt that great expense, as well as many lives, and much lingering illness would be saved by affording this assistance. It would be sought only in cases of undoubtedly and extreme suffering and need and how great the relief would be those who have the means of procuring comforts in illness are perhaps unable to estimate.

Liverpool 22nd August 1840.






The singularity of the case must be my excuse for bringing the application of Mr and Mrs Wilkinson, for the situation of SUPER­INTENDENTS of the BATHS AND WASH HOUSES in Frederick Street before the members of the Town Council in this uncommon manner, instead of confining myself to give my testimony in their favour in the Committee, with whom the recommendation to your appointment naturally rests.

I would request your attention to the subjoined extract from a correct account of `The Origin of the Liverpool Baths and Wash­houses ‘ published in the Historical Register January 1845, and I would appeal to you, whether the Institution itself, owing its origin to her benevolent and self-denying activity, and its prosperity, and subsequent adoption by the Corporation to her clever management, does not give her a claim above other applicants if she and her husband are found fully competent to carry it on.

Her talents for management and for economy may be judged of by the fact that in one week of August 1833 she washed, dried and returned to their rightful owners

34 beds, 158 sheets, 110 blankets, 60 quilts, 140 dozen of clothes, all infected with cholera, at an expense of less than £6. One-hundred­-and-twenty of these sheets were lent. Her health is now better and her strength greater than at any former period of her life and her experi­ence, with the absence of young children, I consider as far more than counter-balancing her age, which is, I believe, about 56. Her husband is some years younger than herself, and as his wife seemed the natural person to be appointed to the management of the Baths, and the young man who put up the machinery lodged with them at the time, he watched its erection till he considered himself fully acquainted with his part of the duties which might be required.

I am anxious about the appointment of Mr and Mrs Wilkinson, believing that their active benevolence and fearlessness of infection are very uncommon, and that it is only by such that the washing of infected clothes will be carried out to its full capability.

I am anxious about it for its effect upon the poor, as encouragement to follow her example. No danger or fatigue has deterred her from sitting up with the sick, and she and her husband have worked hard and lived hard, to support orphans whose only claim upon them was the remembrance of the kindness they had received when left orphans themselves. Many of the children had claims on the Parish, but these were never urged, and 2s. a week, which one child was receiving at the time they took charge of him and Ss. which five others were receiving, was at once returned, and a remission of her payment of poor rates is all she has ever received for her care. The South Corporation Infant School arose from a number of children she had collected in her bedroom whose parents were ill of cholera.

Their means for supplying this extensive benevolence were their own hard earnings, he as a labourer until lately when he has kept a coal cellar and she has cleaned offices and kept lodgers, often those who are sick and unable to pay.

I need not, I am sure, after this statement, press upon your attention the importance of showing our estimation of such conduct, by letting Mrs Wilkinson reap its natural reward in the management of the institution which owes its being to her and for which she has proved herself so well qualified; nor the discouragement which its refusal will be to such independence and fearless self-denying benevolence.

Yours respectfully,



GREENBANK, 1st July, 1846

The Rector, Mr Campbell and Rev. Mr C. Lawrence and the other Members of the Committee of the Provident District Society from 1832 to 1837 when the low state of the funds obliged them to discontinue their assistance to the washing cellar, can bear testimony to the truth of this statement, as can any of the medical men appointed to that district of the town. There are in the Town hall strong testimonials from some of them, and from Mr Adam Hodgson who has known her most of her life, and numerous others.



`In the spring of the year 1832, the apprehension of cholera impressed the importance of cleanliness upon all classes with the vividness of a newly discovered truth. The visitors of the poor, while they exhorted them to the immediate practice of this virtue, looked hopelessly round the dark cellar, or small garret, containing a whole family, often lodgers also, for the facilities of washing, or the possibility of drying the clothes of the inmates. From the blackened blankets and bed, they turned as from evils for which they could devise no remedy.

But the poor, when their energies are aroused, can often find resources where their friends can see none, and their mutual bene­volence is their surest reliance. A poor woman (Mrs Wilkinson) living in one of the crowded streets of Liverpool had a back kitchen

which three people could just stand, containing a small boiler. On the Monday she washed her own clothes the rest of the week her kitchen was filled by her still poorer neighbours as was the covered passage into which her house opened, and in fair weather her yard also. To dry all these clothes was the next difficulty. This was overcome by passing cords from her own back window to that of a kind neighbour opposite, on which they could hang and freshen in the air, out of reach of theft or of giving annoyance to anyone.

The cholera soon appeared, and that street was one of the earliest and most severely visited. The bedding and clothes of the dead were ordered to be burnt. How were the survivors to supply the change of linen and the warmth demanded, in an unprecedented degree, by this dreadful disease?

We meet among the poor with a courageous, self-denying, persever­ing benevolence such as privation often develops which makes us feel the high purposes for which the severe discipline of life is designed. The same active kindness which opened her house to her neighbours, led the woman above mentioned, regardless of all danger to herself, to visit the sick, to lend them all her sheets, her blankets, her clothes. But she could not allow them to be burnt. A medical man assured her that some chloride of lime put into the water into which she steeped them would destroy• the infection. The rapid circulation of her own little stock being quite inadequate to supply the pressing wants of her neighbours, she applied to the visitors of the District Provident Society for more sheets and clothes to lend, for soap to wash them with, and women to assist her. For her own services, or for the use of the kitchen she received, during that first visitation of cholera, no remuneration.

The value of this mode of assisting the poor, when thus brought under their notice, was at once felt by the visitors. The cellar under this house was hired and fitted up with a second hand boiler, a wine cask for a cistern and some troughs divided into compartments for tubs. It was low and dark, crowded and filled with steam, yet with only this accommodation, an average of 85 families a week were for several years preserved from all the evils of washing in their own confined and crowded rooms, and of putting on their clothes half dried.

All infected clothes were received and washed in the kitchen. A note from any medical man was all that was required. The expenses of this part of the establishment were met partly by assistance from the Provident District Society, partly by private subscriptions.’

Historical Register.

Some of the orphans referred to were

Four Jones taken in 1824. Father died of typhus, mother six months later.
Ann, aged 11. Sent to service, now married to. Thomas Barker, dock gate keeper.
John, aged eight. Got into Blue Coat School at nine, now in the Navy.
Ellen, aged four. Went to service at Mr Rathbone’s at 17, then married.
George, aged two. Went to Blue Coat School at nine. Now a tailor, Affleck Court, Frederick St.
John and William Wild, Found sleeping in a hayloft by her son.
Orphans, twins, supposed about 14. Put into Seaton’s paper manufactory for six months, then sent to sea under Captain Finley of the Halifax. William was lost in the Grecian. John is a servant in America.
Three Dunns, in 1830. The father worked at Fawcett’s and lodged with Mr Wilkinson.
Thomas, aged 15, Went to service in a year, married Mrs W’s son, and lives with her at 70 Frederick. Street.
William, aged 10. Got into the Blue Coat School in six months, now clerk to Mr Cross, Valparaiso.
Five Harrisons, 1832. Mother died of Cholera, Father out of work for long after. Mrs W. received something at times from the father but seldom, and very insufficient. The aunt, who had them previously, had 5s. per week from the Parish, which Mrs W. immediately stopped on taking the children.
Mary, aged I1. Remained two years.
Catherine, aged nine. Apprenticed at 11 to Mr Greg’s Cotton Mill, still there.
Sarah, seven, and Ann, five. Apprenticed to Mr Greg’s in 1838, still there
Elizabeth, 18 months. Died after five years
Five Coventrys, 1832. The mother died of consumption. The father deserted them and has not since been heard of.
Mary, aged eight. Was put into Blue Coat School as none.
Ralph, seven, Margaret, five, William, three. Were kept two years and then sent to some relations.
Jane, three months. Died at 10 months
Two Hughes, 1835. On the death of the mother, Mrs Wilkinson took in the father, dying of the same complaint, and his children. He loved 10 months.
David was three years. Got into the Blue Coat School at nine is now in Fawcett’s foundary
John is still with her. Going to school
Three Christians, 1835.  
Thomas, 21. Dying of consumption. Lived three months
William, 12. Bound to Mr Dutchman. In 18 months went to sea.
Betsy, 10. Got into Blue Coat School in about 18 months, where she died.
1843. Tom Quin, 10. Had 2s. from the Parish when Mrs. W took him, which she stopped. He is still with here.

There were many more for longer and shorter times, which would make the list too long. Those mentioned I can speak to, having all of them been frequently at Greenbank.



Liverpool, 26th January, 1848.


In the year 1832, when the cholera had awakened the attention of all to the importance of cleanliness, the difficulty of washing and drying, especially the bedding, was greatly felt by those families which occupied but a single apartment. A poor woman, the wife of a labourer, whose back kitchen contained a boiler, allowed those of her neighbours who were most destitute of the means of heating water to wash there, bringing their own tubs, and supplying themselves with hot water from the boiler. Only three could stand in her kitchen at once, but the accommodation was found so valuable that the District Provident Society lend their aid, and the cellar beneath was hired. A boiler holding 20 gallons was put up with a wine cask to serve as a cistern; at first the women brought tubs either their own or borrowed; after­wards troughs were arranged around and across the cellar, divided into 14 compartments, these, with two dolly tubs and six buckets to hold the wet clothes and lade the water in and out of the boiler and tubs, were all the apparatus provided.

The clothes were dried on cords passed from the back windows of that house to those of the house opposite; yet with these simple means, an average of 85 families per week were for several years saved from the dangers and evils of washing in their own crowded rooms, or the still greater evil of not washing at all. The cellar was small, 13 feet long by 10.5, low and dark, full of steam and the floor was always wet. A little expense in pipes to avoid lading the water, better ventilation, deeper washing tubs, and an additional boiler would have remedied much of these evils but it was considered only as an experi­ment. Accommodation for a few more women to wash their own clothes would have enabled that branch of the plan to support itself; as one penny paid for the use of a tub for six hours, and the current expenses weekly were only 3/-, viz. rent of cellar 2/-, six cwt, of coals 3/-, Matron 3/-.

A long continuance of wet weather in the spring of 1837 led to a store being put up in the garret of the same house, for the hire of which 1/- weekly additional was paid. The woman of the house, whose thoughtful kindness originated the whole, acted as matron, with little interruption to her household duties, as she could leave one of the washers in charge to keep up the fire and the supply of water in the boiler, and to see the regulations were observed in boiling the clothes, i.e. that they had been sufficiently washed before they were put in the boiler; that they were secured together so as to cause no quarrels or complaint of loss, and that the clothes with vermin were not put in with those free from them as boiling does not destroy them. As the cellar communicated with her kitchen, the matron could be summoned at once when her presence was necessary.

As an establishment on this humble scale might be made to support itself, or even yield a small surplus, it might be found the best plan to place it altogether in the hands of some female willing to conform to certain regulations, and to whose means of support it might be a valuable addition – she would require to possess great sense and firm­ness to enforce attention to rules and to prevent quarrelling, but a sensible woman, if assisted and advised at the commencement, would be able to manage it more economically, and probably with more authority if it were her own concern, than if agent for a Society; this, however, would depend much on the character of the individual.

In the small establishment I have been describing infected clothes were received by the matron and washed either in her kitchen or in the back cellar, a note from a medical man being all that was required to procure for the poor this important aid at the time of their greatest need each set of clothes when received was put into a tub with a solution of chloride of lime, and washed and dried at times set apart for infected washing. It must be observed that receiving this class of articles although an extremely valuable addition to a washing establish­ment does not necessarily form a part of it. In some respects it would be better that infected clothes should be washed in a separate building but the necessity of strictly observing the requisite precautions, and of seeing that the clothes were quickly and thoroughly washed and dried, and safely returned. would require the superintendence of a respectable and trustworthy female. Few of the very poor of this place possess sheets, and the loan of some which the matron had for this purpose was found a most important comfort in illness, promoting recovery, and greatly lessening the danger of infection. The obscurity that prevails on the subject of infection gives rise often to unreasonable fears, particularly amongst the poor. The precautions taken protected the washers themselves, though the number washed one week of clothes infected by the cholera was 34 beds, 110 blankets, 60 quilts, 158 sheets (of which 120 were lent) and 140 dozen clothes. An Infant School attended by 60 scholars was held in the house at the time and every room in it was occupied by the family or by lodgers, but there was no case of cholera or of fever in the house, nor amongst the children, nor the women washing in the cellar, though the street in which it was situated was one of those which suffered most in the town.

Yours truly,


P.S. This letter, originally inserted in the Economist in answer to some questions in that paper has been asked for in cases where funds for larger establishments could not be raised. I shall be glad to give any further information in my power as to the washing of this humble wash-house, which may be desired by any persons wishing to com­mence a similar one. The only addition which now occurs to me is to press strongly the importance, particularly to the sick, of sufficient means of drying the clothes thoroughly and quickly. When we consider the smallness of the fires of the poor and their want of change of clothes, we see in most cases the almost inevitable consequence must be using them damp, with all the train of illness attendant upon such a practice. The two Liverpool establishments and those in London which I have seen excellent as they are, are greatly defective in this particular.

London Office, 130 Fleet Street, E.C.
Head Office, Victoria Street, Liverpool.
Telephones, Liverpool Central 3400
London, Editorial City 8772
Advt. Central 662
Tuesday, 6th January, 1925

1848 -1925.

Posted recently in Great Britain an envelope bearing the motto `Commune Bonum’ of the Hong Kong Club, and addressed `The Chairman, Health Committee Town Hall, Liverpool’ has been handed to Alderman Muirhead. Enclosed was a lithographed copy with foot­note of a letter inserted in the Economist probably in or about 1845, and reproduced by a lithographic writer for the convenience of the author (William Rathbone) in answering correspondents. The copy is dated `Liverpool 26th January, 1848′ and signed ‘W. Rathbone’, both date and signature being in the same handwriting. The authenticated circular, which contains some 1,200 words, tells the Kitty Wilkinson story and must have exerted a wide influence by assisting in the extension of public wash-houses and the efficient deal­ing with clothes and bedding during periods when disease was epidemic.



  1. 1.    Life of Kitty Wilkinson – a Lancashire heroine Winifred R. Rathbone (Liverpool 1910)
  2. 2.    Memoir of Kitty Wilkinson. Herbert R. Rathbone. (Liverpool 1927)
  3. 3.    A History of the Corporation of Liverpool: 1835-1914. Brian D. White.(Liverpool Univ. Press 1951)
  4. 4.    The Religious Problem in English Education: the Crucial Experiment James Murphy (Liverpool Univ. Press 1959)
  5. 5.    Liverpool Characters and Eccentrics. Richard Whittington-Egan (Liverpool 1968)
  6. 6.    Kitty Wilkinson. Cuttings. Liverpool Record Office.
  7. 7.    The Town Book. Liverpool Record Office.
  8. 8.    Minutes of the Health of the Town Committee, and Baths and Wash-houses Committee Liverpool Record Office.
  9. 9.    The Rathbone Papers. Cohen Library, Univ. of Liverpool.
  10. 10.  Noble Women. Liverpool Cathedral Pamphlet.
  11. 11.  The Story of Liverpool            W. T. Harries.
  12. 12.  Parish Marriage and Baptismal Records of the Churches of Holy Trinity and St. Peter’s. Liverpool Record Office.
  13. 13.  Gore’s Directory of Liverpool. 1832 onwards.
  14. 14.  Liverpool Newspapers Liverpool Mercury. Liverpool Albion. Liverpool Daily Post. Liverpool Evening Express.
  15. 15.  Liverpool Medical Gazette, Vol. I. 1833.
  16. 16.  Chambers `Annals of the Poor ‘. Edinburgh 1844.
  17. 17.  The Historical Register, 1845


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2 Responses to “Kitty Wilkinson – A Civic Myth”

  1. Helena McGinty says:

    I have not finished reading this article yet but in dismissing Kitty Wilkinson’s story as myth is the (male) researcher not a victim of the conformity of the times which held that women, even educated middle class women, were not considered to be capable of thinking let alone acting for themselves? Furthermore Kitty was further hamstrung by bring poor. Female novelists had to use male pen names. Female scientists e.g. Beatrix Potter, re her research on fungi, were derided and ignored. (Her paper being presented by her male cousin to the Linnaen Society as women were not admitted.) I was told by a tutor at art college in 1970 that ‘ women cannot draw’.
    I am not surprised that there was no formal recognition of this lady’s work at the time. Working class people were expected to work after all to enable richer people to remain idle.
    I may revise my opinion once I have read the full piece but as a working class woman myself am aware of all the hard work and mutual support that is part of daily life for many ordinary people. It goes unnoticed by those not involved and definitely not lauded as ‘good deeds’ or philanthropy.

  2. 2 Parks and 2 Grounds – adventureat60 says:

    […] life-size figures of local champions standing behind it – they are Molly Bushell and Catherine ‘Kitty’ Wilkinson, who are joined by a local dock worker. Together they form a dramatic silhouette against a […]

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