Kitty Wilkinson, the Saint of the Slums: remembering our pioneering women

I very much enjoyed my visit last week to Liverpool, to attend our annual Girls’ Schools Association Heads’ conference, and I took the opportunity to discover a little more of the history of a city that was once one of the UK’s most important ports. (Actually, it still is – it is one of the few deep water ports in the UK, and so therefore a major hub for container traffic, especially to the United States and Canada.) As ever, however, I was drawn to the history of significant women in the area, and it was with this in mind that I came across the history of Kitty Wilkinson.

Kitty Wilkinson was born in 1786 in Londonderry and came to Liverpool as an immigrant in 1795. Her life was – as we might expect – a hard one, with time spent in a Lancashire mill from the age of 11 to 18, after which time she returned to Liverpool and worked in service until she married, had two children, was widowed and remarried. In 1832, during a cholera epidemic, she had the only boiler in the neighbourhood, and so she turned her house into a washhouse, allowing her neighbours to boil wash and thereby disinfect their bedding, which was the only way to kill the disease. Her actions brought her to the attention of the District Superintendent, and she was praised for her foresight and practical response to the epidemic. She saved many, many lives, and in the process educated many families about public health. After the epidemic, in 1842, she helped set up the first public washhouse in the country, the Public Baths and Wash House in Frederick Street, which she ran. She died on 11th November 1860, and is buried in St James’ cemetery in Liverpool. A statue of her was unveiled this September in St George’s Hall – the first woman to be honoured in this way.

The story of Kitty reminds us of two important elements in our history which we forget at our peril. First, it is a reminder that we have come a long way in public health and living conditions in a short period of time. Kitty’s story dates from less than 200 years ago, and in practice this is only a few generations back from where we are now. It was Kitty’s great, great, great niece who unveiled her statue two months ago; the family history of Kitty lives on, and we should not forget that it was only a short time ago that life was much more perilous than it is now – nor forget to wonder at the progress we have made as a human race in this time.

Second, it reminds us that women were at the heart of the community in our history – just as they are now. Women in 1832 may not have had the vote, nor been able to own property, nor had many of the rights they have now, but they were instrumental in leading and making things happen. Women led from the front, and our only shame is that it has taken us so long to recognise this. Kitty Wilkinson was a pioneer in the realm of public health; women throughout the ages have been pioneers. We owe Kitty and women like her a debt of gratitude.


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