Often referred to as the ‘Saint of the Slums’, Kitty Willkinson spent much of her life in abject poverty, but that didn’t stop her from devoting herself to improving the lives of those around her. From opening a school for orphans, to caring for destitute children, to working to end the cholera epidemic, Kitty Wilkinson never stopped caring for those around her, even in the most dire of circumstances.
Kitty was born in Londonderry in 1786, and when she was 9, her family decided to migrate from Ireland to Liverpool. Unfortunately, their trip was marred by tragedy, and her father and her youngest sister drowned on the way.
Her life in Liverpool was mired in extreme poverty, and, as a result, when she was 11, she was sent to work as an indentured servant at a cotton mill. She worked at the mill for nearly a decade before being allowed to return home to live with her mother who, after suffering such great losses, was no longer in her right mind.
Ever the dutiful daughter, Kitty began caring for her mother and took on the burden of providing for the family. Despite being self-educated, Kitty was very bright and had a love of learning, so she decided to open a Dame School, which was basically an elementary school that was taught out of the owner’s home.
Soon after opening the school, Kitty married a French sailor. Work carried him away from her often, but Kitty soon became pregnant with their first child. Despite her husband’s many absences, Kitty succeeded in caring not only for her newborn, but also for her mother. Tragedy struck again, however, when Kitty, now pregnant with their second child, received news that her husband’s ship had sunk and the crew had all been lost.
Suddenly finding herself alone with two small children and an infirm mother to provide for, Kitty must have felt overwhelmed. However, she did not allow her circumstances to defeat her. Instead, she got several jobs, working in the fields and in domestic labor while still continuing to teach. Her family still struggled financially, but, thanks to Kitty’s hard work, they were able to get by.
Thankfully, in the 1820s, things began to improve for her. She met a man named Tom Wilkinson, and they got married. Together, they opened a school for orphans and began caring for destitute children.
In addition to her work at the school and caring for her growing family at home, Kitty continued working outside the home as well. Much of her work involved taking care of elderly clients. One of those clients, grateful for the care Kitty had shown his late wife, gifted Kitty a mangle, which was a machine that could be used to wring water from wet laundry. Little did Kitty or her client know, this mangle would soon be used to save an untold number of lives.
When the cholera epidemic broke out in Liverpool in 1832, Kitty was convinced that cleanliness was the key to combating the outbreak. As such, using her gifted mangle, Kitty turned her small home into a wash-house. She allowed the people of Liverpool to come clean their sheets in her kitchen, and she taught them about the importance of cleanliness when fighting cholera. She also showed them how to disinfect their bedding using chloride of lime.
When the epidemic had passed, Kitty began pushing for the development of a public bath where the poor could wash themselves and clean their clothes. Thanks to Kitty’s efforts, the campaign succeeded, and the first public bath and wash-house was opened in 1842. Four years later, Kitty was named the superintendent of public baths.
Kitty died in Liverpool in 1860. Her work, both with homeless children and in sanitation, saved many lives. She continues to be honoured and remembered for her tireless efforts. In fact, in 2012, a marble statue of Kitty was unveiled in St. George’s hall – though sadly, of the 12 statues honouring famous figures, Kitty is the only woman represented.
References include BBC, Low Down Magazine, Baths and Washhouses Historical Archive.
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