‘Saint of the Slums’ – 1786 – 1860
Liverpool’s ‘Saint of the Slums’, as she was later dubbed, was born Catherine Seward in Londonderry, 1786. She came to Liverpool in 1795 with her mother, having lost her father and sister in a shipwreck, and was apprenticed in a cotton mill in Lancashire at the age of 11. By the time she was 18, she had returned to her mother in Liverpool. Both worked in domestic service. Soon after, she married a French sailor, who unfortunately died before the birth of their second son.
Kitty did whatever she needed to do to support her mother and her two children, from working in a factory producing nails to doing odd jobs in the fields. Yet she still found time for others and her kind and generous nature led to her nursing a sick woman for over 18 months. When this woman eventually died, in gratitude, her husband presented Kitty with a mangle enabling her to earn a living by taking in washing.
In 1823, Kitty married Thomas Wilkinson and became further involved in the care of poor children in the area, setting up a school for orphans and caring for waifs and strays, young and old, in her own home.
When Liverpool was struck by a horrendous outbreak of cholera in 1832, Kitty owned the only boiler in her neighbourhood, and showed great enterprise and bravery in the face of this fatal illness. She turned her home into a washhouse, allowing the women in the local area to disinfect their clothes, bedding and other linen. She diligently nursed the sick in her neighbourhood and, recognising the importance of cleanliness, taught her neighbours how to protect against the disease by using a chloride of lime and boiling, which killed the cholera bacteria. It’s thought that many lives were saved as a result.
As always in history, a disaster is often the motivator for change and soon after in 1842, Britain’s first public washhouse was opened in Liverpool on Upper Frederick Street. In recognition of her efforts in campaigning for this facility, she was appointed superintendent of the baths in 1846. Also in that year, she was presented with a silver teapot, gifted to her by Queen Victoria and the ladies of Liverpool.
After her death in 1860, she was buried in St James Cemetery, where her memorial read:
“CATHERINE WILKINSON. Died 11 November 1860, aged 73. Indefatigable and self-denying. She was the Widow’s friend. The support of the Orphan. The fearless and unwearied nurse of the sick. The originator of Baths and Wash-houses for the poor. ‘For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.’ St. Mark, 12th Chapter, 44th Verse.”
She’s recognised throughout the city for her tireless work on behalf of the poor, notably her image is in the Lady Window in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. She was also the first woman to be immortalised in the newly renovated St George’s Hall, alongside 12 male benefactors of Liverpool from the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
Louise McTigue is a freelance writer and researcher, writing on behalf of Sarsfield Memorials.