The post code above represents the Cathedral’s post code. Kitty’s grave is closer to the Upper Parliament Street end of St James Mount and Gardens, described as L1 7BY. Entering St James’s Garden’s from the Oratory/Duke Street side, follow the path to the garden’s centre. The stone is on the left as you enter the Chalybeate Spring.
Many notable Liverpool figures are buried in St James’s Cemetery including Catherine ‘Kitty’ Wilkinson (née Seaward; 1786–1860), whose efforts to promote public hygiene stemmed the outbreak of cholera in Liverpool. Kitty’s actions led to the opening of the first combined washhouse and public baths facility in Britain.
St James’s Cemetery is situated in the quarry created by the stone cutting required for the Anglican Cathedral. The original site opened in 1829 and contains 57,839 recorded graves. The cemetery architect was John Foster with landscaping by John Shepherd, curator of Liverpool’s Botanic Garden (Wavertree). The last interment at the cemetery was in 1936. The site was converted into a public park in the late 1960s, with the central area cleared of monuments and relandscaped with paving and low stone walling. Vertical gravestones were re-sited in a continuous row at the base of the western wooded slope. To the east, the base wall of ramped carriageways is lined with arches with recessed stonework marking catacombs. One of the archways to the west contains a natural mineral spring -sometimes attributed to St Brigid- that flows into a rectangular pool reputed to have healing powers.
The Oratory (Grade I listed), the former mortuary chapel, is on high ground at the north-west corner of the cemetery, at the Upper Duke Street end of the site. Designed by Foster, it dates from 1829 and is in the form of a miniature Greek Doric temple. Despite the 1960s landscaping of the central area of the site, St James’s Cemetery retains many of its early features and much of its 1829 layout.
Catherine ‘Kitty’ Wilkinson (née Seaward and previously Demonta), originally from Derry, migrated to Liverpool with her family in 1796, aged nine. Tragedy struck during the sea crossing when their ship crashed in to the River Mersey; both her father and youngest sister drowned. The surviving members of the family settled in the North West, but two years later Kitty was sent to work at a cotton mill in Lancashire as an indentured servant. Mill work was harsh, exhausting and challenging. Children were charged with some of the more dangerous jobs, such as cleaning the floors below moving machinery. Kitty worked in this environment until she was 21, when she returned to Liverpool to care for her ailing mother. During the early years of the 1800s she married a French sailor, Emanual Demonta, but was widowed with two young children when he was drowned at sea. In 1823 she married Tom Wilkinson, and over the next few years worked as a domestic servant, setting up a school for orphans in her own home.
As we have read, Liverpool experienced rapid population growth during the 1800s, putting great demand on housing stock and leading to the development of court housing. The courts, or alleys, were accessed by a passage from a main road opening on to a yard with houses facing one another.
A toilet was typically situated at one end with a cold-water standpipe centre. Courts varied in size, but usually there were four-to-ten houses per court. Court sanitation was poor to non-existent, while washing facilities for personal purposes or laundry were also limited. An example of a court can be visited in the Museum of Liverpool.
Kitty was the only person in her street to own a boiler and understand the innate need for washing linen and having a supply of hot water for the community. She set herself up as a laundress. The service she provided became invaluable and -ultimately- lifesaving, during Liverpool’s outbreak of cholera in 1832. Kitty invited her neighbours -and those in nearby courts and slums- to use her hot water and facilities for a small fee, where they could afford.
Drawing on her experience in domestic service, she taught the women how to clean their laundry; advising on what products should be used to get the best results. Not only entrepreneurial, but
also socially aware, Kitty provided space nearby for other women to leave their children while they washed clothes. Kitty called for public baths, where the poor could wash themselves. Her charitable efforts drew the attention of business owner and philanthropist William Rathbone (1819-1902) and the District Provident Society who raised funds to help towards the costs of the venture. Eventually, this led to the opening of the first public bath and wash house on Upper Fredrick Street (not far from the docks) in 1842, for which Kitty was appointed superintendent.
Kitty was greatly respected for her endeavours, becoming known affectionately as the ‘Saint
of the Slums’. In 1846 she was presented with an inscribed silver teapot from Queen Victoria,
in recognition of her contribution to society. Kitty died 11 Nov 1860, reaching a fine age of
73, outliving her husband and children. She witnessed the migration brough about by The
Great Hunger and huge shift in Liverpool’s population. Without Kitty’s knowledge and activism around stemming the rates of cholera, by improving sanitation for working class people, there
is an argument to suggest that many more people would have died. Whilst Kitty’s legacy is not specifically connected with An Gorta Mór, her influence in Liverpool, her spirit of endeavour after a hard life begun in Ireland and the hardship that transit brought her family, enmeshes her in to the fabric of The Irish Famine story and her time in Liverpool.
Kitty worked tirelessly amongst the poor in her community and often said “Nobody was ever the poorer for what they gave a neighbour in distress”. A marble statue to Kitty Wilkinson was unveiled in Liverpool’s St George’s Hall in 2021, the only woman represented there. She has a portrait window at the Anglican Cathedral. Kitty’s gravestone reads:
“Indefatigable and selfdenying. She was the Widows Friend: the support of the Orphan, the Fearless and Unwearied Nurse of the Sick: the Originator of the 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” attributed to St Mark, Chapter XII, Verse 44.