Hidden historical heroines (#13: “Skittles”)

 

Catherine Walters, also known as “Skittles” (13 June 1839 – 4 August 1920) was a renowned trendsetter and media darling; she was the last great Victorian courtesan, famed for her natural beauty, her discretion and for being less flamboyant and much more classy than her numerous contemporaries.

 

Born just a few years into Victoria’s reign, the middle child of a large Liverpudlian family, Catherine’s upbringing was nothing remarkable. As a child she volunteered her help in the local stables and became a fine horsewoman, something that would stand her in great stead in future life, as it allowed her to interact on an equal footing with the aristocratic men she encountered. Through her equestrian skills Catherine won genuine respect and even a fair amount of money through competitions during her lifetime.

 

How Catherine initially got into ‘the game’ is shrouded in mystery, for all that it was exceedingly common for girls of her class, especially those who reached sexual maturity and were still attractive – considering that it was a world of rather terrible standards of hygiene! And a beauty she was – petite but with a well-formed figure and a famously tiny waist (that the Prime Minister, Gladstone, couldn’t help but circle his hands around when he met her), and Celtic colouring, grey-blue eyes and chestnut hair. Either way, Catherine soon took her show on the road and moved to London, like so many before her, to make her fortune; she wasn’t quite twenty. She was lucky and found immediate employment, working at a bowling alley near Park Lane, pouring the beers and setting up the pins, earning her the nickname ‘Skittles’ that would stick with her all of her life.

 

As well as her income from the bowling alley (and the tricks she was no doubt turning on the side) Skittles struck up an arrangement with the owner of a livery stable near Berkeley Square, a man looking for a pretty prostitute to advertise his wares by driving his pony traps around the posher parts of London. Each evening she would drive her horses down the Rotten Row, in Hyde Park and slowly, the combination of her attractive figure and enviable equestrian skills began to make waves in society. She was famed for wearing a riding habit so tight-fitting that it was presumed she wore nothing at all underneath (oo-er!) – a total scandal, but not enough of one that it stopped all the British aristocratic women from copying the style.

 


In a letter to The Times in July 1862, the writer describes the excitement and anticipation of the public waiting for the well-known courtesan (although here Skittles is referred to as Anonyma) to appear upon her horse. She wore a disguise, but was still easily recognized by her fans:

 

“Expectation is raised to its highest pitch: a handsome woman drives rapidly by in a carriage drawn by thoroughbred ponies of surpassing shape and action; the driver is attired in the pork pie hat and the Poole paletot introduced by Anonyma; but alas!, she caused no effect at all, for she is not Anonyma; she is only the Duchess of A–, the Marchioness of B–, the Countess of C–, or some other of Anonyma’s many imitators. The crowd, disappointed, reseat themselves, and wait. Another pony carriage succeeds – and another – with the same depressing result. At last their patience is rewarded. Anonyma and her ponies appear, and they are satisfied. She threads her way dexterously, with an unconscious air, through the throng, commented upon by the hundreds who admire and the hundreds who envy her. She pulls up her ponies to speak to an acquaintance, and her carriage is instantly surrounded by a multitude; she turns and drives back again towards Apsley House, and then away into the unknown world, nobody knows whither”.

 

It wasn’t long before Skittles found her first ‘benefactor’; she became the mistress of Spencer Compton Cavendish, Lord Hartington – nicknamed ‘Harty-Tarty.’ He was the eldest son and heir of one of the foremost aristocrats in the world, the 7th Duke of Devonshire. A shy and immature young man of 26 when they met, he was to become a major figure in Liberal politics and was considered by many as Gladstone‘s natural successor. Hartington adored Skittles, and by all accounts the feeling was mutual. Although only Hartington’s side of their correspondence remains, it portrays an extremely affectionate and loving relationship, but Hartington knew his place in the world and knew he could never marry his love. He instead installed her in a house in Mayfair, giving her horses and other such trappings and settling a lifetime annuity of £500 upon her. His feelings on this was so respected by his family that they continued to pay Skittles her due even after Hartington’s death in 1908. Perhaps most importantly, he set Skittles up with a governess and saw that she improved herself with access to  education and social refinement.

 

Due to Skittles’ legendary tact and discretion when it came to her lovers, it is almost impossible to say with any certainty who was – and who wasn’t – one of her many patrons. One of Hartington’s great friends and confidantes was Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, and it was very much gossiped upon at the time that the two men ‘shared’ Skittles. Whether or not she was intimate with him, ‘Bertie’ remained friendly and supportive to Skittles for the rest of his days, and this connection certainly made her more acceptable in the upper echelons of society. He also paid her an allowance and sent the royal doctor to tend her whenever she was unwell.

 

Although Skittles probably would have been happy to live monogamously, if not married, with her great love Hartington, he himself had two other mistresses besides her and – even if we’re not too sure about the rumoured ménage-a-trios between himself, Skittles and the Crown Prince – he certainly encouraged Skittles to see other men. Skittles’ star was on the rise at a time where courtesans were also growing in popularity, due to the strictness of society and the resultant attitudes towards women and sex. A boring, frigid woman made an excellent wife, by Victorian standards, but not much of a companion. By nature as well as virtue of profession, courtesans were allowed to be more natural and candid and therefore more equal in their partnerships.

 

Presumably Skittles’ enjoyed sex and the lifestyle she had fallen into. As she made more than enough to live on her own means, what with her equestrian pursuits and the ‘income’ from Lord Hartington, it seems that her profession was undertaken by choice rather than desperate necessity and in this small difference, Skittles was more empowered than even Queen Victoria herself. It also gave her the opportunity to be discerning in her lovers and attachments and she only became involved with men where she actively chose to be so.

 

After four years, Hartington chose to end their relationship, ostensibly because he loved her too much to keep her when he could never marry her. This clearly broke Skittles’ heart; she protested vehemently, tried her best to win him back, even following him to America and faking a pregnancy, but it was all for naught. An older, wiser Skittles absconded to Paris and immediately replicated the fame she had achieved in London society; one of her rumoured lovers was Napoleon III himself (and his finance minister, for good measure). Whilst in France, she also had an affair with the poet Wilfrid Blunt, who would idolise her and write poetry inspired by their brief relationship until the end of his days (probably much to the annoyance of his wife, the glamorous only granddaughter of Lord Byron).

 

During her time on the continent, Skittles refined herself, realising that she was too ‘earthy’ to be like the Parisian courtesans, who dyed their hair extravagant colours and draped themselves in diamonds. The lesson that she took from them was one of social easement, how to speak about politics and which wines to order, that sort of thing. After the fall of the Second Empire she returned home to England, comfortable in her new packaged persona of “the English lady”. She wore muted colours and dressed extremely respectably (for a whore, anyway) and was more or less welcomed (or tolerated) in high society. She continued to attract patrons, commanding sums of around £100,000 in today’s money for the exclusivity of her attentions for a period of time.

 

In the 1860s and 70s several authors wrote scandalous ‘biographies’ of Skittles and some of her contemporaries. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the increasing scope of women in industry and society, there was an easing of hitherto tightly held morals and standards; in the 1870s, women first began to clamour for the vote, for example. Skittles became even more of a media darling than she already had been, one of the original ‘celebrities’ – famous for being famous, rather than for any particular skill (although I’m sure her happy patrons would beg to differ with regards her skills).

 

In the early 1890s, Skittles was in her fifties and was exceedingly wealthy. She ‘retired’ from the courtesan profession, setting herself up as a lady of society, where she continued to host and entertain her friends. Her old lover, the poet Wilfrid Blunt, rekindled his friendship with her. “Though deaf and partially blind, Skittles is still unconquered in talk, and gave us all the gossip of the hour though it is too piecemeal for reproduction,” Blunt wrote in his diary after one afternoon spent with the now elderly lady. For all her beauty, it had always been her whimsical wit and genuineness that had captured so many hearts, and this was something that, clearly, age had not diminished.

 

“She had the most capacious heart I know and must be the only whore in history to retain her heart intact,” wrote journalist Henry Labouchere of Skittles, after her death, which came in the summer of 1920. Having lived through the First World War and well into her eighties, Skittles died of a brain hemorrhage at her home in Mayfair (commemorated by a blue English Heritage plaque). Til the end she had remained a vital and active part of London, being pushed around in a wheelchair-like contraption along the lanes of Hyde Park, where long ago she had skillfully controlled horses in front of awestruck crowds.

 

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