Recently a friend and I were talking about Jesse James and his affair with the stripper Skittles. The lovely and talented Hope Tarr thought we were talking about another Skittles, Catherine Walters, the last Victorian courtesan. I had totally forgotten about Skittles, probably because she was less flamboyant than some of the other Victorian courtesans. Skittles wasn't necessarily interested in being famous, unlike Cora Pearl, who seemed to court notoriety.
Imagine if there were trading cards for courtesans! I imagine that the one for Skittles would look this.
Nickname: Skittles or Skitsie to her intimates.
Born: June 13, 1839 in Liverpool at No. 1 Henderson Street, in a drab and dirty street near the docks.
Parents: Edward Walters, a custom employee, and Mary Ann Fowler
Siblings: 3rd of 5 children.
Religion: Baptized a Catholic
Appearance: Small and slender, with grey-blue eyes and chestnut hair.
She dressed inexpensively at first but with great taste, wearing clothing that was modest and subdued. Her riding habit was cut to so perfectly to the contours of her body that there was speculation that she wore nothing underneath it. If Cora Pearl were Versace and Vivienne Westwood, than Catherine would be more Chanel and Givenchy.
Traits: Exceptional beauty, practical nature, and riding skills, acquired while working in a livery stable. She was also effervescent, outspoken, direct and bawdy. Her naturalness was one of her chief attributes as a courtesan, she remained affectionate and sympathetic. “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. Never once did she seek to revenge herself on her lovers after the affair was over. There would be no autobiography detailing her lovers such as the ones penned by Cora Pearl or Harriette Wilson.
One of her most unusual traits was her ability to bind her lovers to her not only for the night or a for a few months but for life. One of her biographers, Henry Blyth, wrote that she possessed the quality of being loved. She also never attempted to bankrupt her lovers as did Cora Pearl and some of the other grandes horizontales of the 19th century.
Lovers: Marquess of Hartington, Prince of Wales, Achille Fould, Lord Fitzwilliams, Wilfred Scawen-Blunt, Aubrey DeVere Beauclerk
Background: Not much is known about Catherine’s early life in Liverpool, what her childhood might have been, where or how long she might have been educated. Her father was heavy drinker, so whatever money he made probably was spent on drink. One of her lovers, Wilfred Scawen-Blunt wrote in his diaries that Catherine’s mother died when she was four and that she had been sent to a convent school from which she had run away. Nor where she first learned to ride, one of the great passions of her life. One story is that she worked for a time as a bare-back rider in a traveling circus. Perhaps she saw one as a child and fell in love with the horses and wanted to ride. The most credible story is that she had access to the local stables and that she taught herself to ride by helping out in the stables and by exercising the horses.
For Catherine, riding was her entry into a better world than the one she came from. While other courtesans traded on their beauty, Catherine could outride and outhunt most men. Catherine appears not to have had the Victorian female aversion to sex, which boded well for her future profession. She was selective, choosing her lovers more because she enjoyed their company than for what they could do for her. She became the mistress of George, Lord Fitzwilliam at the age of 16. He set her up in London, when the relationship ended, he made her a generous settlement of £ 300 a year and a lump sum payment of £ 2,000. By this time she was known as ‘Skittles’ probably a reference to the fact that when she was young she worked setting up skittles in a local bowling alley, the Black Jack Tavern near the docks.
At the age of 19, she became the mistress of Spencer Compton Cavendish, Lord Hartington nicknamed ‘Harty-Tarty.’ He was the eldest son of one of the premiere Dukes in the kingdom, 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. By 1859, when she was 20, she was installed in a lovely little house in Mayfair, horses with a life settlement of an annual sum of £ 500 which the family continued to pay even after Hartington‘s death in 1908. Her relationship with Hartington lasted about four years and seems to have been greatly affectionate on both sides. The greatest passion that she and Hartington shared, and the only one they were able to indulge in publicly together, was hunting. While her lover occupied himself with his duties in Parliament, Catherine had lessons with a governess.
Catherine is also said to have worked as one of the celebrated ‘horse-breakers’ who paraded in Hyde Park from the hours of 5 to 7, where she first attracted widespread attention. In 1861, the future poet laureate Alfred Austin wrote a poem entitled ‘The Season’ which mentioned Skittles by name. When the painting "The Shrew Tamed," by Edwin Landseer was exhibited in 1861, it was assumed that she was the model for the womanin the painting, although it was also claimed that it was a woman named Annie Gilbert. Skittles had arrived!
Her horsemanship, for which she was passionately admired for, meant that she found acceptance on the hunting field that she was denied in other social situations. Stories about her daring abound, both on and off the field. She once cleared the 18 foot water fence at the National Hunt Steeplechase, on a bet, after three other riders tried and failed. She won £ 100 for her efforts. While the men on the hunting field were accepting of her, their wives were another story. When she rode with the Quorn, the wife of the Master of the Quorn who was the Earl of Stamford, took exception to Catherine’s presence. This despite the fact that the Countess had been a gamekeeper’s daughter and possibly a circus performer. Catherine left with good grace, but she is supposed to have remarked, ‘Why does Lady Stamford give herself such airs? She’s not the Queen of our profession, I am.”
After her relationship with Hartington ended, Catherine decided to move to Paris during the 2nd Empire of Napoleon III for a fresh start. Here she established herself as one of that select band of grandes cocottes. In Paris, rivals such as Cora Pearl, dyed their hair yellow or pink, entertained their paramours whilst lying in solid onyx bath tubs with taps of gold, and considered nakedness shameful only if one was not covered in diamonds. Catherine preferred to dress like a lady, she had a naturalness that must have seemed like a breath of fresh air in the hothouse atmosphere of Paris. “There was something special, very select and reminiscent of London and Hyde Park,” Zed wrote, When she appeared in the avenue de l’Imperatrice, driving herself with two beautiful sparkling pure-blooded horses, followed by two grooms on horseback in splendid and elegant uniform….every head turned, and all eyes were on her.”One of her many admirers was the young diplomat and poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt (1840-1922) who was 23 when they met. Blunt fell deeply in love with her to the point of obsession. He was not her only lover which sent him into paroxysms of jealousy. The affair ended in a public scandal when the Ambassador to Paris, Lord Crowley discovered that while Blunt had been wooing his daughter Feodore to the point of being considered her ‘unofficial‘ fiancé, he’d been off sleeping with Skittles. Despite the family’s expectations, Blunt couldn’t bring himself to propose. Blunt was dismissed from his position at the embassy. After their relationship ended, Blunt never loved another woman the way that he loved Skittles. She was the inspiration for his narrative poem ‘Esther.’ When he married, he determined to marry for money, capturing the heart of Lady Anne King-Noel, the daughter of Ada, Countess of Lovelace and the granddaughter of Lord Byron. After several years, Blunt and Skittles resumed their friendship, corresponding until her death.
After the fall of the 2nd Empire, Skittles returned to London, where she divided her time between hunting and entertaining at her Sunday afternoon tea parties, which were attended solely by men including the future Prime Minister William Gladstone. She also had a brief affair, with Bertie, the Prince of Wales. After their liaison ended, the Prince also paid her an allowance, and whenever she was ill, he sent his own doctor to attend her. Once when he thought she was dying, he sent his private secretary to collect and destroy over 300 hundred letters that he had sent her.
In 1872, Skittles moved to 15 South Street, Park Lane, which was to be her residence for the rest of her life. At a certain point in the 1880’s, she took up with Alexander Horatio Baillie. Although she called herself Mrs. Baillie for a time, they were probably never married. Her final love affair was with Gerald de Saumarez, who she had first met when he was a schoolboy of 16 and she was 40. When she died at the age of 81, she left her estate to him. In her later years, she became something of a recluse. Crippled by arthritis in her later years, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage on August 5, 1920. She’s buried in the Franciscan monastery in Sussex. Her estate was worth £2764 19s. 6d at her death.
Henry Blyth: Skittles: the last Victorian courtesan, Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1970
Katie Hickman: Courtesans, Harper Collins, 2003
Cyril Pearl: The girl with the Swansdown Seat, Frederick Muller Ltd. London, 1955