Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters (1839-1920) was the last of the great Victorian courtesans. Her benefactors included Emperors, Prime Ministers, Dukes and several members of the British royal family including the future King Edward VII and Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh: Henry Poole & Co men both. Skittles – so named because she briefly worked in a bowling alley near Chesterfield Street in Mayfair – possessed classical beauty that was matched only by her proficiency as one of her era’s most elegant horsewomen leading to many bon mots about Skittles astride.
Skittles was one of London society’s tourist attractions and rose to fame as a ‘horse breaker’ exercising thoroughbreds on Hyde Park’s Rotten Row. She drew huge crowds of sightseers who swooned with lust or envy at her skin tight riding habits tailored by Henry Poole & Co and worn without underwear. She counted amongst her lovers the Marquess of Hartington or ‘Harty Tarty’ (the future 8th Duke of Devonshire), Poole’s man Emperor Napoleon III and the poet Wilfred Blunt. Unlike her Regency predecessor Harriet Wilson (to whom the Duke of Wellington wrote ‘publish and be damned’!) Skittles was discreet and loyal to her many lovers earning her a lifetime of annual stipends and the gratitude of her many admirers in public office.
Catherine Walters was born in Liverpool in 1839. In Skittles: The Last Courtesan by Rupert Hart-Davis (1970), he says of her early years ‘beauty does not flower readily amidst squalid surroundings, and a young girl does not long retain a good figure, a clear eye, a fresh complexion and pearly teeth…where malnutrition, inadequate ventilation, lack of even the most elementary medical attention, dirt, disease (and) ignorance combine together to drag her down’. Her father, a Liverpool customs officer turned innkeeper in Cheshire, was a drunk. Her mother died in childbirth.
Skittles escaped her poor upbringing by taking up with George, Lord Fitzwilliam when she was 16-years old. Lord Fitzwilliam set her up in London and settled £2000 pounds on her and a £300 annual pension when they parted. Of her endlessly fascinating charms, diarist Henry Labouchiere mentioned her grey-blue eyes, chestnut hair, 18-inch waist and the fact that Skittles had ‘the most capricious heart I know and must be the only whore in history to retain her heart intact’. Aged nineteen, Skittles became the mistress of Lord Hartington (heir to the 7th Duke of Devonshire) who installed her in a Mayfair townhouse and furnished her with a stable of thoroughbreds. He also settled £2000 on her annually when the affair cooled; a sum the Cavendish family continued to pay after the 8th Duke’s death in 1908.
Skittles became famed in London’s demi-monde in 1861 when celebrated in poems, ballads and a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy called The Pretty Horse Breaker (or The Shrew Tamed) by Edwin Landseer. When the Hartington affair ended, Skittles tried her luck in Paris during the decadent 2nd Empire regime of Emperor Napoleon III. She was famed for driving her own carriage pulled by two thoroughbreds through the Bois de Boulogne flanked by two grooms astride.
Skittles’ first order with Henry Poole & Co is recorded 1858 when she was living in Park Street, Mayfair. There are over forty pages relating to Miss Walters in the ledgers recording her trend-setting riding habits ordered in black beaver lined in silk with velvet collars, light blue silk double sewn, bound and braided, blue diagonal Angola lined with silk and grey velvet with silk velvet collar facings and cuffs. Like the Amazonian Empress Elizabeth of Austria and ex-Queen Marie of Naples, Skittles would have been measured-up sitting astride Henry Poole & Co’s wooden horse that was christened Buchephalus after Alexander the Great’s steed.
But the orders are deceptive. The lion’s share of work commissioned from Poole’s is for the repair and maintenance of the riding habits Skittles wore daily in Hyde Park. Collars were replaced as were stray buttons and bodices, while skirts and riding trousers were routinely pressed and ‘finessed’ on a monthly basis. Skittles also ordered all of her grooms’ liveries from Poole’s as well as gifts for friends such as a brown and black kid cigar case with gold crest and monogram for an unknown patron.
In addition to the 8th Duke of Devonshire’s ‘pension’, Skittles picked-up further lifetime annuities from King Edward VII who was eternally grateful for the return of 300 of his love letters. Skittles escaped the fate of many of the ladies in her profession who were left destitute and had to flee to the continent to escape their debtors. She had moved to her final address, 15 South Street in Upper Mayfair, in 1872 where she lived as Mrs Baillie though she never married a man of that name. In addition to South Street, she also owned two hotels: one in England and one in France. In 1879 the forty-year-old courtesan took-up with a final grand passion, the nineteen-year-old Gerald de Saumerez who would inherit her estate on her death in 1920.