Skittles: The Last Victorian Courtesan
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
Seeing as my current work-in-progress is about Kitty Fisher, I thought that I would take a look at another woman who was also known as a courtesan. Catherine Walters took London by storm a century after Kitty. Catherine – aka Skittles – was the Victorian era’s last great courtesan.
Catherine Walters (Skittles) by Jean-Édouard Lacretelle
(The Royal Collection Trust)
Catherine Walters was born on 13 June 1839 in the Toxteth area of Liverpool. Her father, Edward (from Ilfracombe, Devon) was a 'tide waiter,' a custom official who waited for the high tide when ships arrived to board them and collect the duty on imports. The Walters lived on Frederick Street, close to the city’s docks. However, before Catherine’s twelfth birthday, her Irish-born mother, Mary, had died and the family had moved. Their new home was in Queen's Buildings, a rough-and-ready tenement, again near the docks, in Tranmere.
A View of the Port of Liverpool by Richard Gilson Reeve, 1836
(Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)
Popular legend says that Catherine, at 16-years-of-age, went to work at the Black Jack Tavern in Liverpool. The pub had a skittles alley, and that was – it is reputed – the origin of her nickname: Skittles. Maybe that was where George, Lord Fitzwilliam found her? At any rate, he whisked Catherine away and set her up as his mistress. Catherine was a beauty, with chestnut hair, grey-blue eyes and an 18-inch waist. The diarist and MP, Henry Labouchère, said that Catherine had 'the most capricious heart I know and must be the only whore in history to retain her heart intact.' She also exercised great discretion concerning her lovers which kept them loyal to her. Fitzwilliam settled an annuity on Catherine when they split up. Skittles had many lovers. She travelled to America in 1862 with Aubrey de Vere Beauclerk before allowing Spencer Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington and the future 8th Duke of Devonshire, to be her 'protector.' Their affair lasted for four years and Harty-Tarty, as the marquess was known provided Skittles with a smart Mayfair house and a fine stable. Catherine had become an accomplished equestrienne, famed for her stylish riding habits as much as her expertise in the saddle. Whenever she rode down Rotten Row in Hyde Park, crowds gathered to watch. It was rumoured that Catherine had to be sewn into her close-fitting riding habits and that she wore no underwear beneath. Her habits were made, repaired and maintained by the Saville Row tailors, Henry Poole & Co.
Photo showing Catherine Walters' tiny waist via Dr Kate Strasdin on Twitter.
By 1864, with her affair with Lord Hartington at an end, Catherine was in Paris. Her lover had settled £2,000 a year on her, so Catherine was financially secure. Scandal still dogged her path, however. She was reported to have brought an action in Paris against a publisher, M Faure. He was about to bring out a book titled, Mémoires d'une Biche Anglaise, a spurious biography of Skittles with her portrait in the front. The newspapers reported that the two reached a settlement and the publisher promised to destroy all the remaining copies. Catherine had good reason to want to keep her name out of the gossip columns. The famously discreet courtesan had a new man in her life: Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).
Edward VII when Prince of Wales by Henry Barraud, 1868-1874
(The Royal Collection Trust)
Almost a decade later, Catherine was back in London, living at South Street, Park Lane in Mayfair. She found herself on the other side of a court action. Messrs Creed and Evans, Bond Street tailors and riding-habit makers, had brought an action to recover costs from Skittles. She and her sister (named as Mrs Gardner, but not married and living independently with £800 a year) had ordered habits and dresses from Messrs Creed and Evans. A disagreement had then arisen as to the costs. Catherine said the goods were not worth the money charged. The tailors countered by pointed that the garments were hand-sewn and, as they were made by men and not women, their wage bill was higher.
The annuities Catherine received provided for her old age. The Liverpool Echo, reporting over three decades after Catherine’s death, said that she remained one of the sights in Hyde Park. By the early 1900s, however, Skittles was deaf, almost blind, crippled with arthritis and pushed around in a wheelchair. She lived out her days on South Street, with one servant to care for her. Her only visitor was the Honourable Gerald Saumeraz, perhaps the only man she had ever loved. The two met when he was an Eton schoolboy and maintained a platonic friendship that lasted for the rest of Skittles' lifetime. He was with her on a hot August afternoon in 1920, pushing her wheelchair, when Catherine had a stroke. She died two days later, with Saumerez at her bedside. At her request, Skittles was laid to rest in the burial ground of the Franciscan monastery at Crawley in Sussex.
1841 and 1851 census
Daily News (London), 6 December 1864
Globe, 6 May 1873
London Evening Standard, 6 May 1873
Liverpool Echo, 1 September 1955
Aronson, T. Walters, Catherine [nicknamed Skittles; known as Mrs Baillie] (1839–1920), courtesan. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.