Catherine Walters (1839 – 1920): Champagne and Skittles

Spurning frown and foe
With slacked rein swift Skittles rules the Row
Thought scowling Matrons stamping steeds restrain
She flaunts Propriety with flapping mane.

Alfred Austin

Do poets write poems to loose women anymore?  Do they even exist anymore, les grandes horizontales?  One reads about high rent hookers occasionally, but really, only in connection with low rent politicians or even lower rent entertainers.  We do not as a rule, however, know their names, or see their pictures in the papers, or even (at least in my provincial circles) hear their names spoken in whispers behind raised hands.  I suppose the last of the breed was Pamela Harriman, and as she tended to marry the men, well, that almost disqualifies her. And what are we to make of her becoming an ambassador?  Of course standards have slipped in recent decades, but I mean to say –  can you imagine the likes of Madame du Barry presenting her credentials at the Court of St James?  Doesn’t bear thinking on.

It was a different age for the likes of Catherine Walters.   She was born in Liverpool to a dipsomaniacal customs official  and an overwrought mother who died when she was four. She somehow managed to learn all about horses.  It was more likely, however, the grey-blue eyes, chestnut hair, 18-inch waist that caught the eyes of George, Lord Fitzwilliam at age 16, who took her to London with a gift of £2,000 as well as a £300 annuity. A good start in life, at least financially.

After Fitzwilliam came Spenser Compton Cavendish Lord Hartington (Harty-Tarty to his friends), eldest son of the 7th Duke of Devonshire.  He liked her so much that he got her house in Mayfair, some horses of her own, and a further annuity of £500.  He also got her a tutor, presumably to smooth off any further rough edges.

The rough edges seem to have overwhelmed by her innate sex appeal and personal charm and bright conversation.  Clothes, in particular riding cloths, hung well on her,  and she was on display more or less daily at Rotten Row (hence the poem), where she won the admiration of horse fanciers and fanciers of those who rode horses.  The unanswered question for some in both groups was whether there was anything on underneath those tight fitting riding clothes.

She was painted by Landseer (actually, the model just looked like her, but everyone could tell), got mentioned in contemporary plays, and was even the subject of the novel,  Skittles – A biography of a fascinating woman,  by shadowy hack writer William Stephens Hayward (author of  other light classics such as London by Night; Lord Scatterbrain or, The Rough Diamond Polished; Rodney Ray, or the Life and Adventures of a Scapegrace, and Mildred’s Cross, or, The High Road to Ruin).  In the finest tradition of refusing to dignify insult with commentary, she ignored the book.  She did, however, take action against the Parisian publisher of the French translation, Memoires d’une biche anglaise – not the text, but the picture of her in the frontispiece.   (He pulped what he could and she was satisfied.)

Why was she called Skittles?  There are various stories.  Some say she was a pin girl  in her youth.  Another held that some guardsmen insulted her and she shot back that “if they didn’t hold their bloody row, she’d known them down like a row of bloody skittles.”

She was obliged to break with Harty-Tarty for the sake of propriety and his political career, and so it was off to New York for a brief fling with William Beauclerk, 10th Duke of St Albans.  By 1863 she was off to Napoleon III’s  Paris to try her luck there.  Notorious she may have been (there are numerous post cards of her showing off that tight fitting clothing), but she was also discreet,  going by the moniker Anonyma, and so we cannot confirm that she had it off with the Emperor, but there was talk….

It is certain that in Paris she took up with the young Wilfred Scawen Blunt. He fell for her hard,  which was a bit awkward when his boss, the Ambassador Lord Crowley, found out  abut it.  The Ambassador had believed that Blunt was interested in his daughter.   The affair ended as hers tended to do, but Blunt was heartbroken and married Lady Anne King-Noel, basically for money and pedigree.

Skittles meanwhile had left France with the Franco-Prussian war and settled to her final house in Mayfair where she hosted afternoon tea with the great and the good.  He also managed to hit the jackpot – Bertie, Duke of Wales.  (Not, of course, that she was alone in that, but he did send some three hundred love letters and his personal physician when she was ill.  Also an annuity – she had, after all, returned the letters when passion cooled.)

As she started winding down the career,  she took up with businessman Alexander Horatio Baillie (she even took his name, though without legal authority to do so) and finished off her beguine with  Gerald de Saumarez, fourth son of the 3rd Baron de Saumarez  (she was forty, he sixteen).  It was to Gerald that she left her estate £2764 19s. 6d  to him.

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