Catherine "Skittles" Walters
Some year's back, thanks to the internet I learned of the existence of a historical figure bearing a name close to my own. Recently I finally came across a copy of a biography about her, written in the 1970s, that I'd been searching for, for years. I ordered it from a used book store in Great Britain. It arrived within a few weeks and I promptly devoured it.
Skittles - The Last Victorian Courtesan by Henry Blyth, was a delightful read for me. Clearly Catherine's reputation for discretion is partly why the author had to work as hard as he did to find reliable information sources. He had posted a notice in a posh magazine and was pleasantly surprised at the responses it elicited. Still, there are many places where he had to extrapolate, using general knowledge of the period and other public figures of the times, to flesh out her story.
Catherine Walters came from humble beginning in Liverpool. Her father, Edward, worked at a custom's house, so her family had the relative luxury of a steady income. At a young age, she used to accompany her father to public houses where he indulged his drinking habit. During this time, little Catherine learned to swear like a sailor and to entertain and be direct in talking to men.
The nickname "Skittles" arose from one her earliest jobs. Skittles, a precursor to modern bowling was one of the few sport/recreation options open to the lower classes and could often be found set up behind many small beer parlors and public houses in working class Britain. Catherine worked for a while in such a place. Her job was to reset the pins for players. The author surmised that perhaps this is where she developed her ease in dealing with strangers as she would have earned more in tips from happy customers.
Throughout her life she never seemed to forget her roots. Even at the height of her notoriety as a courtesan, she remained grounded, preferring to be understated in appearance and measured in her behavior. This was in stark contrast with many of her contemporaries who made names for themselves through their excesses.
According to the author, Catherine was considered beautiful, had a zest for life, was an excellent conversationalist and an even better listener. She learned to recognize opportunities that came her way. Despite lacking in formal education, she was curious, a keen observer and paid attention to any lessons life sent her way. She learned to read and write and absorbed what she could from her own and others' lived experiences.
She became an accomplished equestrienne, and an avid hunter. These two accomplishments opened doors for her that would have otherwise remained tightly shut. The aristocracy in the Victorian period was surprisingly intrigued by those from the lower/courtesan classes who were accomplished riders and hunters. For example, public venues such as Hyde Park allowed courtesans entry to riding paths reserved for the respectable upper classes, provided they presented a fashionable and capable appearance.
Shortly after arriving in London, Catherine made the acquaintance of a livery owner. He quickly realized the promotion potential for his business having a beautiful, capable young woman riding on his horses, driving his phaetons, in Hyde park. He proposed to Catherine that he would pay for a custom equestrienne wardrobe for her and in exchange, she would ride in the park where all the toffs could see her. Realizing this arrangement would be mutually beneficial, she accepted and quickly became something of a sensation in Hyde Park.
Catherine was practical, but not ruthless. She understood the need to carve out her own niche or "brand" within the world of the demimonde, but she opted for understated elegance and discretion when outrageousness was in vogue. She did not sell herself indiscriminately either. While her financial security was important to her, money never forced her to be with anyone for whom she could hold no genuine affection.
She enjoyed a standard of living that she couldn't have dreamed of as a little girl from Liverpool, but she also realized that her chosen path had limitations and barriers. She knew she existed on the fringes of high society and she chose to work with this instead of fighting against it. In many instances, her measured responses gained her allies in the process.
For example, one of Catherine's most notable love affairs with with future eighth Duke of Devonshire. That relationship ended abruptly when he was sent packing to the Americas by his family. Recognizing their relationship would never evolve beyond a point, instead of chasing after him, Catherine instead headed to the European continent. Her lover's father, the current Duke, settled a generous annual pension on her for her trouble. I found this interesting as someone as powerful as him could have sent her packing to a penal colony, but instead, provided her with an income for the rest of her life.
It was said that she was able to draw the best from people and treated everyone in her sphere the same, whether they were penniless poets, junior attaches in the diplomatic corps, aspiring politicians or the Prince of Wales. She developed a reputation for discretion. She understood the ebb and flow in the relationships in her life and bore no one any ill will as these changed over time. She often wrote long rambling letters to her friends, as if she was talking to them. If she couldn't be in their presence, she still tried to share her gaiety and zest for life. Unsurprisingly, some of her lovers became life long friends such as William Blunt. The same qualities ensured she also made lifelong friends of people who never bedded her, such as William Gladstone.
Sadly, Catherine did not have much contact with her birth family after she left home. Her chosen profession made her an outcast. She did manage to remain in contact with her youngest sister, who eventually came to live with her. There is no evidence that this siter followed in Catherine's footsteps. Instead, through Catherine's wealth and connections, she was able to make a good marriage and became a Viscountess. This is remarkable considering the time period and class consciousness of that era.
I couldn't help but admire her resilience and apparent lack of bitterness. Apparently some of her friends expressed concern for her soft heart given her chosen profession, but I think it was actually a source of strength for her and made her stand out from the crowd. It certainly made her dealings with people sincere. She did not put on airs, nor easily tolerated this in others and was known to be quite direct. She regarded people as much with her heart as her other senses and showed great compassion, understanding and empathy.
While her genuineness made her stand out, I imagine it required energy and discipline to manage. Several times in her life she seemed to allow her heart to rule for a time, but she was practical and realistic enough to know when to step back and take a deep breath. None of that could have been easy for her, but her survival instincts were strong.
In the end, she realized she was her best protector. As a prostitute, albeit in the highest levels of society, she knew she would never have been accepted as the wife of a peer, or businessman. And she had little interest in self-destructive self-indulgence.
I plan to reread this biography over Christmas, but more slowly so I can take notes. I want to learn more about this remarkable woman. When many of her childhood peers never made it to adulthood in Liverpool, she found a way to leave, to carve out a remarkable life and maintained her dignity and joie du vivre in the process.
And that's an accomplishment in any era!