Sunday, May 03, 2009

The tailors and the Lady

A dispute between a tailor and a customer hardly seems newsworthy. Even should the matter go to court, it would be unlikely to merit more than passing notice in a local newspaper. Yet in May of 1873, just such a dispute (Creed and another v Walters) was the subject of great interest in papers around London, ranging from the Daily News to the Illustrated Police News. The story even made it into the Western Mail in Cardiff. What made this case so remarkable was the defendant in the case was Catherine Walters, better known as “Skittles” and the most celebrated courtesan of the middle years of Victoria's reign. So popular was she - or at least so well known - that The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times thought it sufficiently amusing to make her case the subject of one of its frequently appalling puns. "'Skittles' speaks of a fashionable tailor as being 'one of the old war-horses of the trade.' A heavy charger we suppose."

In the court it was pointed out that

the defendant, Miss Walters, was a lady very well known in London and in Paris, and her personal attractions had secured for her a very considerable number of admirers, under the protection of some of whom she had from time to time lived.
The argument was over a bill in excess of three hundred pounds for riding habits and numerous alterations.

Nor was this the only time Skittles name was to appear in the popular press. Just three years later, when she was in Paris, the following appeared.

Miss Catherine Walters, an English lady, who may, perhaps, be better known to some of your readers than she is to your correspondent, brought an action, which came on for hearing yesterday, against M. Faure, the well-known publisher, demanding damages for injury to her reputation occasioned by a book called 'Memoires d'une Biche Anglaise," with her portrait in the title-page. The curiosity of the public met with a disappointment, for it happened that - to use the words of a disappointed Irish attorney - a 'compromise broke out between the parties.' The publisher undertook to destroy all the copies of the work remaining on hand, and the lady's counsel declaring that she scorned to make the action a monetary speculation the affair was concluded.
Again, in 1890, her name featured in the case of Beauclerk v Beauclerk in which Skittles was named as having been intimately involved with the husband almost thirty years earlier. Such was the power of her name that it took precedence over the names of several others with whom the husband was involved. Although the couple had been living separately for twenty years, the court held that there were no grounds for a dissolution of the marriage since there was no proof that the husband had molested his wife or interfered with the custody of their child in the years of their separation.

During the sixties and seventies, the grand decades for the courtesans, Skittles was the most talked abut and admired of the breed. She was, as William Hardman so bluntly put it, “a w[hore] sir, much sought after by fast young swells.” With all of the most elegant women of the day she rode, through the season, in Rotten Row.

The Danae! the Amazons! the lady cavaliers! the horsewomen! can any scene in the world equal Rotten Row at four in the Afternoon, and in the full tide of the season?
asked the journalist, George Augustus Sala. There the dandies of London gathered at the wooden rails, ladies in their crinolines strolled accompanied by their footmen, children played in the park and here and there one could see “wicked old bucks, splendidly attired, leering furtively under the bonnets” of respectable women.

The “pretty little horsebreakers” as those of the demi-monde parading up and down the Row were known, could be seen

in their ravishing riding-habits and intoxicatingly delightful hats: some with the orthodox cylindrical beaver, with the flowing veil; others with roguish little wide-awakes, or pertly cocked cavalier’s hats and green plumes.
One correspondent to The Times of 29 January 1861 suggested that if its editors took chairs to Rotten Row they might then see, and be able to tell the public in a "leader",

Who rides the best horse in the row? Who drives the most rampageous ponies? Whom do all the best girls ape in dress and deportment, and in equipage if they can; aye, and in talk too? Who first set the fashion of the ‘pork pie’ hat? Who restored the ancient chimney pot? Why one of our ‘pretty horse-breakers.
"And there, as Alfred Austin, later Poet Laureate, wrote in 1861, “… defiant, spurning frown and foe,/With slackened rein swift Skittles rules the Row./Though scowling matrons champing steeds restrain,/She flaunts Propriety with flapping mane."

She had a passion for horses and was a first class rider. Sir Willoughby Maycock, as a young man, was riding home from the hunt with his father when two riders raced past “and were over the fence and in front of us in the twinkling of an eye.” One, a woman, “wore a habit that fitted like a glove, and a bit of cherry ribbon round her neck. … she was a perfect dream.” As they pelted past, she shouted to her companion, Jim Mason, the winner of the 1839 Liverpool Grand National, and one of the finest horsemen in England, that she expected when they reached home her bottom would be as red as her ribbon. It was, of course, the incomparable Skittles.

Born in 1839, at sixteen she became the mistress of George, Lord Fitzwilliam and, when she left him for Lord Cavendish, Fitzwilliam settled £300 a year on her and banked £2,000 in her name. Cavendish, later Marquess of Hartington, settled £500 a year on Skittles in addition to giving her horses and a house. The affair lasted for four years, and was frequently painful for both of them. Among her intimate friends were the Prince of Wales and the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. W. E. Gladstone, who always had an interest in the demi-monde, sent her twelve pounds of Russian tea and brought her a bunch of narcissi, telling her she had a small waist and then testing his statement “by manual measurement.” “I have not,” he assured her, “come to talk politics.”

Skittles was painted by Sir Edwin Landseer and had poems written to her and about her by Wilfred Scawen Blunt aas well as Alfred Austin. Her notoriety was such that even without being named, it must have been clear to readers of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine that the criticism of Landseer’s “The Shrew Tamed” was referring to Skittles, especially since the model (not Skittles herself) looked so much like the lady in question.

“The Shrew Tamed”--a high-bred horse of soft silken coat, dappled with play of light and shade as on velvet--subdued by a “pretty horsebreaker,” is certainly unfortunate as a subject. ... We hope it will now be felt by Sir Edwin Landseer and his friends that the intrusion of “pretty horsebreakers” on the walls of the Academy is not less to be regretted than their presence in Rotten Row.
Skittles lived into her eighties, long enough to see the end of the First World War. In her last years she would take the air, pushed in a bath-chair in Hyde Park, where once she had ruled the Row.

To read the report of the case of Creed and another v Walters as it appeared in The Daily News (London, 6 May 1873), click here.


Holly said...

Hi Bruce - great blog you have here and I'd like to contact you, but can't find an e-mail address, if you could e-mail me on I'd really appreciate it!



Anonymous said...

Nice page, i like it!

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Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Wonderful blog. I've just added you to my blog roll.

Lauren said...

It was so interesting back then. I'm not that familiar with the Victorian era. I am more of a dinosaur gal. I found your site on the Chicago History Blog.

Madeleine said...

I just stumbled across your 2006 posting on London fogs - it was not only tremendously helpful (I'm working on a collection of short stories set in and around Victorian London), but very interesting too.

The variety of your material is wonderful. I don't know if you're planning to continue posting, but selfishly I hope you do. Even if you don't, I wanted to thank you for the resources you've collected and presented here.


Anonymous said...

Hello Mr Rosen. I note you have not blogged since May 09. It may be the case that you have realigned your interests/time. Whether or not that is so - I would like you to know how much your work has been appreciated. Many thanks.


Mimzy said...

I've just found your blog as well and I have to say that as a fan of history and the Victorians, I'm fascinated by your articles. While I'm saddened that you seem to have stopped updating, I'm going to enjoy reading over the wealth of information that you posted.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce, I am part of a local theatre group where I live, and we are performing A Christmas Carol next month. It's a multi-faceted event, acting out the show, using clips from movies and Orson Wells, and putting up historic displays. We're performing it at the Mayowood Stone Barn, which was part of the Mayo Brothers' estate. We have been planning to have historical "articles", write-ups around the barn for the audience to read. We found your blog and love it! We're wondering how you would feel about us using some of your work for our audience to read? Could you contact me at Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful post about Skitsie. Will you forgive me for pointing out that it was not Skittles, but Miss Annie Gilbert who posed for the Taming of the Shrew? Another equestrienne, but not a courtesan.

Dr Bruce Rosen said...

Thanks, Susanna for providing the name of the model. I did, however, note that Skitsie was not the model despite what might have been implied.