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Thursday, 21 April 2011

“She Threads Her Way Dexterously, With an Unconscious Air” Or: London’s Most Famous Prostitute, ‘Skittles’

With the TV adaptation of Michel Faber’s ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ currently very much at the top of the viewing agenda for Victorianists & history lovers, I have deemed it appropriate, for a couple of weeks anyway, to look at the world of Victorian prostitution.
 If you have neither read the book nor seen any of the television series, don’t worry, there will be no ‘spoilers’ contained in this post, in fact, ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ wont be getting another mention beyond this point, so you’re quite safe to read on.
Catherine 'Skittles' Walters
In my last post we read about the help offered to Victorian ‘fallen women’, or prostitutes, but today we peek at the opposite end of the scale in this trade, at a woman who needed no help or support at all.
Of the estimated 80,000 prostitutes plying their trade in London in the middle of the nineteenth century, perhaps the most famous was Catherine Walters. Known by the nickname of ‘Skittles’ (possibly because she worked at a bowling alley near Park Lane) she was, it has to be said, more than just an average prostitute.

She was born in Toxteth, Liverpool in 1839, the third of five children, and grew up in Merseyside but moved to London around the age of eighteen or nineteen.

Being a beautiful girl, she found no difficulty in making money on the streets in an era when a glass of gin and a few pence (or even sometimes a glass of gin or a few pence) could secure the services of average prostitutes, or ladybirds, or troopers as they were often known. The better looking girls, such as Catherine, were able to attract higher class customers, known to them as toffs (which led to the ‘better’ prostitutes being nicknamed toffers)

Catherine’s looks meant she was able to charge higher fees that most, and she quickly became a successful ‘trooper’, but she was more than that. It was even rumoured that amongst her list of regular clientele were famous intellectuals, politicians, aristocrats and even a member of the Royal Family, although her discretion and loyalty to her V.I.P clients and benefactors meant that not only are these rumours unconfirmed, but also – and maybe more importantly for her – that she continued to receive their custom; they being confident that they would never be found out.

She was not only beautiful, successful and in-demand with high-class men, meaning she was becoming financially comfortable, but also excellent at riding a horse. In the 1860s the sight of Catherine riding through Hyde Park along Rotten Row drew huge crowds, and aristocratic ladies copied the fashion of her perfectly fitting and skin tight riding habits, (worn without underwear). So, not only did she enjoy a successful career as a courtesan, but she was also a trendsetter & fashion icon too. Precious few of the cities prostitutes could boast a career such as hers.

In a letter to The Times in July 1862, the writer describes the excitement and anticipation of the public waiting for the well-known courtesan (referred to as Anonyma) to appear upon her horse. She wore a disguise, but was still recognized by her fans:

"Expectation is raised to its highest pitch: a handsome woman drives rapidly by in a carriage drawn by thoroughbred ponies of surpassing shape and action; the driver is attired in the pork pie hat and the Poole paletot introduced by Anonyma; but alas!, she caused no effect at all, for she is not Anonyma; she is only the Duchess of A–, the Marchioness of B–, the Countess of C–, or some other of Anonyma's many imitators.
The crowd, disappointed, reseat themselves, and wait. Another pony carriage succeeds – and another – with the same depressing result. At last their patience is rewarded. Anonyma and her ponies appear, and they are satisfied. She threads her way dexterously, with an unconscious air, through the throng, commented upon by the hundreds who admire and the hundreds who envy her. She pulls up her ponies to speak to an acquaintance, and her carriage is instantly surrounded by a multitude; she turns and drives back again towards Apsley House, and then away into the unknown world, nobody knows whither".

'Anonyma'
Could it also be that Catherine was the first person to be a celebrity without actually having any perceived skill-set or achievements? A distant pre-cursor to the female ‘celebrities’ who adorn the pages of cheap magazines in the present day? Perhaps.

She certainly became a famous London character, and even more so in 1862 when she rather glamorously eloped to America with married man Aubrey de Vere Beacuclerk, and then to Paris with the Marquess of Hartington, who paid her £2000 per year (a large sum of money at that time, and almost £90,000 in today’s money) to remain as his mistress.

In the 1890’s, when she was in her fifties (and therefore probably not quite as appealing as in her younger days) she retired from ‘society’ a wealthy woman. At the time of her death in 1920 her estate was worth £2,764. This included a home in Mayfair she had owned from 1872, but a court case in which she was sued for non-payment of a tailoring bill refers to her having other addresses, possibly properties she owned. Two were hotels, one of which was in France.

She died of a cerebral haemorrhage at her home at 15 South Street, Mayfair, and was buried in the graveyard of the Franciscan Monastery at Crawley.

She was the last of the great courtesans of Victorian London.

10 comments:

  1. Refreshing to read about a courtesan who didn't die in penury. She sounds like a savvy business woman - and I love her mysterious nickname!

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  2. 'Anonyma' is certainly one of the best of the era's nicknames I've come across so far!

    She certainly sounds like quite a character, and must have been quite special to become so popular in a city full of women of the trade.
    I was also amazed at the size of her waist, that must have been quite a corset!

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  3. Why though is she buried in Crawley?

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  4. She wanted to be buried there at the monastery, I'm not sure why, though she perhaps found religion in later life?

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  5. Fascinating as always! And a wonderful photograph - what an outfit! 'Crimson petal' is a fabulous book and I really enjoyed reading about a real-life story. Thanks!

    Suzie @keatsbabe

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  6. Thanks for looking! This post has been quite popular, thanks to 'Crimson Petal' I suspect! It's interesting that what we read and see in that is not too far from Catherine's reality.

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  7. Fascinating! Yes, an early IT-girl, who'd have adorned the covers of Hello if it had existed back then.

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  8. Yes, I wish I'd have said it like that! The Victorians are often thought of as extremely prudish, but the fact that a woman such as this had 'fans' seems to suggest otherwise.

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