Here I am outside the house of “Skittles” who rose from the slums of Toxteth in Liverpool to become one of the great courtesans of Victorian London.
She was one of five children born in one of the rougher parts of Liverpool in 1839. Little is known about her childhood but her mum died when she was four and she was sent to a convent.
Not many blue plaques have nicknames on them but this does and it’s thought she was given the name she was known from her job setting up skittles in a local bowling alley in the Black Jack Tavern near the docks in Liverpool.
Somehow she moved from Toxteth to London aged sixteen. Lord Fitzwilliam was so obsessed with her that he set her up in a house. When the relationship ended he two years later gave her £2000 (a fortune then) and £300 a year ‘pension’. At 19 she became the mistress of Lord Hartington, eldest son of the Duke of Devonshire. At 20 she was set up in a house in Mayfair with horses, spending money and account at a dress-makers (even when he died his estate paid her £500/year.) She hired a tutor to give her the education she didn’t have as a girl.
In her twenties she was mixing with the cream of society - intellectuals, political leaders and aristocrats. She was a tourist attraction for poor and wealthy. People would wait to see her pass on her horse or in her carriage so they could copy her clothes. The rich and aristocratic ladies copied the cut of her perfectly fitting "Princess" riding habit. She set trends and, upon pulling up to speak to an acquaintance, would be surrounded by crowds. At 25 she heard her dad had finally drank himself to death.
She was affectionate, effervescent, outspoken, bawdy, honest, funny, fair, loving and disarmingly natural and undesigning. There was no seeking revenge, hush money or scandalous autobiography. No matter what rumours encircled her she never confirmed/denied anything, a much sought-after commodity. People’s secrets were safe with her; her ears were open but her mouth padlocked.
Though known for her beauty and 18 inch waist she was equally known for being a skilled horsewoman. Horses seems to be as obedient as men under her hand. She knew exactly what she was doing with anything on four legs. In her teens she had worked for a livery stable and learnt equestrian skills that were her passport to success. This was the day before cars and horses were London’s form of travel. In the streets and in the hunting fields she could outride most men.
On the streets she drew on-lookers. It was rumoured her tailored clothes were so tight she wore no underwear. Noblewomen and the wealthy copied her style of dress
Other courtesans wanted to extract as much money as they could but Skittle was quite thrifty; others wore gaudy jewellery but she wore stylish pieces, others courted publicity but she behaved naturally; others game themselves exotic nicknames but she was content with “Skittles.” Her only flamboyant behavior was driving her own carriage followed by two mounted grooms, all wearing impeccably-tailored outfits.
Lovers included Napoléon III, the French finance minister and she eloped to America for six months with Aubrey de Vere Beauclerk (an MP) for six months.
South Street leads onto Hyde Park where Skittles gave the horses a trot. She bought this house in central London aged 33. When a tailor sued her for an unpaid bill it came out she owned many other properties including two hotels.
Life swirled around hunting, entertaining and Sunday afternoon tea parties attended by people like William Gladstone (the future prime minster) and Bertie the Prince of Wales. She had an affair with Bertie, punctuated with 300 love letters but he couldn’t truly let her go when the affair ended, paying her an allowance and sending his own doctor to attend her when will. When he heard she was dying he sent someone round to her home to collect and destroy the letters he had sent her.
At 50 she retired as a society lady and lived at this house in Mayfair for three decades. She didn’t release any memoirs which could have betrayed her wealthy patrons who gave her annuals payments.
Strangely, despite all the crowned heads and blue bloods she met her final love affair was with Gerald de Saumarez, a man she’d met when he was sixteen and she was forty. In her later years she became reclusive probably due to crippling arthritis. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage at this house aged 81 and left it and her whole estate to Gerald.
I caressed the door knob, wondered if it was the original one and - if it was - which people from history had also touched it. She lived here for 48 years so there must have been hundreds.
I crossed the road and had a good look at the house which must be worth about £3-4 million. Blimey, she’d done well, Toxteth is a long way from Mayfair. I wondered what features about her personality drove men potty. It can’t have been the obvious friction of funnel/tunnel stuff - I read in a book about Charles Dicken’s Victorian London that you could buy a 13 year old virgin for £1. Skittles received a small fortune each year from men who no longer shared her bed sheets. She must have been her potent mix of style, humour, poise, elegance, sex appeal, beauty, discretion and honesty. She must had been a terrifically entertaining conversationalist. Sometimes I book “Four Nipples” Nora and “Pig-Faced” Priscilla for the whole night (£30 - each!) and there’s scant conversation beyond the grunts as they gobble pies while watching Rumpole Of The Bailey re-runs on UK Gold.
Oddly Skittles lived at number 15 and Florence Nightingale lived at number 10 (see photo.) Both occupied the same era so surely they met or entered one another’s homes. What did they talk about if they met in the street? Florence was a fount of goodness, a celebrated social reformer and the founder of modern nursing. Skittles was a high class escort.
I walked up toward Hyde Park and into the late afternoon sun wondering how many times Skittles had brought her horses and carriages this way 150 years ago. What faces from history had walked down this street to see either Florence Nightingale who was awarded the prestigious Royal Red Cross (for services to nursing) or Skittles who could hardly keep her legs crossed.
See photo on the right…the house was not far from Hyde Park where Skittles rode her horses…
The view up to Hyde Park where she rode her horses…
I just had to touch the knocker…
If these two women bumped into one another in the street what did they talk about?