Spencer Cavendish, the 8th Duke of Devonshire (1833-1908) was rather revered in Eastbourne for his financial support to improve the town. Outside of Sussex he was generally known as the ‘Marquess of Hartington’.
Although a Liberal politician he opposed his party’s opposition to Home Rule for Ireland and afterwards became quite conservative. During a long career he served as the Secretary of State for War, the Postmaster General and the Secretary of State for India. He declined the office of Prime Minster on three occasions.
Despite his political pedigree Spencer had an interesting private life. His nickname was ‘Harty Tarty’ and he had long affairs with two women, the celebrity prostitute Catherine Walters who was known as ‘Skittles’ and Louisa von Alten, a German who was married to the Duke of Manchester. (as she was married to one Duke and was having an affair with another she was known as the ‘Double Duchess’)
The Duke provided Skittles with a house in Mayfair and an annual allowance. She was a skilled horsewoman and would regularly be seen parading along Rotten Row. Sir Edwin Landseer’s picture ‘The Shrew Tamed’ is supposed to represent Catherine.
In 1876 the Duke paid an official tour to Coventry. The Prince of Wales, (later Edward VII) knowing this, primed his equerry to contact Coventry Council to ensure that the visit included a trip to the local bowling alley. When the party arrived at the bowling alley the Mayor was surprised that he did not show much interest, so unwittingly said to the Duke “I have been asked to include the alley in your tour as I understand that your Lordships loves Skittles!”
The Duke favoured the German Duchess but he had to wait until she was 60 and her husband died before they could marry. She died in 1911 and was buried near Chatsworth House. Skittles, who had been born near Liverpool Docks, died a rich lady in Mayfair in 1920. She had returned 300 love letters a grateful Edward VII who ensured she lived comfortably.
Skittles is buried in Sussex at the Friary Church of St Francis and St Anthony in Crawley and there is a blue plaque above her London Home. Harty-Tarty died in 1908 and his lonely statue now adorns the Western Lawns opposite the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne. The ‘Hart’ Pub and Hartington Place in Eastbourne are named after him but wouldn’t be fun if an Eastbourne twitten was named ‘Skittles Alley’ after his lover?