Real Places in Victorian London: Rotten Row

Hyde Park and Rotten Row in 1833

To our modern (and especially American) ears, "Rotten Row" sounds like a desperate place, somewhere haunted by cut-purses and fallen women.  But to prominent Victorian ladies, it was THE place to be seen on horseback in the afternoons and early evenings.  Originally established in the seventeenth century as the King's private road, this long horse track along the Serpentine River in Hyde Park came to be known as "Rotten Row" -- apparently a corruption of the French, La Route du Roi.

No Hacks Allowed

Hyde Park was an exclusive place; only those who kept their own horses and carriages were allowed.  "Hacks," or hackney cabs, had been forbidden since 1695.  Rotten Row was the place to show off your fine horses, your expensive phaeton, your new feathered hat and riding habit.  And when it came to fashion on Rotten Row, the acknowledged trendsetter was Catherine Walters, better known as "Skittles."

Possibly the most famous Victorian courtesan



When it came to style, flash, and all-around admiration, Catherine Walters ruled Rotten Row.  Ironically, if not for her scandalous occupation -- serving as the mistress of wealthy and titled men -- she would have been one of those ordinary souls the "no hacks" rule shut out.  Well-born, respectable ladies copied Skittles' "Princess" riding habit to the smallest detail; during the 1860s, huge crowds of sight-seers stood by the railing to watch her ride by.  Her classic beauty was matched by her skill as a horsewoman.

This letter to the Times is thought to describe Skittles, though it does not name her:

"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." -- The Times, 3 July 1862, pg. 12 (Wikipedia)

The horse-track today

With the rise of the car, the social importance of Rotten Row faded away.  But today the track is still used by the Royal Household Calvary.  Celebrities like Skittles no longer frequent it, but not far away in another part of Hyde Park another iconic beauty and trendsetter, Princess Diana, is also remembered.

Princess Diana's Memorial Fountain

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