West End stars, a notorious public loo and Dr Crippen | The story behind Clarkson’s wig shop in Chinatown
A Chinese restaurant on Wardour Street has a very interesting past, full of scandal and mystery.
Chinatown is one of London’s most popular areas for tourists and diners. While today it may feel like it’s been there forever, the capital’s Chinatown used to be located in Limehouse and only started moving into the West End in the 1970s. Looking at the streets of Wardour and Gerrard Street, your eyes are drawn to the Chinese decorations and lights. However, if you look closer, you’ll see many of these Chinese restaurants and bars are situated in ornate Victorian, Georgian and Edwardian buildings.
One such building which stands out from the rest due to its elaborate façade is 41-43 Wardour Street – currently home to The Wong Kei restaurant. However, looking up at the four-storey building, an ornate clock and various plaques give clues to its original use.
While some buildings, such as No.9 Wardour Street dated back to the 18th century, this one is rather more modern. No. 41-43 is a little over a century old, built to a design by architect H. M. Wakeley in 1904-5. Made from red brick and green stone, it features three levels of wide windows in a mix of Baroque and Art Nouveau. The smaller, central window on the 1st floor features two cartouches with ‘Estb. 1833’ and ‘Rebt. 1904’ inscribed on them. On the centre of the second floor is a clock projected outwards on wrought iron, reading ‘costumier’ and ‘Perruquier’ (French for costumer and wigmaker respectively).
The building was designed as the new premises for theatrical costume designer and wigmaker William Berry ‘Willy’ Clarkson (1861 – 12 October 1934). His father, also called William (d.1878), started the family business in 1833 after he was apprenticed to a court wig-maker. William Snr established his own business in Vinegar Yard, Drury Lane. He later moved to 45 Wellington Street off The Strand – near the Royal Opera House and Theatre Royal Drury Lane where wigs would have been in high demand. Willy took over the family business after his father’s death and was still living and working at Wellington Street in the 1891 census.
When Willy moved to his new premises on Wardour Street, he obviously had friends in high places due to his West End clients. French stage and early film actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) laid the foundation stone aside the front door, while Victorian actor Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) is on the coping stone in 1905. His new location was just moments from Shaftesbury Avenue so was easily accessible to the nearby theatres. An advertisement in 1906 describes Clarkson’s as ‘Theatrical Costumier and Wig Maker to His Majesty The King’. The ad boasted customers would find ‘cheapest – the best – the most reliable – the oldest established house in the world for wigs, costumes, grease paints, powders’. Apparently fluent in French as well as English, Clarkson’s had won the ‘highest possible award at the Paris Exhibition 1900’. In 1898 – while still at Wellington Street – Clarkson ended up in court after he had some of his female employees working on a Sunday – which was illegal at the time. He was ordered to pay court costs of £3, 9s, 6d. At the height of his success in the 1920s, he bought the Duchess Theatre in Catherine Street but soon sold it on after issues with the law of Ancient Lights.
As well as stage stars, the police and criminals also came to Clarkson’s for disguises. It is even claimed murderer Dr Crippen (1862-1910) and his mistress were arrested while wearing Clarkson wigs. In James Morton’s 2012 book Gangland Soho, he describes Willy as being a known blackmailer and insurance fraudster with 11 of his premises having burnt down. In September 1931, there was a fire at Carson’s shop, for which he recovered £26,174 from insurance, with another fire at his premises at Ramilies Place two years later, for which he retrieved £39,000. He also owned some rooms opposite an infamous public lavatory in Dansey Place, which was nicknamed ‘Carson’s Cottage’ during the interwar years. It was notorious as a gay pick-up joint and for attracting blackmailers, who would extort money from the cottagers to keep silent. Carson’s Cottage was even mentioned in a 1913 court case for soliciting. The toilets were closed after World War II.
Carson died in suspicious circumstances in October 1934 at the age of 74, prompting speculation he had been murdered. He was found lying on the floor with a deep gash on his forehead, while investigations into the fires were still continuing. The post-mortem was inconclusive. His associate, solicitor’s clerk William C Hobbs forged his will, leaving money to some people the late wigmaker hadn’t even met. However, Hobbs’ forgery was exposed by the lawyer William Charles Crocker and he was arrested four years later. Clarkson’s shop subsequently closed in 1940.
So Clarkson’s business is now long gone with only the plaques and signage a reminder of his establishment. In 1966, a London County Council blue plaque was unveiled to commemorate him. When Chinatown began to spring up in the area in the early 1970s, the Lee Ho Fook Chinese restaurant took over the building. In the 1980s, it became the Wong Kei Chinese Restaurant, which was previously known as ‘the rudest restaurant in London’. However its been under new management since 2014 and is said to be significantly more friendlier now.
- 41 – 43 Wardour Street, Chinatown, W1D 6PY. Nearest station: Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square.
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