The history behind the Old Finsbury Town Hall.
Around the capital, there are many town halls no longer being used for the purpose for which they were originally intended. For example, Bethnal Green Town Hall is now a five-star hotel, Battersea Town Hall has been reborn as the Battersea Arts Centre, while Deptford Town Hall is now part of Goldsmiths University campus. A string of town halls were built in the late 19th century and early 20th century as civic responsibility increased and the population boomed. When the London Metropolitan boroughs were established in 1900, the boundaries of London were considerably smaller than they are today (with most current London boroughs in zones 4-6 excluded).
One Victorian town hall still standing, but no longer in use as a local government building, is Old Finsbury Town Hall in Clerkenwell. Located on Rosebery Avenue, it is built on the site of Clerkenwell Vestry Hall. The Vestry Hall was originally the Spa Fields watch house, which was built in 1813-1814. Designed by the New River Company’s surveyor W.C. Mylne, the watch house was a two-storey building on the junction of Garnault Place and Rosoman Street. The building included two prison cells, a commissioners’ boardroom and a yard for holding stray cattle. It then became a local police station following the founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, later becoming a meeting hall in 1856.
By the late 19th century, the Vestry Hall was much maligned and too small to host local meetings. Finsbury was being redeveloped with slum housing being demolished and the building of a new road named Rosebery Avenue. English architect Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930) – famous for designing the Victoria & Albert Museum and Admiralty Arch – was appointed to judge a competition for designs for replace the Clerkenwell Vestry in 1892-3. A design by rising architect Charles Evans-Vaughan (1857-1900) beat out a dozen or so others, with Charles Dearing of Islington winning the £14,724 13s contract to build it. Evans-Vaughan is also responsible for designing the Bridge House Farm Estate in Brockley, south-east London and the Welsh church in Falmouth Road, Southwark. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1887, but sadly died in his 40s of typhoid fever just three years later.
The existing Old Finsbury Town Hall you see today was built in two stages. The first part of the building was erected between 1894-1895 and was named Clerkenwell Vestry Hall, adjoining the early 19th century Vestry Hall. It was inaugurated in summer 1895 by Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery (1847-1929). The Earl was Prime Minister at the time of opening and the inspiration for Rosebery Avenue, which was named in tribute to him for being the first chairman of the London County Council (LCC). The new Vestry Hall entrance was on the new Rosebery Avenue and featured the stunning iron and stained glass, art nouveau canopy. The new building was designed in the fashionable ‘contemporary free style’ of the time, with a mix of Flemish Renaissance, Baroque and art nouveau influences. The façade features Red Ibstock brick and Ancaster stone dressing, Portland stone, tiled gabled roofs and a clock and weathervane.
This 1900s art nouveau building is located just a stone’s throw from Leadenhall Market.
Looking at London architecture, it seems to be dominated by Victorian, Georgian and post-war buildings more than any other style. While very sought-after by many of us today, Art Deco isn’t very widespread in London, and Art Nouveau even less so. The architectural trend for Gothic revival lasted a long time in Britain, kicking off in the 18th century and lasting through the Victorian period. However, in the late 19th century, Art Nouveau brought a much needed injection of light and colour into the gloomy Victorian architecture. Art Nouveau was a short-lived movement and admittedly wasn’t as popular in Britain as it was in continental Europe.
When I was checking out the Sculpture In The City exhibition recently, I happened upon Bolton House in the City. Located on Cullum Street, just off Lime Street. Bolton House is a striking Art Nouveau building housing several shops and businesses, including Bolton’s Italian restaurant. The Art Nouveau design, which is blended with Moorish influences, stood out because it is so rare to see this style, especially in the City. The building features a stunning façade of blue and white faience, arched windows and elegant columns. The frieze above the first floor windows sports the typical Art Nouveau preference for nature with its foliage designs. The building was completed in 1907 – the year emblazoned above the door – just three years before Art Nouveau fell out of fashion. The architect was a Mr A. I. Selby, who I haven’t been able to find out much about. The shield is believed to be the heraldic device of Prior Bolton. By 1950, the building was home to The Navigators & General Insurance Company. The building was renovated in 1984, when two further storeys were added above.
Cullum Street itself is a just moments from Leadenhall Market. The street dates back to the City’s famous rebuild following the Great Fire Of London in 1666. Prior to the blaze, a large house and garden occupied the site. However, in the rebuilding in the late 17th century, 30 houses were erected on the street, which was named after the owner Sir Thomas Cullum.
Meanwhile, if you’re into Art Nouveau, why not check out the Bishopsgate Institute, the Hippodrome, the Horniman Museum or, one of my favourite London buildings, Michelin House in Chelsea.
- Bolton House, 14 – 16 Cullum Street, City of London, EC3M 7JJ. Nearest station: Fenchurch Street or Monument.
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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). The top floor contained a flat for Clarkson to live in and stay close to the action of the West End. 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. Clarkson also apparently had a long friendship with screen legend Charlie Chaplin, who was said to pay a visit to Clarkson every time he returned to London. 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 due to being educated in Paris, Clarkson’s had won the ‘highest possible award at the Paris Exhibition 1900’ and was known as ‘The King of Wigs’. 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 October 1934 at the age of 74, prompting speculation he had been murdered. The Daily Mirror reported he had died of a stroke in the early hours of 13 October. Twenty-four hours before his death, he collapsed and suffered a deep gash to his forehead, prompting speculation about the cause of death. The post-mortem was inconclusive. His funeral took place at the ‘actors’ church’ of St Paul’s in Covent Garden, following by his burial in Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, Surrey. 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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