West End stars, a notorious public loo and Dr Crippen: The story behind Clarkson’s wig and costume 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.
For the history of No.9 Wardour Street, click here.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
Have you spotted the old lettering reading ‘Exchange and Bullion Office’ on this Georgian terrace?
Without a doubt, Wardour Street is one of the busiest roads in the West End. Stretching the length of Soho and bordered by Chinatown, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street, it means the street attracts a lot of traffic – both vehicle and pedestrian. Most Londoners and tourists will have passed down Wardour Street at some point in their commute to work, sightsee or socialise. However, with the road so busy, how often do you have time to stop and look up at the buildings around you?
Wardour Street is home to a wide range of architecture from the 1700s to present day – such as the W Hotel. The road itself has been named various things over the centuries and has been visible on maps since the Elizabethan times. In the late 16th century, it was named Colmanhedge Lane, which was then a popular route across the fields of the Burton Saint Lazar lands. The lane linked the Charing Cross area to the main road we now know as Oxford Street, which was simply described as ‘the Way from Vxbridge to London’. Old maps of what is now known as Soho shows the lane follows the current Wardour Street nearly exactly, including the slight bends at Old Compton Street and Brewer Street.
Following the Restoration in 1660, the land at the southern end of Wardour Street was leased by Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1699) to Henry Jermyn, Earl of St. Albans (1605-1684). By 1676, her son King Charles II (1630-1685) granted the freehold of the three and half acre plot to the Earl, who swiftly disposed of the land to builders, who erected buildings by 1681-2. On a 1682 map, what we now know as Wardour Street were actually three different roads – So Ho in the north, Whitcomb Street in the middle and the abbreviated Hedge Lane had remained for the southern end. However, within three years, the portion of the road between Coventry Street and Brewer Street was renamed again as Princes Street after Prince Rupert (1619-1682), while the upper part near Oxford Street was renamed Wardour Street after the landowner at the time Sir Edward Wardour (d.1694). It was during the 17th century that Soho was really transformed from fields into a residential and business district. By 1687, the properties on Princes St were owned by Sir Anthony Deane, who sold them to Richard Bourne. By the 1720s and 1730s, many of the buildings on Princes Street were of poor quality and were torn down and rebuilt by Bourne’s family.
This Thursday (19 February) sees the arrival of the Chinese New Year Of The Sheep. With London having long had a large Chinese population, it’s no surprise to see the city will be hosting the biggest celebrations of the New Year in Europe. On Sunday, the action will spill beyond the borders of Chinatown into Trafalgar Square with fun and festivities to mark the advent of the new year. The Sheep (goat or ram) is known for being gentle and calm, with people being born in the animal’s years being tender, polite, shy, filial, clever, indecisive and kind-hearted.
For early risers, the New Year’s Parade will begin in Trafalgar Square at 10am, going through the West End before ending in Chinatown. Meanwhile, back in Trafalgar Square, a street party kicks off at noon, featuring performances from Chinese acrobatics, traditional dancers and the iconic lion dance, which will weave through the streets wishing restaurant owners good luck for the coming year. Mr Wei Ding, who performed the culture evening show for world leaders at the APEC Summit last November, is producing a variety show ‘Cultures of China, Festival of Spring’. While Trafalgar will be playing host to large-scale performances, there will also be a second stage on Shaftesbury Avenue for local acts and upcoming talent. including martial arts groups, Canto pop and K-pop. The celebrations will be hosted by British Chinese actress Jing Lusi (Holby City) and Amy Herzog’s award-winning play 4000 Miles.
And of course, no Chinese New Year celebrations would be complete without the country’s famous cuisines being represented. Over 80 restaurants in Chinatown will be offering a range of cuisines from traditional Hong Kong street food to modern Chinese fusion from Shanghai and Beijing. Among the venues taking part include the Golden Phoenix and Opium Cocktail And Dim Sum Parlour on Gerrard Street. Many eateries will be setting up craft stalls and food stands outside so you can eat on the move or take home a piece of Chinese arts and crafts.
Chinese New Year Highlights to look out for:
10am: Parade begins at Trafalgar Square, ending on Shaftesbury Avenue
12-1pm: Dragon and Lion Dance performance at the Trafalgar Square Stage
1.30pm: Cultures of China – Festival of Spring performance on Trafalgar Square Stage
3.30pm: Red Poppy Ladies Percussion Group performance on Trafalgar Square Stage
5-6pm: Finale on Trafalgar Square Stage
- Chinese New Year celebrations will take part on Sunday 22 February 2015 from 10am to 6pm. Free. Nearest stations: Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Charing Cross. For more information, visit the Chinatown London website.
For a guide to what else is on in London this month, click here.