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Shopping in style – Part 4: Edwardian chic at the Piccadilly Arcade

The history of an Edwardian shopping arcade.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Piccadilly Arcade

Decades before the likes of Westfield and Brent Cross came to London, those who wanted to shop in comfort headed to one of the capital’s arcades. Like the mega malls of today, these arcades featured numerous shops under one roof, providing a sheltered retail experience whatever the weather. However, as well laid out as these modern fashion meccas are, they just can’t compare to the historic and upmarket designs of the late Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian periods. As part of Metro Girl’s series on the five historic arcades of Mayfair and St James, Part 4 will be focusing on the Edwardian of the quintet – the Piccadilly Arcade.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the St James area was a hangout for the capital’s gentry and royals with a host of gentlemen’s shops and businesses catering for the upper classes. St James’s Palace was in the area, as well as prestigious members’ clubs, such as The Athenaeum and The Carlton Club. Swiss hotelier César Ritz (1850-1918) had opened his ground-breaking Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly in 1906. Following the death of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and the ascension of King Edward VII (1841-1910), the country was changing, with styles of fashion and architecture evolving into less gloomy and simpler designs.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The façade of the Piccadilly Arcade on its namesake street

When it came to London’s shopping arcades, by the early 20th century, it had been a while since any new ones had been built. The Royal Opera and Burlington Arcades were over eight decades old at this point, while the Lowther Arcade was demolished in 1904 after standing on The Strand for over 70 years. In 1909, work started on a new shopping mecca – the Piccadilly Arcade. The Edwardian arcade linked Piccadilly and Jermyn Street – famous as London’s retail destination for well-dressed gentlemen. Architect George Thrale Jell of Waterloo Place was brought in to design it. Throughout his career, Jell was a popular architect for retailers, having designed several stores in Oxford Street, including the Hanan-Gingell shoe shop in 1908 (now home to branches of Fossil watches and Sunglasses Hut), flats in Bury Street and converted the Georgian building, 138 Park Lane into offices and flats in the late 1920s.

The arcade was constructed by builders Messrs. Leslie and Co. of Kensington Square in 1910. The ground-floor arcade featured 28 shops, while the remaining upper floors were used as offices and chambers. The façade of the building is made of Portland stone and features four columns supporting a architrave with the words ‘Piccadilly Arcade’. Above, a wide wrought iron balcony spans the five windows of the 2nd floor, with further storeys of windows and smaller balconies above. The fifth floor features another wide balcony, while dormer windows stand out on the 6th floor slated roof. The upper storeys were converted into the Felix Hotel in 1915, but is now called Empire House and is mostly offices.

Among the first businesses to open in the arcade were the shirtmakers Budd, who are still trading today over a century later. Harold Budd established his shirt shop at No.4 in 1910, which was set over three floors. Meanwhile, tailors Hawes & Curtis, founded by Ralph Hawes and George Frederick Curtis, opened their first store at No.24 in February 1913. Over one hundred years later, they now have over 20 stores in the UK.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

A statue of Regency dandy Beau Brummell

The Piccadilly Arcade traded in peace for 20 years before World War II brought death and destruction to the streets of London. At 3.10am on 17 April 1941, the Jermyn Street end of the building was severely damaged by a 2,200lb parachute bomb. Twenty three people were killed, including the 1930s singer Al Bowlly (1898-1941), who lived on the corner of Jermyn Street. The Dunhill store on the corner of Jermyn Street took a direct hit, while Fortnum & Mason and the Cavendish Hotel were also damaged. Budd’s shop at No.4 in the arcade was burnt down so Harold Budd swiftly purchased the remaining leases on the only two intact stores in the arcade; 1A and 3, where Budd remains trading today. The Piccadilly Arcade was gradually restored, with work finishing in 1957.

Today, the Piccadilly Arcade is home to tailors, shirtmakers, shoe shops, jewellers, hairdressers, womenswear, pharmacy and mustard and vinegar makers. Meanwhile, those who enter or exit through the Arcade’s south entrance of Jermyn Street will be greeted by Irena Sedlecká’s sculpture of Beau Brummell (1778-1840), a Regency dandy who was famous for his dress sense.

  • Piccadilly Arcade, Piccadilly or Jermyn Street, St. James’s, SW1Y 6NH. Nearest station: Green Park or Piccadilly Circus. For more information, visit the Piccadilly Arcade website.

‘Shopping In Style’ is a series of blog posts on the history of London’s oldest shopping arcades. Read Part 1 on the Burlington Arcade here, Part 2 on the Royal Opera Arcade here, Part 3 on the Royal Arcade here, or Part 5 on the Prince Arcade, click here.


For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

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West End stars, a notorious public loo and Dr Crippen: The story behind Clarkson’s wig and costume shop in Chinatown

A Chinese restaurant has a very interesting past, full of scandal and mystery.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The former shop of costumier and wig maker Willy Clarkson at 41 – 43 Wardour Street in Chinatown

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).

Wardour Street © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

A plaque by the front door commemorates the laying of the foundation stone by French actress Sarah Bernhardt in 1905

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. He 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. He died in suspicious circumstances in October 1934 at the age of 74. 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.

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 more recent years, 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.

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