Willy Clarkson (1861 to 12th October 1934)


Here I am on Wardour Street in Soho. In the 19th century if you were an actor, performer or member of the aristocracy you'd probably stroll down this street to buy one of Willy’s wigs or costumes. He was famous for his skill and craftsmanship but he’s also famous for creating disguises for murderers Dr Crippen and Jack the Ripper. In some books he’s put forward a suspect in the 1888 White Chapel Murders attributed to serial killer "Jack the Ripper." Oddly he made disguises for detectives from Scotland Yard.


Wigs were the family business and he took over his dad’s business when he was 17 years old. Despite being once fined for employing women in a factory on a Sunday (due to a busy pantomime season) the business was blazing success and most big productions in London used his costumes and wigs. He even supplied them for Queen Victoria's family and inner circle. His dad had made wigs for the legal profession but Willy had some showrooms here that showcased his flamboyant designs.


He was probably homosexual and used to go “cottaging” (think George Michael) - looking for some bum around public toilets resembling small cottages. There was a public “cottage” in Dansey Place in Soho and Willy hung around it so often it was tagged “Clarkson's Cottage.” Until he was 25 hanging around toilets was a criminal act (the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 changed this.)


He died aged 72/3 but nobody knows what the cause was. The circumstances of his death justified an autopsy by the prominent pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury but nothing unusual was found. He left most of his estate to a long-term friend and blackmailer called William Hobbs (probably a secret boyfriend). He didn’t inherit the estate though when it was found he'd forged the will to his favour (the estate went to a stage magician named in an official Will.)


While passing though Soho I had to take a look at the blue plaque. Protruding from the wall is a hefty clock still advertising the premises as a Costumer and Perruquier (posh word for a wig-maker.) Currently it's a Chinese restaurant where the staff are reputedly the rudest in London though once there was a famously flamboyant frontage here. I doubt Willy was a contender for the Jack The Ripper who slashed five people to death and was never caught. The only link was that one of his wigs was found near the fourth victim. Nice story though Willy supplied thousands of wigs across the country. I did a salute and left.


There’s a short film about Willy here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_2mEYyFGZ0














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