Charlie Chaplin – Early Life
Exclusive extract from David Robinson’s new biography
This year Slapstick Festival’s Comedy Gala returns bigger and better than ever with a spotlight on the 1921 Chaplin masterpiece the Kid.
Many of Chaplin’s admirers regard The Kid as his most beautiful and most personal film. In honour of this year’s screening over the coming weeks we’ll be looking at the heartache that inspired this beloved classic. As a special treat, we’ve got our hands on extracts from David Robinson’s biography of Chaplin.
Patron and filmhistorian, David Robinson, is a renowned film critic and scholar, whose books Hollywood in the Twenties (1968), The History of World Cinema (1973) and official biographies of both Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin have been critically acclaimed. We’ll be serialising parts from David Robinson’s biography of Chaplin, which looks in greater depth than ever before at Chaplin’s humble beginnings and the events in his life that motivated his work.
For those who have never delved into the history of silent comedy, Chaplin’s life started with great upheaval. He was born in 1889 to Hannah Chaplin and Charles Chaplin, Senior. Both his parents were music hall entertainers, but sadly never achieved fame. The temptations of the music halls meant both Charlie’s parents were distracted and often unable to take care of him. His parents married, but separated when Charlie was small.
His mother Hannah, suffered with mental illness most likely brought on by syphilis. Accepting this was incredibly difficult for Charlie, who often tried to be by her side as much as he could until her death in 1928. Charlie and his stepbrothers George and Sydney had to fend for themselves from an early age, and all had to suffer the hardships of workhouses when Hannah could not take care of them. By the age of nine Charlie had been sent to a workhouse twice. The workhouses were harsh places, effectively a prison for the poor. Despite all this Charlie was a resilient and plucky child, who remained determined and lively even given all the hardships he faced. Coping in London as two young boys, with no parents and little guidance, must have been terrifying. Born from his turbulent childhood, , The Kid shows some of the loneliness and desperation Chaplin must have felt, at this difficult time in his life.
Extract one : A london Boyhood
The Early life of Charlie chaplin
The career of Charles Chaplin Senior [Charlie Chaplin’s father] had a slower start than Hannah’s [his mother] but a more promising progression. At first he worked as a mimic, but soon developed into what was called a ‘dramatic and descriptive singer’ exerting a strong attraction upon his audiences. Chaplin described him as a quiet, brooding man with dark eyes, and said that Hannah thought he looked like Napoleon. The portraits that appear on the sheet music of his song successes show him with dark eyes that seem somewhat melancholy despite the broad prop grin.
Drink was the endemic disease of the music halls. They had evolved from drinking establishments and the sale of liquor still made up an important part of the managers’ incomes. When they were not on stage the artists were expected to mingle with the audiences in the bars, to encourage conviviality and consumption – which inevitably was best achieved by example. Poor Chaplin was only one of many who succumbed to alcoholism as an occupational hazard.
In 1890, however, he was still leaping from success to success. In the summer he was invited to sign for an American tour, and in August and September was appearing in New York at the Union Square Theatre. The American trip, however, seems to have marked the final break-up of the Chaplins’ marriage. Hannah had given birth to Leo Dryden’s son, George Dryden Wheeler. Thus the young Charles Chaplin found himself fatherless, but with another half-brother. He was three and a half; Sydney was four years older. In his autobiography he recalls that at this time the children and their mother were still living in some affluence. However the comfort which sheltered Chaplin’s first three or four years was soon to end. Hannah’s liaison with Leo did not long survive the birth of their child. Hannah seems to have been a devoted, affectionate and protective mother, and to have loved the new baby as fiercely as she did her older sons. It is easy then to appreciate the shock that she must have suffered in the spring of 1893 when the appalling Dryden entered her lodgings and snatched away their six-month-old son. The baby was to vanish from the lives of the Chaplins for almost thirty years.
Soon after Charlie’s sixth birthday, the family’s situation reached a new crisis. Hannah became ill – it is not certain with what, but Chaplin recalls that she suffered from acute headaches. On 29 June she was admitted to the Lambeth Infirmary, where she .stayed until the end of July. On 1 July Sydney was taken into Lambeth Workhouse, and four days later placed in the West Norwood Schools, which accommodated the infant poor of Lambeth.
In September Hannah was again taken into the Infirmary, and Sydney and Charlie, now eleven and seven, were admitted to the workhouse, ‘owing to the absence of their father and the destitution and illness of their mother’’. Charles Chaplin Senior was traced and reluctantly appeared before the District Relief Committee. Somewhat heartlessly, he told them that while he was willing to take Charlie, he would not accept responsibility for Sydney, who was born illegitimate.
The Committee retorted that since Chaplin had married the boy’s mother, he was now legally liable for Sydney’s maintenance. At this stage, however, Hannah intervened to reject the idea of the boys living with their father as wholly repugnant, since he was living with another woman. Charles was not slow to point out her own adultery. No doubt somewhat bewildered by the family bickering, the Relief Committee decided that it was desirable to keep the boys together and that the best solution would be to place them in the Central London District Poor Law School at Hanwell.
From his incredible hardship in his earlier years to the famous persona we all know today as the iconic Chaplin; Chaplin’s dramatic ‘rags to riches’ story is an extraordinary tale of determination and ambition. In our next series of blogs, we’ll be exploring Chaplin’s later years looking at howhe attracted attention as a young performer, and track the route he took to stardom in America.
 The Era, August 1890.
 Glenn Mitchell, op.cit. cites an intriguing ‘personal ad’ in The Entr’acte of 29 January 1887: ‘To Charles Chaplin – send address to “L.H.”, 56 Darwin Street, Old Kent Road, Very ill’. If ‘L.H.’ was Hannah, it may be that the irregularities of the Chaplin marriage had begun before the birth of Charles Junior
 Renfrew Road (Lambeth) Workhouse Register, GLC Archives.
 Southwark Workhouse Register, GLC Archives