In Beautiful Idiots And Brilliant Lunatics; A Sideways Look At Twentieth-Century London, Baker explores fascinating stories from the capital in the 20th century.
Among the curious stories featured is the nostalgic tale of Charlie Chaplin’s London homecoming in 1921, which Baker explores here…
On the morning of 17 September 1921, Charlie Chaplin woke up in his bed at the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly. He could hear children in the street below singing a song over and over again:
“When the moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplin
His boots are cracking, for want of blacking
And his little baggy trousers need mending
Before we send him to the Dardanelles”.
The song, sung to the tune of Red Wing, a popular song of the early 20th century, was not one of Charlie’s favourites, as it had been written in protest at Chaplin not enlisting during the First World War. In March 1916 The Mutual Film Corporation had signed Chaplin at an enormous fee of $10,000 per week with a bonus on signing of $150,000 and the initial publicity boasted that: “Next to the war in Europe Chaplin is the most expensive item in contemporaneous history”. This may have gone down well in America, but in most of Europe, of course, it was a different matter. The Daily Mail soon let its readers know that there was a clause in the Mutual contract that forbade Chaplin to return to Britain during hostilities so as not to risk him being conscripted into the British armed forces. A year later, in June 1917, Lord Northcliffe wrote in an editorial of the Weekly Dispatch:
“Charles Chaplin, although slightly built, is very firm on his feet, as is evidenced by his screen acrobatics. The way he is able to mount stairs suggest the alacrity with which he would go over the top when the whistle blew.”
It was eventually reported that Chaplin had gone to a recruiting office, but at 5 feet 4 inches tall and not more than 126 pounds he was turned down by the doctors for being underweight.
The comedian had returned to London from America in September 1921, mainly to promote his new and first full-length (six-reeler) film called The Kid, which was already a huge success in America and eventually become the second-highest grossing movie of 1921. Much of the success of the film was due to child actor Jackie Coogan’s extraordinary performance as ‘the Kid’. Chaplin, wasn’t alone in realising that the overwhelming response to Jackie was that he symbolised the countless fatherless children left after the recent world war.
A difficult childhood
Chaplin was now an incredibly rich man, but this was in stark contrast to his childhood in Walworth, which had been a desperately poor one. Both his parents, Charles and Hannah Chaplin, were music hall performers, but of no particular talent or fame. In 1891, about 18 months after Charlie was born, Charles Snr left the family home after his wife gave birth to a boy whose father was Leo Dryden – another music hall performer and who would become known as the ‘Kipling of the Halls’ for his patriotic songs. Struggling financially, Hannah Chaplin had a breakdown soon after Charles’s departure, and the following year, along with Charlie and his brother Sydney, entered the Lambeth Workhouse. Within a few weeks, the two boys were sent to Central London District Poor Law School.
Sydney Chaplin, also known as Syd Chaplin, half-brother of Charlie Chaplin, June 1927. (Photo by Sasha/Getty Images)
In 1903, after further breakdowns, Hannah was placed in the Cane Hill Lunatic Asylum in Surrey. Chaplin later wrote in an autobiography about a visit to see her in 1912, just before he left to live in America: “It was a depressing day, for she was not well. She had just got over an obstreperous phase of singing hymns, and had been confined to a padded room. The nurse had warned us of this beforehand. Sydney saw her, but I had not the courage, so I waited. He came back upset, and said that she had been given shock treatment of icy cold showers and that her face was quite blue. That made us decide to put her into a private institution – we could afford it now.” The brothers took their mother from Cane Hill and placed her at Peckham House – a private asylum in south London that cost 30 shillings a week – not an inconsiderable sum in 1912.
Charlie, along with his brother Sydney, brought their mother to California a few months before his trip to England (in 1921). After a particularly harsh and tragic life, Hannah Chaplin was at last being properly looked after in a bungalow near the sea in Los Angeles. She was relatively normal for long periods and would talk to guests about her old music hall days but also the Zeppelin raids on London.
Hannah, who had probably been suffering from the symptoms of Syphilis for more than 20 years, fell seriously ill with an infected gall bladder and was taken to the Physicians’ and Surgeons’ Hospital in Glendale in August 1928. Chaplin had always found visiting his mother difficult but in the last week of her life he visited her every day. During her final hours, not long after nurses had heard them both laughing, Chaplin tried to reassure her she was getting better. Hannah quietly said “perhaps” and then fell unconscious.
A young star
Chaplin had been performing to audiences from the age of five. It was said that he was literally pushed on to a stage during one of his mother’s performances: a tough Aldershot crowd composed mostly of soldiers started jeering when, half way through a song, Charlie’s mother suddenly lost her voice. The young boy started to sing a song made famous the year before by the Coster performer Gus Elen called ’E Dunno Where ’E Are about a Costerman called Jack Jones who had “come into a little bit of splosh” and developed unpleasant airs and graces in front of his old friends.
“Jack Jones is well known to everybody,
Round about the market, don’t yer see
I’ve no fault to find wiv Jack at all
When ’e’s as ’e used to be
But somehow, since ’e’s ’ad the bullion
Left ’e ’as altered for the wust
When I see the way ’e treats old pals
I am filled wiv nothing but disgust
’E sez as ’ow we isn’t class enuf
‘E sez we ain’t upon a par
Wiv ’im just because ’e ’s better off
Won’t smoke a pipe, must take on a cigar”.
Right from the start audiences loved Charlie Chaplin, and the appreciative Aldershot crowd started to throw coins up on the stage. After the five-year-old Charlie declared that the performance would only continue after he had retrieved all the coins, they laughed and threw even more.
Some 26 years later, the train that brought Chaplin back to London from Southampton started to slow down as it approached Waterloo station. He was pleased to spot his Uncle Spencer’s old pub The Queen’s Head on Broad Street (the pub is still there, although the street is now called the Black Prince Road), just past Vauxhall station. When he alighted onto platform 14 at Waterloo Station, just a mile or so away from where he had grown up as a child, he was visibly shocked at the thousands and thousands of people waiting ready to greet him. The Times wrote: “At Waterloo the stage might have been set for the homecoming of Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and Lord Haig rolled into one”.
Chaplin was almost pushed and lifted into a waiting car that then drove to the Ritz on Piccadilly where another adoring crowd was waiting. A tanned smiling Chaplin with dishevelled hair but dressed immaculately in a grey overcoat told the waiting reporters desperate for an interview that he was tired and needed to rest. Not long after, however, he slipped out of the Arlington service entrance at the back of the hotel and on his own took a taxi across Westminster Bridge and directed the driver past Christ Church on Westminster Bridge Road. He was reminded of working as a lather boy at a barbers in Chester Street where the vicar ran a magic lantern ‘gaff’ at Baxter’s Hall next door.
Charlie Chaplin arrives at the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly and is greeted by a horde of ardent admirers, September 1921. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Chaplin once told a friend that the place had special memories for him; “it meant warmth and companionship; it meant adventure and novelty; it meant food… you could get a cup of coffee and a piece of cake there, and see the Crucifixion of Christ all that the same time, and for the modest charge of one penny”.
The taxi then passed the Kennington Baths, the “reason for many a day’s hookey”, where Chaplin had once gone swimming, second class, for three pence (but only if you brought your own swimming trunks).
Soon Chaplin got out of the taxi and walked to Lambeth Walk, an old haunt of his childhood. The fish and chip smell blending with the odour from spluttering naphtha lamps brought back to him many childhood memories. Chaplin noticed by now that his smart, expensive clothing had made him conspicuous. Some people had noticed him and although at a respectful distance of five yards or so, a growing crowd had begun to follow. He asked a policeman for help, who reassured him, “That’s alright, Charlie. These people won’t hurt you. They are the best people in the world”. While the policeman was hailing a cab the crowd started to surround him; “Hello Charlie!”; “God bless you, Charlie!”; “Good luck to you, lad!”
The hailed taxi took him away past Kennington Gate towards Brixton Road where he saw Glenshore Mansions, where he had lived at the beginning of his prosperity. He asked the taxi to pull up at the Horns Tavern, where he drank a ginger beer for old times’ sake. But Chaplin was soon recognised again and he rushed back into his taxi. On the way back to the Ritz it took him past Kennington Cross where, as a young lad, he remembered hearing a harmonica and clarinet play The Honeysuckle and the Bee, which introduced to him for the first time “what melody really was. My first awakening to music”. He had learned the words to the song the very next day, so in love was he with the tune.
“You are my honey, honeysuckle, I am the bee,
I’d like to sip the honey sweet, from those red lips, you see
I love you dearly, dearly, And I want you to love me,
You are my honey, honeysuckle, I am the bee.”
A few days after his taxi tour, following a meal at the Embassy Club on Old Bond Street, Chaplin, in the company of a few friends, decided to take another trip to south London. Although it was after 10pm he decided to visit 3 Pownall Terrace in Kennington (the street was demolished in 1968) where he had lived in a little room at the top of the house.
The house was now occupied by a Mrs Reynolds. “Were you asleep?” Chaplin asked. The old war widow replied that she’d been awake listening to the newsboys out in street shouting the result of the British Heavyweight boxing contest that evening (Noel ‘Boy’ McCormick lost to Joseph ‘Joe’ Beckett at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden). “Many’s the time I’ve banged my head on that sloping ceiling,” Chaplin said to her after she had taken him to see his old room, “and got thrashed for it”. Carlyle Robinson, described as Chaplin’s manager by the Daily Mirror, told the newspaper in an interview in 1921 that the attic scenes in The Kid were based on a replica of that room in Charlie’s old ‘diggings’ in Kennington.
A poster for Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 comedy ‘The Kid’. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)
Back at the Ritz, on the morning of 17 September 1921, Chaplin got dressed and walked into the sitting room of his suite to meet some young visitors from Hoxton School. By 1921 the song they had been singing (The Moon Shines Bright on Charlie Chaplin) had lost its original connotations, or at least it had to the group of 50 excited children that had walked across London to see him. One boy, called Charles Loughton, stepped forward and handed him a box of cigars and a letter. It read: “You were one of us. You are now famous over the world. But we like to think you were once a poor boy in London as we are. You are now a gentleman, and all gentlemen smoke cigars. So we have chosen a box as a little gift to ‘Our Charlie’”. Then a young girl, Lettie Westbrook, aged 13, gave Charlie a bouquet with a note saying, “with our thanks for all the fun you give to us”.
After Chaplin had given each child a packet of sweets he impersonated an old man in a picture gallery. By a skillful use of his overcoat, hat and stick he appeared to grow gradually to a height of some nine feet in order to look at the highest pictures, and the children screamed with laughter.
Three weeks after Chaplin met the boys and girls from Hoxton School, and after a weekend spent with HG Wells and his family, Charlie left London, via Waterloo, for New York on the RMS Olympic.
Rob Baker is the author of Beautiful Idiots And Brilliant Lunatics; A Sideways Look At Twentieth-Century London (Amberley Publishing, 2015).