Charlie Chaplin the Early Years

Charlie Chaplin was born on 16 April 1889, in East Street, Walworth, London. His parents were both entertainers in the music hall tradition; his father being a vocalist and an actor and his mother, a singer and an actress. They separated before athavan Charlie was three. He learned singing from his parents. The 1891 census shows that his mother, the actress Hannah Hill, lived with Charlie and his older brother Sydney on Barlow Street, Walworth. As a child, Charlie also lived with his mother in various addresses in and around Kennington Road in Lambeth, including 3 Pownall Terrace, Chester Street and 39 Methley Street. His maternal grandmother was half-Rom, a fact of which he was extremely proud, but also described as “the skeleton in our family cupboard”.  Chaplin’s father, Charles Chaplin, Sr., was an alcoholic and had little contact with his son, though Chaplin and his brother briefly lived with their father and his mistress, Louise, at 287 Kennington Road where a plaque now commemorates the fact. The brothers lived there while their mentally ill mother resided at Cane Hill Asylum at Coulsdon. Chaplin’s father’s mistress sent the boy to Kennington Road School. His father died of alcoholism when Charlie was twelve in 1901. As of the 1901 Census, Charles resided at 94 Ferndale Road, Lambeth, with The Eight Lancashire Lads, led by John William Jackson (the 17 year old son of one of the founders).

A larynx condition ended the singing career of Chaplin’s mother. Hannah’s first crisis came in 1894 when she was performing at The Canteen, a theatre in Aldershot. The theatre was mainly frequented by rioters and soldiers. Hannah was badly injured by the objects the audience threw at her and she was booed off the stage. Backstage, she cried and argued with her manager. Meanwhile, the five-year old Chaplin went on stage alone and sang a well-known tune at that time, “Jack Jones”.

After Chaplin’s mother (who went by the stage name Lily Harley) was again admitted to the Cane Hill Asylum, her son was left in the workhouse at Lambeth in south London, moving after several weeks to the Central London District School for paupers in Hanwell. The young Chaplin brothers forged a close relationship in order to survive. They gravitated to the Music Hall while still very young, and both of them proved to have considerable natural stage talent. Chaplin’s early years of desperate poverty were a great influence on his characters. Themes in his films in later years would re-visit the scenes of his childhood deprivation in Lambeth.

Chaplin’s mother died in 1928 in Hollywood, seven years after having been brought to the U.S. by her sons. Unknown to Charlie and Sydney until years later, they had a half-brother through their mother. The boy, Wheeler Dryden, was raised abroad by his father but later connected with the rest of the family and went to work for Chaplin at his Hollywood studio.

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