Charlie Chaplin and South East London

Where in South London was Chaplin born and brought up?

RJ Minney wrote a personal account Chaplin, the Immortal Tramp (published by George Newnes, London, 1954) and said that at that time Chaplin used to give little details of his background, apart from saying he was English and was extremely poor in his childhood.

RJ’s book came out 10 years before Charlie’s own autobiography (see below), which put the record straight on many matters.

According to RJ, although many towns and districts claimed to be Charlie’s birthplace, “It was not Kennington, which has been so widely accepted, not Clapham nor Balham, but Bermondsey”.

Charlie’s ancestry includes French, Jewish and English and he was born 16 April 1889. His father was an singer called Charles Chaplin and his mother a dancer called Hannah Hill, with a stage name of Lily Harley. She already had a three-year-old son Sydney by a previous marriage and Charles senior took Sydney under his wing when he married her on 22 June 1885.

For a more detailed account of his birth, see this useful website, Knowledge of London, which states that Charles senior and Hannah lived at 57 Brandon Street, Walworth.

According to his autobiography, Charlie was born in East Street, close to the Walworth Road (he called it “East Lane” as did many other south Londoners, according to one local writer in her blog). The first three years were better, and Hannah was a well-paid backing singer to famous music hall star Leo Dryden.

The relationship broke down as both parents headed in different directions. Dryden and Hannah then lived together. A son called Wheeler Dryden was born and taken by his father from the mentally ill Hannah aged six months. It would take many years before Charlie and Sydney knew they had a half-brother.

Hannah struggled to support the two boys, often falling sick. Charles senior contributed sometimes but also fell sick and became an alcoholic. The two boys were taken to live with him briefly in Kennington Road in 1898, but eventually he was taken to St Thomas Hospital where he died of cirrhosis on 9 May 1901.

Charlie later pointed out the room to a friend: “Do you see that wind, the third from the end.. That’s the window of the room in which my poor father died. I was only a little kid at the time, but I can never forget that night… I stood under that window all night in the cold and darkness, sobbing my heart out waiting for the news I dreaded to hear”.

As Hannah got sicker, she tried to do sewing from her sick bed and sold all except a mattress which by law they had to keep. Sydney used to collect free soup from a church in Waterloo Road, which the brother ate sitting on the floor with their mother. “They have told me that no soup, not even in the de luxe restaurants of the world, has ever tasted so good”, wrote RJ.

They also told him how laughter abounded in their tiny attic room, and she would tell them of her adventures. Charlie said: “She was the most astounding mimic I ever saw. She would stay by the window for hours, gazing at the street and reproducing with her hands, eyes and expression all that was going on down there, and never stopped”.

Charlie was singing and performing outside South London pubs at age four with his elder brother. On Sunday nights many of the pubs filled with music-hall stars, who praised his performances and gave him money.

The boys performed in the streets of Kennington and Lambeth, and their mother had patched their clothes with her own stage clothes, leading to a lot of teasing from other boys. In 1896 Charlie, Syd and their mum were admitted to the Newington workhouse in Walworth Road, according to a workhouses website.

Charlie was, a well-known worldwide star by his early 20s, carried on the worldwide flood of influence of silent films, which overcame language and other barriers like nothing before it. He called his mother to Hollywood.

RJ was friends with Charlie Chaplin and his brother Sydney in Hollywood. It is likely they were introduced through Wheeler Dryden. RJ became a friend when Wheeler touring India and the Far East as a Vaudeville comedian and he was witness to the marriage of RJ and Edith Fox at St Paul’s Cathedral Calcutta in 1918.

RJ Minney with Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard at Hollywood Bowl 1934, from RJ’s book “Hollywood by Starlight”.

Wheeler had learned he was Charlie’s half-brother in 1915. In 1918 he moved to join the Chaplin Brothers in the USA and then worked with them, according to his Wikipedia entry, and they were also united with their mother Hannah.

RJ says his intention in his book was not to write a biography, as there were many, but “a close-up of the man, his outlook, his very complex personality and his artistry.”


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