Chaplin’s colourful childhood documented

BFIBy Paul Campbell

A young and desperate Charlie Chaplin planted a row of pennies in a Southwark field, hoping to grow enough money to feed his poor family, according to a new book released this week.

The Oscar winner’s colourful childhood and struggle for survival in 1890s Southwark is detailed in Charlie Chaplin’s South London, a new biography by local academic Alan Parkinson.

Parkinson, Head of Education at London South Bank University, has researched the book for the past year, as part of an extensive project to celebrate the little tramp’s genius.

“It was fascinating to write”, said Parkinson. “Chaplin was the first global icon of entertainment, and his life before Hollywood was just as intricate and interesting”.

How the star was born

Chaplin grew up in poverty stricken Walworth, but his was not a typical rags to riches tale. “It is difficult to pinpoint him class-wise”, says Parkinson.

“His father was a musical star earning £40 a week – the equivalent of today’s Premiership footballers’ wages. But when his dad hit the drink, the family became desperate and impoverished.” His father’s alcoholism and his mother’s mental illness left the family destitute. Chaplin and his elder brother Sydney were forced to the workhouse in Kennington, a building now used as a cinema. Chaplin was even at work at his father’s funeral, selling flowers to mourners.

Parkinson’s book tells the fascinating story of Chaplin’s first public performance. His mother, a fading star on the local music scene, was jeered off the stage at the Aldershot Theatre, when her voice failed because of a larynx condition. The desperate stage manager put five-year-old Chaplin on the stage. He sang and danced for the baying crowd, to the sound of rapturous applause. A star was born.

The origins of ‘The Tramp’

Charlie and his friends sang and danced on the streets of south London, busking for small change. The area and its characters influenced Charlie’s career as a Hollywood superstar.

The Tramp, Chaplin’s most iconic and celebrated character, was based on a man who used to tie up horses outside his uncle’s pub, The Queen’s Head. The Kennington pub, like many of the landmarks that shaped Chaplin’s life, still stands today.

Chaplin left London in 1910 to become the world’s first cinematic superstar. “His rise to fame was meteoric”, says Parkinson. “He had the right skills, at the right place, at the right time”.

Charlie Chaplin’s South London (Quality School Brochures) can be found in good local bookshops, and through London South Bank University’s education department.


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