Charlie’s London: Lambeth workhouse
This is a guest post for Silent London by Ayşe Behçet
Hi everyone, again thank you for taking time out to read this instalment of Charlie’s London. This segment is going to look at the importance of family with the backdrop of the Lambeth Workhouse. Events that transpired behind the walls of that Victorian institution would change Charlie’s life; but it also holds some personal significance for me too.
I thought long and hard about how to start this piece. The answer to my prayers came in the form of my three-year-old godson Jayden, whose mannerisms and speech are so precociously adult-like you can imagine him starring in The Kid. Jayden is my cousin Em’s little boy, I was there when he was born and have never lived more than three doors away from his mother my entire life. Jay waltzed into my bedroom one afternoon after playing in our joint garden (Em’s parents live next door to us) and pointed at my wall.
“What’s that, Ayşe?” He was referring my two framed Chaplin film posters, one of The Kid and one of The Gold Rush. When I explained to him that they were posters from films made by a very funny man called Charlie Chaplin, Jayden was intrigued.
“Can we watch him?” Well! I don’t need an excuse, so I reached for one of my DVDs.
We snuggled up on the sofa to watch The Kid (I choose this one because I felt Jay could really identify with little Jackie Coogan, both cheeky and comical). I was right; Jayden loved it! He giggled and squealed at every comedy moment, until the scene when the Kid is ripped away from the Tramp. It disturbed him, you could see in his little face the terror and torment; the fear that someone could do that to him, and he would no longer see his mother and father. I have to confess, Coogan’s lips moving to the words “I want my daddy” always causes a lump in my throat. Of course, when the Tramp rescues the boy from the moving orphanage van and holds him the way only a father can, I assured Jay that all little boys have their parents in the end, if they are good little boys.
After he had gone home I sat thinking about the film. Jayden’s reaction had hit a nerve with me that I needed to explore.
Chaplin never hid the fact that he cared about human suffering, and it has been suggested the world over that his own poor upbringing left him with emotional scars. If my godson at three felt moved and distressed at he sight of this in a film, what must a young Chaplin have felt? His whole world, mother and Syd ripped apart from him by a system that was designed to protect but ultimately hindered the welfare of the poorer classes and their children. Initially, a frightened seven-year-old Chaplin, his mother Hannah and brother Sydney went of their own accord to the Lambeth workhouse, once known as the Newington Workhouse because of its location (just off Newington Butts in Lambeth). This was largely because of their mother, who struggled to cope with the financial difficulties the family had to endure. Once the family were admitted their clothes were removed and their heads were shaved; can you imagine the humiliation? I have to be honest: I think Hannah’s decision to admit her sons rather than show defeat actually showed love and strength. She admitted to herself they deserved better, what more can a mother who loves her sons do?
Hannah Chaplin’s breakdown and the family’s arrival at Lambeth Workhouse happened in 1896. By June that same year the two boys were removed from their mother, which caused Chaplin much distress, and sent to Central London District School at Hanwell in west London. The journey seemed like a holiday to the young brothers, who travelled to their new home by horse-drawn bakery van. However, when they arrived, they spent time in an “approbation” ward where Chaplin was separated from his beloved brother and placed in the infants section of the school. Chaplin remembered in his Autobiography many years later how the older girls would bathe the younger boys, recounting in particular the cold and wet all-over flannel wash he received from a fourteen-year-old.
If you have read these blogs before you will know I’ve mentioned my great-grandmother Nanny Harris before. Her daughter Esther, my nan’s sister whom I always lovingly referred to as Auntie Etty, was born in a Lambeth workhouse. My nan’s brother, my uncle Fred, was also born in one too. Family story leads us to believe my great-grandmother literally sat upon the steps of the workhouse each time her waters broke and told them to take her in: “Or I am going to have this bleeding baby in the street.”
What’s more, a family mystery could tie us directly to Chaplin – and we didn’t realise it for many years.
There is a famous picture of Chaplin, huddled against a group of small boys, his seven-year-old face looking at the camera with the same cheeky grin that would later make him a worldwide star. Two rows back is a small boy, his jawline is strong and his face familiar, this boy we believe is the brother of my great-grandmother, who, if records are to be believed was in the Lambeth Workhouse the same time as Chaplin. Unfortunately no other photo of him exists as an adult, no photos of my great-grandmother survive either, so it really is a family mystery that will never be solved. The family would again later return to this building but thankfully in better circumstances.
In the 1960s my mother volunteered at the building when it was still a hospital and institution within the borough, she probably stood in the chapel area, famously linked to the Chaplin family, and never realised the connection that her own daughter would later write about. Now, of course, the workhouse has become the Cinema Museum. Recently it was my turn to return there, to meet David Robinson, a hero I have been reading from the age of 11, for a fantastic presentation on Chaplin, my ultimate hero – I came full circle!