Charlie’s London: falling in and out of love with Chaplin

Ayse in West Square
Ayşe in West Square

This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.

Thanks again for returning to Charlie’s London with me. First, I want to wish Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin a very happy 123rd birthday! It really is a coincidence that my latest blogpost falls on the anniversary of his birthday, but hopefully it’s a very good blessing.

Today I’m going to be looking at some of the houses in and around Lambeth that Chaplin lived in, and some of those in the same area that my family have called home, too. Unfortunately I can’t say I have ever lived in a house that he graced, but who knows what may happen in the future?

Family was very important to Chaplin, just as it is to me. He entrusted much of his business to Sydney Chaplin, his half-brother who acted wisely on Charlie’s behalf. He was also incredibly close to his mother Hannah, whom he idolised. Contrary to popular belief, he even had a relationship with his father – when he was around. Chaplin spoke fondly of his first meeting with his father during that period in his autobiography.

“The prospect of living with Father was exciting. I had seen him only twice in my life, on stage, and once passing a house in Kennington Road, as he was coming down the path with a lady. I had paused and watched him, knowing instinctively he was my father. He beckoned me to him and asked my name. Sensing the drama of the situation, I had feigned innocence and said ‘Charlie Chaplin’. Then he glanced knowingly at the lady, felt his pocket and gave me half a crown, and without further ado I ran straight home and told Mother that I had met my father.” (Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, quote reprinted courtesy of the archives of Roy Export Company Establishment)

Family continued to be important to Chaplin throughout his life, and as you may have realised, I too am very devoted to my own family. The fond memories I have of my own grandmother will never leave me. This is why this personal journey, walking the streets of South London reminiscing, has been a wonderful and emotional experience for me. My grandmother Florence Boakes died on 12 May 1997, and from that time on, it became very painful for me to watch the great silent films, such as Chaplin’s, that we had enjoyed together. If the films were on television or I came across one of our old videos, it was too painful to watch without her there. I had bought her a Chaplin tile on a stand when I went to Hastings for a school trip, and that had to be kept out of sight too.

Ayse and Kieran
Ayşe and Kieran

So what brought me back to Chaplin? In short, my husband-to-be Kieran, and our first date almost 12 years later. We had agreed to meet in a Starbucks in Charing Cross and he was early, which is nothing new. When I arrived I was nervous as we had only met a handful of times before. As he was reading a book, that the topic of conversation we used to break the ice.

“It’s about Buster Keaton, I’m a big silent film fan,” he confessed. I smiled as he showed me the front cover and I handed it back to him.

“I grew up watching Chaplin, I was a Chaplin fan,” I answered. He smiled back.

“Silent films never leave you, you’re still a Chaplin fan.”

Of course, he was right. Our next date involved a bottle of wine, some very good food and The Kid, which at first I was worried about watching. For the first time in years I watched the Tramp and I smiled – then I realised my love affair with Chaplin was very much back on. In January 2011 I found myself watching The Gold Rush with Carl Davis conducting the London Philharmonia orchestra, a wonderful Christmas present from Kieran. And this year he took me to the Slapstick festival – anyone who knows me knows how that has changed my life!

Mum was really happy I’d found Chaplin again, so when I decided to start writing this blog the three of us spent a day wandering around, taking pictures of all the sights involved.

We walked from Waterloo towards the Imperial War Museum and down Lambeth Road, cutting down George Road to find West Square. Children were playing in a communal garden; it really is the most beautiful little piece of London. Mum told me my great uncle Fred had a friend who lived in West Square and they would also play around there as children. In his autobiography, Chaplin remembers the family’s time in West Square as being “moderately comfortable; we lived in three tastefully furnished rooms”. The square itself was built in 1791 and you can see it was considered a plush place to live.

Ayse at 39 Methley Street
Ayşe at 39 West Square, where the Chaplins had ‘three tastefully furnished rooms’

Coming back towards the Imperial War Museum, cutting down Kennington Road, we found ourselves at 287 Kennington Road. This was the home Charlie and Syd shared with their father in 1898. Their mother Hannah was unable to support the family and was institutionalised in Cane Hill Asylum, so Charles Chaplin Senior had care of the two boys instead, along with his very reluctant mistress Louise. What a relief it must have been when their mother finally sent for them. Outside 287 Kennington Road now is a plaque, privately paid for and dedicated to Charlie, reminding passersby that he once lived here. Apparently, the door number is in itself under dispute and even the plaque unfortunately is incorrect. It says that Charlie died in 1978 when he actually died on Christmas Day 1977.

We decided to head back towards the Walworth Road. Getting off the tube at Elephant and Castle we walked to the Walworth Road and of course we couldn’t resist stopping for some pie and mash. I had double of everything and claimed it all as research! Crossing the road we headed down towards Methley Street, another residence for the young Chaplin. No 39 Methley Street was Chaplin’s home between 1898 and 1899. It might look nice now but back then it was a desperate residence with the surrounding area consisting of pickle factories and slaughterhouses.

Looking around this area it is easy to see where Chaplin’s inspirations for films such as The Kid actually came from. To this day, Lambeth is littered with old Victorian streets and houses only recently made fashionable and picturesque. There is a plaque on Methley Street dedicated to Charlie, this time with correct dates, also acknowledging that he was a Water Rat. A Water Rat was a name given to a member of an acting guild who, if in times of hardship could go to the Grand Order of the Water Rats and seek refuge and help. Stan Laurel was a Water Rat too. It is when they were living at Methley Street Hannah began to sew again and for a while they seem to have been quite happy, until her health took a turn for the worse again and she had to send her sewing machine and various garments to the pawnshop to make the rent. Without her sewing machine she could not work, which plunged the little family into further chaos. Charlie would later use a pawnbroker as the backdrop of one of his 1916 films The Pawnshop.

We headed home at this point, and yes, you’ll notice that I haven’t covered the famous Pownall Terrace, the most famous of Charlie’s homes in Lambeth. There is a reason for this, and all will be revealed in a future instalment!

Thanks for reading everyone, and I hope you’ll join me again for next instalment of Charlie’s London in two weeks’ time.

Ayşe Behçet

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