Charlie’s London: No 3 Pownall Terrace

Charlie Chaplin
‘Humour and courage saved Lambeth’ … Charlie Chaplin

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

Where can I start? First I want to talk to you about an exciting Charlie’s London adventure I am having in the next two weeks! From the 23rd to 30th June 2012 Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy will be showing some amazing silent film gems including a night of Chaplin’s Mutual films accompanied by new scores by Neil Brand, written especially for the festival. And I will be there! I squealed like a child after too much sweet consumption when I heard this, I can assure you.

For me this trip will be a very personal and important journey, one that I hope will enrich my knowledge of Chaplin. I will have the fantastic opportunity of visiting the Chaplin Archives there, a first for me and a very daunting and happy prospect too. Hopefully while I am there I can find some items of interest for all you lovely Charlie’s London readers.

In today’s instalment I want to talk to you about one of Charlie’s homes that I missed out a few episodes back and promised I would return to: No 3 Pownall Terrace, Kennington Road. Why is this house so important to the Chaplin story? It seems to be the one mentioned the most in all his works and definitely the one that seems to have had the most impact on him.  Chaplin recounts in My Autobiography walking the “rickety stairs” to the rooms he shared with his mother and Sydney; how the rooms always smelt of slop and wet clothes; how from the windows he could see the glamour of the wealthy music hall acts, their finery and jewels. Their room was less than 12ft square and if poor Hannah’s mental health was failing then the room would suffer too, becoming cluttered with messy cups and plates. Often Chaplin would come home from school, empty the slop bucket and run along to his friend Wally, a son of a friend of his mother from her theatrical days. Wally seems to have made a happy playmate for Charlie while Sydney was away at sea, a period that seems to have added to his mother’s worries.

Video: Chaplin returns to London in 1952

Chaplin ultimately reflects on Pownall Terrace as the pinnacle of his poverty, the moment in his life by which he measures the desperation of his family’s plight. It is also the only one of Charlie’s former homes that no longer exists. It was demolished in the 1960s. The story goes that Chaplin tried to buy it, but it was already scheduled for demolition, which upset him greatly.

Reading about Pownall Terrace in Chaplin’s My Autobiography gave me an insight into his views on poverty. He didn’t measure it by money or even material objects, he measured it by the very fundamental basics a family have, and how they can improve their lives with just enough to achieve them. An example of this is family meal together. He comments that even the poorest of society sat down and shared a family meal on a Sunday. To Chaplin, the warmth of a Sunday roast meant respectability and decency, the sort of decency that only civilised family life could bring.

Ayse's grandmother in 1943
Ayse’s grandmother in 1943

Reading this led me to think again about my own grandmother and the striking similarities between their outlooks on such things. My great-grandmother Nanny Harris never really cooked much, preferring her meals of the liquid variety. Her antics seemed to have scarred my nan, whose culinary delights are still talked about to this day. My nan was a stickler for Sunday dinner, always believing that it was the backbone of the family.  From an early age Chaplin knew the value of this family ritual; he even scolded his mother for her refusal to cook on Sunday, sending him down to the local coffee shop for a halfpenny dinner instead. This meal consisted of meat and two vegetables and, Hannah claimed, cost less than it would to prepare the same at home. One hundred years later and many families are still having the same argument.

Pownall Terrace had a strange importance for the young Chaplin. He moved in and out of that house many times, often in between the most traumatic events of his life. Just before his father’s death they had left the premises, only to return shortly after. Then on his return one afternoon to the small garret he was met by a group of local children who declared that his mother had indeed lost her mind. It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the young Chaplin at times like these. The sad fact is that squalid living conditions and childhoods lost to poverty are not just something that happened in the past. They are unfortunately present in today’s society and Chaplin still speaks for generations, decades after his death. To me, Chaplin speaks volumes, but it’s not through his films or his works that I hear him the loudest, it was something I stumbled across by accident. It was a speech he gave on the radio during the second world war on 7 March 1943, a speech given to the people of London, in fact the residents of his very own Lambeth.

“Now they tell me Pownall Terrace is in ruins, blasted out of existence by ‘the blitz’. I remember the Lambeth streets, the New Cut and the Lambeth Walk, Vauxhall Road. They were hard streets and one couldn’t say they were paved with gold. But nevertheless the people are made of pretty good metal. And all through your days of trials I was thinking of you, your poverty, your unbeatable courage and your humour. That humour and courage saved Lambeth. They helped to save London; they will save the world.”

A typed manuscript of Chaplin's 1943 radio address
A typed manuscript of Chaplin’s 1943 radio address

I remember reading this through a pane of glass in the London Film Museum and I froze. I too know those streets, having spent many a Saturday afternoon down the Cut myself. I had heard stories of the community coming together during the blitz, my own grandfather a Metropolitan Police reserve who fire-watched over the London docks. In 1944 he gained a police commendation for stopping a runaway horse hitting a passing couple and a pram after smoking incendiary device had gone off near Borough Market. Chaplin spoke to the whole world through his films. Yet in its moment of need Charlie spoke to Lambeth; his Lambeth. The lambeth he still called home and Pownall Terrace that had moulded him. He spoke to everyone who would listen, and this is the Chaplin that I look up to with so much admiration. But with an immense sense of pride, I can honestly say with all my heart he spoke to my Lambeth too.

Ayşe Behçet

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