Charlie Chaplin may be internationally renowned for his slapstick comedy, but his childhood was far from a gag. Indeed, the vaudeville star's youth was marked by poverty and misery. After his parents separated when he was only 3 years old, his mother, who suffered from mental illness, struggled to provide for her children. And so, over the course of a decade, Chaplin passed in and out of the Lambeth Workhouse, a grim institution that offered shelter to London’s destitute.
Chaplin’s Lambeth years were not happy ones, but as the BBC reports, his descendants believe preserving his legacy there is an important one, and have lent their support to a campaign that seeks to save a museum located in the former workhouse.
The Cinema Museum is devoted to the history of the silver screen, boasting artifacts and memorabilia that date from the 1890s to the present-day. But according to a Change.org petition launched by one of the volunteers who run the museum, the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health services organization that owns the property, plans to sell the workhouse when the museum’s lease expires in March 2018.
The petitioners call the possible eviction of the 19-year-old Cinema Museum akin to "destroying cinema heritage."
Museum volunteers are currently working with Family Mosaic, a housing association, to enter a “competitive bid” for the old workhouse, according to the BBC, but they fear that their offer won’t be enough to keep the property. Their petition, which has been signed by more than 22,800 people, is now calling on the Trust to “find a solution that guarantees not just their sale profits, but also [the museum’s] sustainable future.”
Five members of Chaplin’s family joined in support of preserving the Cinema Museum in an open letter published this week. There, the relations describe the museum as “the nearest thing that Britain has to a Chaplin Museum.”
In a statement, the Trust said that it is obligated “maximize the value” of its properties so it can “invest in front line mental health services,” according to the BBC. But the organization also noted that is “favourably disposed to offers that would support the aims of the Cinema Museum."
As Dalya Alberge reports for the Guardian, Chaplin would later write in his autobiography that he experienced “forlorn bewilderment” when he was separated from his mother upon their arrival at Lambeth in the 1890s. When he was allowed to visit her some days later, she seemed a different woman.
“How well I remember the poignant sadness of that first visiting day: the shock of seeing Mother enter the visiting-room garbed in workhouse clothes,” he wrote. “In one week, she had aged and grown thin, but her face lit up when she saw us. Sydney [Chaplin’s brother] and I began to weep.”
In 1904, when he was 14 years old, Charlie brought his mother to the workhouse. She was suffering from an “extreme mental disorder,” according to the letter, and was sent off to an asylum. She spent most of her remaining years in psychiatric care.
Chaplin’s childhood poverty had a profound impact on his work in Hollywood. One of his most enduring characters, the Little Tramp, was a sympathetic outsider who was never flattened by the blows life dealt. As Ann Douglas wrote in a 1998 Time article, the Tramp “was the expression of a wildly sentimental, deeply felt allegiance to rags over riches.”
So while Lambeth “is not a celebratory piece of family history by any means,” as Chaplin’s family members write in their letter, they want to see this formative landmark preserved in the actor’s memory.
“[W]e now recognize that this painful experience did much to mould our father’s unique creative gift,” they write. “It is for this reason that we have been so heartened to see this building transformed into such a vital social and cultural center for the locality and for London, celebrating the art and societal function of cinema.”