Charlie Chaplin’s life was like right out of the movies, as he experienced a true rag-to-riches story wherein he came from nothing and had almost everything that he wanted at the end of his career as an actor, director, and writer. In this article, we will focus on the childhood of Charlie Chaplin and see the various moments of his pubescent life that pushed him to become one of the greatest artists in film history.
Birth and Early Life
Charles Spencer Chaplin, otherwise known for his stage name Charlie Chaplin, was born in an unknown location in England on April 16, 1889. There were no official records that state where Chaplin was truly born, but the actor believes that he was born at East Street, Walworth, which is located in South London. His father was Charles Chaplin Sr., a music hall entertainer, and her mother was Hannah Harriet Pedlingham Hill, who was an actress, dancer, and singer.
Hannah Hill already had a son named Sydney John Hill before marrying Chaplin Sr., and after four years of marriage, she has given birth to Charlie. When he was born, both of his parents were still working as music hall entertainers around London. The relationship between Hill and Chaplin Sr. eventually soured, and it led to them being separated, although not officially divorce, in 1891.
The next year after the couple separated, Hill had a relationship with another music hall entertainer named Leo Dryden, and she gave birth to his son George Dryden Wheeler Jr. in the same year. Although Charles and George were only three years apart in terms of age, Charles never got to meet George until he was already in his 30s, mainly due to the fact that Leo Dryden took George away from his mother in 1893.
When Charles was growing up, his father provided no financial support for the family, leaving Hannah Hill to fend for her own and for her children. During this time, Hill has already given up performing in music halls due to losing her voice while performing in Aldershot. In order to keep the show going, she asked her son Charles to sing for her.
After the loss of her voice, she began working as a dressmaker at home. Charlie Chaplin once stated that she was very happy to be able to stay at home to take care of her children, and she would often sing and perform in front of them for entertainment. However, what Charlie didn’t know at that time was that Hill was constantly suffering from severe headaches. When the headaches were at their worst, Hill was admitted to the Lambeth Infirmary on June 29, 1895, and although her health got better for a few months after leaving the infirmary, she got readmitted since the headaches wouldn’t stop. With no one to take care of them, both Charlie and Sydney were sent to an orphanage.
According to the records on the infirmary, it is revealed that Hannah Hill had syphilis, which caused her to not only suffer from headaches but to act wildly and violently as well.
At the Orphanage
At the age of seven years old, Charlie Chaplin was sent to work at the Lambeth Workhouse in order to help her mother get through financial difficulties. Both Charlie and Sydney were also given to the Central London District School, which was a large caring facility for children born into poverty-stricken families. Charlie stated that his time at the school was sad and lonely.
After 18 months at the school, Charlie was able to be with his mother again, but it was only for a brief period of time since Hill will once again be admitted to the infirmary. Charlie and Sydney were then moved to Norwood Schools.
Time with His Father
Hannah Hill was transferred to the Cane Hill Mental Asylum in September 1898 due to her worsening health condition. Charlie Chaplin Sr., who the boys barely knew since he abandoned them when they were little, then took care of Sydney and Charlie for two months.
Chaplin Sr. was cruel to his children, and it got so severe that Chaplin Sr. was visited by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty on Children to reprimand him for his violent actions against Charlie and Sydney. After the visit, it was believed that both Charlie and Sydney both went their separate ways to pursue different goals in life, with Charlie deciding to take care of his mother and visit her every once in a while until her death in 1928.
The Start of Charlie’s Performing Career
When Charlie was nine years old, he was encouraged by her mother to become a music hall performer after seeing his potential while serving as a back-up singer for her at Aldershot. Chaplin then became part of The Eight Lancashire Lads, a group of young men who perform dances while wearing clogs that produce percussive sounds. He performed as a member of the troupe from 1899 to 1900 but gave up dancing to pursue a comedy acting career.
At the age of 14, he signed up as an actor for an unknown theatrical agency in the West End of London. Seeing that he has the talent to act, the manager of the agency assigned him to his first-ever role, which was as a newsboy for “Jim, a Romance of Cockayne,” a play by Harry Arthur Saintsbury. The show flopped right from its first show in July 1903 until the last show two weeks later. Even though the play did not turn out to be successful, many critics and audience members praised Chaplin for his acting skills.
Upon noticing that Chaplin has the potential to become big in the industry, Saintsbury gave the boy a chance to play as the pageboy in the popular Sherlock Holmes production created by Charles Frohman. By acting in the production, Chaplin was able to participate in three nationwide tours. Because of his great acting chops, he was recommended by the agency to play as the pageboy again alongside William Gillette, who was the most popular actor to play Sherlock Holmes during that time.
After more than two years, Charlie Chaplin moved on from the role in 1906 when the last tour of Sherlock Holmes ended, and from then on, he will start to pursue a career as a film actor and director.