The entrance to the Lambeth workhouse complex Chaplin suffered through as a child. Inmates were checked in at the black door, then separated by age and gender. Chaplin and his brother Sidney got their heads shaved on the right. The Master’s House is on the left.
The substantial house of the Warden of the Lambeth Workhouse is now the site of the Cinema Museum. We went there knowing nothing about it, ignorant even of the opening hours, so we found it closed. A very nice man called Ronald, came down, explained that the museum gets no funding and that its opening hours are restricted but nonetheless took the time to explain the connection of the workhouse and the area around it to Chaplin. Nicky Smith subsequently directed me to this BBC World Service Program, where that nice Ronald, turns out to be Ronald Grant, the co-founder of the museum in 1986, who gives an enlightening and moving account of his love of cinema, his career as a projectionist in Aberdeen and London, and what led to his co-founding of the museum with his friend Martin: on a trip to Aberdeen in 1981, Mr. Grant was made aware of the availability of the contents of 13 cinemas, which formed the basis of the museum in 1986. The museum moved around various locations until 1998, where they were offered the current building. It is now threatened with closure as the building is being sold right from under them. At worst, the collection could end up dispersed but even if another location is found, the oh-so-important and poignant connection to Chaplin will be lost.
Whilst I looked wistfully at all the old projectors, cameras, posters and artifacts that I wouldn’t be able to study properly, Ronald kindly went in search of pen and paper to draw us a little map of the areas’s various connections to Chaplin: homes, schools, taverns, the Oval tube that is an inspiration for some of the scenes in City Lights, etc. It was a hot day so we only made it to a few (see below).
I did manage to buy Stephen P. Smith’s illuminating The Charlie Chaplin Walk (London: Sigma, 2010) which is very poignant on this episode of Chaplin’s life: The fortunes of Hannah, Chaplin’s mother, ‘spiralled downwards. Charlie’s father ceased his payment of ten shillings a week. She started having migraines and when she became unable to work, her sewing machine was repossessed. She sought legal guidance and was advised to seek support from the Lambeth Borough authorities: this meant the workhouse’.
‘The family were to spend time both here in the Lambeth Workhouse and the Newington Workhouse on Westmoreland Road. A workhouse was for people unable to sustain themselves. They were designed to be as unattractive as possible with dormitory accommodation, separation of men, women and children and a rough workhouse uniform. Food was basic, such as gruel, bread and cheese. The able bodied had to work at breaking stones or picking apart old ropes. ….Look up at the austerity of the old water tower, the brick tower with the dark capping. Standing out as it does, an ironic beacon to the poor, it would not have looked out of place on the drawing board of Albert Speer’ (pp.31-33).
Chalin’s Little Tramp is still the dominant signifier of cinema worldwide. In recent travels from Istanbul to Ljubjlana (above left) to Zagreb (above right), his is the name or image that crops up most often in relation to cinema. It seems appropriate to me that the Cinema Museum in London be housed in the workhouse he was condemned to in his youth.
The poverty that condemned Chaplin to the workhouse might also be responsible for condemning the museum out of it. The museum is currently threatened with closure. A host of stars have come out in support (see above) and there’s a petition going around to save it, which I hope you will sign (simply click on petition above).
I was also quite taken with the image below. At a time when London was the capital of the biggest and richest empire in the world, Chaplin was in the workhouse. The last ten years of austerity are surely a factor in the Cinema Museum’s current woes. And nostalgia for a time when Britannia ruled the waves is a factor in the current Brexit folly. It all ties together neatly, if also sadly.