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Comic roots

Categories: Features

The history of Borough Market is peppered with celebrity shoppers: from Chaucer, to Shakespeare, to Prince Charles. In light of the upcoming revival of the Market’s historic sports day, freelance writer and film critic Pamela Hutchinson—who blogs about silent film at SilentLondon.co.uk—delves into the archives to unearth its ties with one of the most famous faces to grace Southwark: Charlie Chaplin

Hollywood legend Charlie Chaplin, one of the most famous faces of the 20th century, was a south London lad. In fact, he was born amid one of its most bustling markets.

In the first line of his autobiography, he says: “I was born on 16th April 1889, at eight o’clock at night, on East Lane, Walworth.” The fact that Chaplin calls the thoroughfare a lane rather than its official title of East Street, is a clue to the street’s purpose. In the local vernacular, any market street was known as a lane. East Street market, known locally as ‘the lane’, is one of the city’s oldest and most popular. Fascinating documents from the Borough Market archives reveal how Chaplin kept in touch with his childhood home, thanks to another market, even when he was in California.

While Chaplin was born in Walworth, he, his mother Hannah and his half-brother Sydney lived at a handful of different addresses in south London, including, sadly, some workhouses. Chaplin’s early life was very difficult, blighted by the problems of poverty, his absent, alcoholic father, and his mother’s diminishing mental health. The area’s markets were very important spaces for Chaplin as he was growing up. More than once in his memoirs he talks about wandering through the local markets as a young boy. Sometimes the displays of hot food or the patter of the traders would distract him from sad thoughts and his own hunger. On another, more enterprising occasion, he decided to go into business for himself, borrowing a shilling from his mother and spending it on two bundles of narcissus from the flower market.

Divided into bunches and sold in the local pubs by Chaplin, who played on his sozzled customers’ sympathies by referring to his recently deceased father, the flowers went for twice the cost of purchase. Needless to say, when his mother found out she was livid, and put an end to the scheme. Another time, when the family funds were perilously low, she sent Chaplin to Newington Butts market to sell her old clothes—which resulted in nothing but a sixpence return on a pair of gaiters.

Pushed on stage
Chaplin was, however, determined to follow his parents—both music hall artists—onto the stage, and started performing in provincial theatres in the late 1890s. As he recalls in his autobiography, he was pushed on stage as a five-year-old boy, to cover for his mother who had lost her voice. He warbled his way through a popular song called Jack Jones, about a chap who ditches his pals when an inheritance makes him rich: “Jack Jones well and known to everybody / Round about the market don’t yer see. / I’ve no fault to find with Jack at all, / Not when ‘e’s as ‘e used to be.”

Chaplin made his West End debut proper with a small role in 1905, and five years later he went to the US as part of a comedy troupe. It was at one of their 1913 performances that he was first spotted by Mack Sennett of the famous Keystone Studios. In 1914, Chaplin first appeared on screen in his iconic Tramp outfit: the cane, moustache, bowler hat, tight coat and baggy trousers. A star was born.

Chaplin brought a touch of home to his Hollywood studios. Many of the comedy routines he performed on screen, including the posh drunk in One AM, were lifted from acts he had perfected on the music hall stages of London. The sets for films such as Easy Street (1917) and his first feature, The Kid (1921), with their cramped Victorian terraces, look more like Lambeth than Los Angeles, and there’s probably a reason Easy Street sounds a lot like East Street. Chaplin had a special knack for making comedy out of poignant or potentially upsetting material. In this two-reel comedy, Chaplin’s Tramp character gets a job as a policeman presiding over an inner-city patch, where he must save the locals from a vicious bully (played by his fellow Brit Eric Campbell), and a beautiful woman from a junkie. His tough south London upbringing here gets a second run on screen as a side-splitting comedy.

Lookalike competitions 
That’s why it’s so wonderful to see here, in the Borough Market archives, proof that south London was never far from Chaplin’s thoughts, even at the height of his Hollywood fame. Charlie Chaplin lookalike competitions were popular with people all over the world in the early 20th century—and Borough Market’s porters were no exception.

In 1931, when Chaplin was thrilling audiences with his masterpiece City Lights, in which Tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl, the Borough Market and South London Fruiterers Charity Sports Day was held in Crystal Palace—and a Chaplin lookalike race was the highlight of the programme. According to one of the newspaper reports: “Borough Market has among its porters a number of clever amateur actors, and they were practising ‘making-up’ yesterday behind piles of potato sacks to impersonate the famous film star.” It’s a far cry from Hollywood glamour, but the results are remarkable.

What’s really wonderful about reading the material in the Market’s archives is learning that Borough Market’s lookalike races, and other events, were endorsed by Chaplin himself. There are newspaper clippings revealing that Chaplin sent signed photographs for the winners, but also money to be spent on more extravagant prizes. There was a mahogany grandfather clock worth 20 guineas for the fastest man to carry a hundredweight for a mile and there is a photo of the winner, J Reynolds from Billingsgate, receiving his prize. In turn, the winner of the basket-carrying race was to have a suit and gold watch to the value of £20. He even sent transatlantic telegrams wishing the competitors well, and hoping for fine weather.

As one of the newspapers reports: “Charlie Chaplin has a soft spot in his heart for the men who work in the Borough Market, by London Bridge. He has seen them walking about with great piles of baskets on their heads. And he knows that it is harder than throwing pies and bags of flour… Last year Charlie sent £20 to the Sports. There is no doubt that he has seen something more than even he can manage in this competition.”

There’s a lot of truth in that last statement, if one of the most persistent myths about Chaplin and his fame is to be believed. The legend goes that Chaplin himself once entered a Chaplin lookalike contest—and he didn’t win.