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Entertainer Charlie Chaplin (1889-1997) was in kinship care, the workhouse, and a children’s home as a child.

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London, the son of two music hall performers, Hanna and Charles. Charles and Hannah separated when Charlie was three years old. Hannah (whose stage name was Lily Harley) had the care of her two sons (Sydney (b. 1885) from a different father), but her acting career was over early and she found it difficult to provide for her family taking in mending and doing piecework dressmaking at home.

When he was six, Charlie was sent to stay with a relative, but the following year and after a brief period back at home, the boys and their mother went to the Newington Workhouse workhouse because Hannah became too ill to work. After three weeks in the workhouse, Charlie and his brother were moved to the Hanwell Schools for Orphans and Destitute Children. The boys were separated until Charlie turned seven and was transferred from the ‘infant division’ to the ‘upper division’.

Despite the positive aspects of Hanwell compared to home – education, warm clothes, and food – Charlie loathed the regimented life. 

Although at Hanwell we were well looked after, it was a forlorn existence. Sadness was in the air; it was in those country lanes through which we walked, a hundred of us two abreast. How I disliked those walks, and the villages through which we passed, the locals staring at us! We were known as inmates of the ‘booby hatch, a slang term for workhouse (Chaplin, 22).

The young Charlie Chaplin survived by dreaming about becoming a great actor and developing enormous confidence in himself.  

After he was sent back home at age eight, Charlie made sure he was never returned to an institution, often hiding from authorities. 

According to biographer Peter Ackroyd, the invulnerability Charlie cultivated as a small child later became part of his well-loved Little Tramp character.

The Little Tramp, Charlie, is often detached and invincible. He always picks himself up and walks jauntily into the distance; in that respect, he shows indomitable energy and determination. He rarely becomes an object of pity (Ackroyd, 11).

Charlie Chaplin began his acting career at the age of twelve. He joined the Karno troupe in 1908 and with them performed across the United States during 1910-1912. He was a popular performer with the troupe and was only back in England briefly before he returned to the States with a movie contract.

Movie producer Mack Sennett was in the audience for one of the Karno troupe’s performances and thought Chaplin would be a good fit at his newly established Keystone Studios, where they specialized in the sort of roughhouse slapstick Chalin performed on stage (Neibaur, 10).

Charlie Chaplin went on to become one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood and an independent film producer from 1917.

From the late 1940s, America’s anti-communist activity was at fever pitch and Chaplin decided to leave the States in 1952. He settled in Switzerland with his wife Oona, producing his last film in 1966. 


Ackroyd, Peter. Charlie Chaplin. London: Chatto & Windus, 2014.

Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography. London: The Bodley Head, 1964.

Charlie Chaplin: Official Website. 

“Charlie Chaplain.” The Workhouse: The story of an institution, 2021. 

Neibaur, James. Early Charlie Chaplin: the artist as apprentice at Keystone Studios. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

Image available here.