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Charlie Chaplin's missing birthday

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Roy recently stumbled on a reference to Charlie Chaplin's birth on the British Newspaper Archive website...

Genealogist Roy Stockdill, a regular contributor to Family Tree, believes he has made an important discovery in finding what he suspects to be the first official record of the birth of Charlie Chaplin. Having researched Chaplin before, here Roy explains how he stumbled on this remarkable find...

For decades researchers have sought to solve a mystery surrounding Chaplin’s birth. No birth certificate or formal record has ever been found for the 'Little Tramp' who is still revered by fans all over the world. I made my remarkable discovery when I was researching on www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk. Virtually every online reference to Chaplin gives his birth date as 16 April 1889. However, the record I found shows that the star may actually have been born a day earlier.

I was trawling The Era's online pages looking for references to Charlie Chaplin’s mother, Hannah Chaplin, a vocalist who performed under the professional name of Lily Harley, and came across the record in the issue dated 11 May 1889. It simply consisted of a tiny, single paragraph announcement right at the bottom of a column (see the image above), giving his date of birth as 15 April 1889. I sat up in shock when I read it because I knew that people had been looking for any record of Charlie Chaplin’s birth for many years, but no-one has ever been able to find a birth certificate because it appears he was never registered in the official records. As far as I know, this is the first time any formal record has been found.

The announcement, which presumably was inserted by Charlie Chaplin’s parents, gave the date of his birth as one day before the one which has always appeared in books, newspaper stories and online. Unfortunately, the birth announcement didn’t say where it took place, because this has always been a cause of speculation also. Most sources give Chaplin’s birth place as Walworth, South London, though there have been other claims. One story had it that he was born in a gypsy caravan in Smethwick, Birmingham. And last year files released by The National Archives revealed that in the 1950s, when Charlie was being investigated as a suspected Communist during the McCarthyite witch-hunts, the Americans asked MI5 to look into their belief that he had been born in France as a Russian Jew. However, no evidence was found.

My own theory is that Hannah simply forgot to register Charlie’s birth, which is why no birth certificate has been found. Hannah was a somewhat tragic figure who had already given birth to Charlie’s half-brother Sydney by another man in 1885 and her marriage to Charles senior broke up in 1891. Hannah had a third son by another entertainer in 1892, became mentally ill and spent some years in an asylum before the Chaplin brothers got her out and took her to America, where she died in 1928.

Read Roy's article on the British Newspaper Archive in the November issue of Family Tree, out now in WH Smiths, leading supermarkets and all good newsagents, or you can download our latest issue as a digital edition right now – visit www.pocketmags.com, the App Store, Google Play or Amazon Appstore. Single issues, back issues and subscriptions are available for PC, Mac, eReaders, smartphones and tablets. A free sample is also available for all devices.

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