Charlie Chaplin and the comedy legends who came to Dewsbury

MANY famous people have trod the streets of Dewsbury over the years, but perhaps the most popular one to do so was Charlie Chaplin who visited the town in his youth, WRITES MARGARET WATSON

Thursday, 10th January 2019, 2:00 pm
Updated Friday, 11th January 2019, 12:54 pm
True greats: The young Charlie Chaplin is pictured seated in bowler hat on the middle row when he appeared at the Empire Theatre in 1906 with Caseys Circus. Also pictured, second on the left, on the same row, is a young Stan Laurel, who had strong family connections with Dewsbury. Many of his relatives lived here.

He appeared several times at the Hippodrome Theatre situated where Dewsbury Market now stands, and also at the Empire Theatre.

He appeared at the Hippodrome with his older brother, Sydney, and while here the two stayed in a Dewsbury boarding house.

This was in 1903 when Chaplin was still in short trousers and appearing as a page to Sherlock Holmes in a play about the famous detective.

Margaret Watson.

It was a part he played very well, and, according to the theatre critic writing in The Reporter at the time, made a great success of it.

In 1906, Chaplin appeared at the Empire Theatre with a travelling troupe called Casey’s Circus, along with a very young Stan Laurel.

The two were later to become firm friends and, although they went their separate ways, they both made their fortunes in America.

In 1931, the by-now world famous Charlie Chaplin visited Britain and announced he would be visiting the North of England.

Dewsbury people, knowing of his local connections, hoped he would visit Dewsbury, and the local Chamber of Trade even considered sending him an invitation. But it wasn’t to be.

While in London, Chaplin visited the House of Commons, and the Dewsbury MP, Mr Ben Riley, mentioned this in his weekly column in the Reporter.

He wrote: “Members were all agog with interest at the news that Charlie Chaplin would visit the House of Commons.

“Although he spent two or three hours here, many members were unaware they were being honoured by a visit from the most amusing personality in the whole world.

“He happened to visit the Houses of Parliament on one of its very dullest occasions, but nevertheless he appeared to enjoy himself thoroughly.

“He watched the proceedings from the Distinguished Strangers’ Gallery and was chaperoned through the Lobbies of the House by representatives of all the three parties.

Not everyone in Dewsbury was fascinated by Chaplin’s visit, especially the Reverend J. A. Thompson , of the Central Methodist Church, who told his congregation Dewsbury could very well do without a visit from him.

He said: “There is a man in London over whom the people are going mad. London is a city, of eight million people, mostly silly.

“They are going mad over this man coming to this country. It is very true the man in question has succeeded in commanding the laughter of the world.

“I notice he is to tour the North of England, and it is said that hopes have been raised he will find time to visit Dewsbury where he has many admirers.

“I want to say that Dewsbury can very well do without him. He has nothing at all to offer to Dewsbury.”

We will never know what his congregation felt about this, but it did not deter the growing interest in Chaplin’s visit to England .

Every detail of his stay in a Dewsbury boarding house appeared in the Reporter, and why not?

It made fascinating reading then, and still does today.

Chaplin stayed with his brother Sidney in what was known as a professional apartment house at 31 South Terrace, off Church Street.

It was kept by the family of Mr Walter Whittaker, an artist and picture framer, whose business was just around the corner in Daisy Hill, Dewsbury.

The apartments were run by his aunt, Miss Graham, but sadly she had passed away by the time Chaplin visited England in 1931.

Fortunately, Mr Whittaker had kept his aunt’s visitors’ book and was able to inform Reporter readers of what the famous film star had written in it as a young actor.

Mr Whittaker was also able to give his own recollections of the celebrated artiste’s visits to Dewsbury before he became a world famous star.

He recalled how the young Charlie Chaplin had been regarded as very interesting and a promising star in the making by all who came in contact with him.

His aunt, Miss Graham, had told him the Chaplin brothers while staying in her boarding house had been jolly fellows.

On the Christmas Eve of 1903, Charlie had entertained the Whittaker family and their friends, to a series of expositions of characters from stories by Charles Dickens.

In the visitors’ book, the Chaplin brothers signed themselves Sydney Chaplin and Charles Chaplin.

They wrote: “We have spent a very happy Christmas here, and wish the Whittakers every good wish.”

The brothers remained a considerable time in Dewsbury with the Sherlock Holmes production at the Hippodrome, and when they returned in 1905, they once again stayed with Miss Graham.

On this visit, Sidney Chaplin wrote the following in the visitors’ book on behalf of them both:

“I detest writing in landladies’ books, but I must say Miss Graham proves the exception.

“This is my second visit, and I have had comfort, combined with cleanliness and good cooking, and last but not least, reasonable charges.

“I hope I shall have the pleasure of returning soon and recommending her.”

Later Miss Graham was to write: “Charlie as a youth was exceedingly well-dressed but he always wore shabby boots which gave his feet a slovenly appearance.”

She was not to know that those shabby boots would one day become the most famous boots in the world.