In 1896, Charlie Chaplin, his mother and brother presented themselves at the door of the Lambeth Workhouse in south London. Charlie’s father had left them and with no secure earnings they were destitute. Making matters worse, Charlie’s mother, Hannah, also suffered from mental problems. Over the next few years, the family passed in, and out, of the Lambeth Workhouse – until Charlie reached the age of fourteen and Hannah was committed to an asylum. A very sad tale and one which had a deep impact on the young Charlie, evidenced by his subsequent work in Hollywood and affinity to the poor in his characters, such as the Little Tramp.
The workhouse was an Elizabethan invention codified in the Poor Laws and admistered by local parishes throughout the country. The Poor Laws provided financial relief for the aged, sick and incapacitated poor and a place of paid work for the able-bodied poor (the workhouse). However, by the 1830’s, the resulting public expenditure had spiralled to an unnacceptable level during country-wide dire economic conditions. Public sentiment turned against the idea of able-bodied poor receiving state-provided benefits and employment. In 1834, Parliament took action and passed the Poor Law Amendment Act, placing the management of, and budget for, the poor under central control. The new act provided no relief for able-bodied poor except for that of employment in a new harsher style workhouse. Work would typically involve stone breaking (for the building trade) or crushing bones (for fertiliser). The workhouse was positioned as being both hard work and a social stigma. The historian Eric Hobsbawm described the system as seeking ‘to punish the poor for their destitution and discourage them from the dangerous temptation of procreating further paupers’ (Hobsbawm 1990: 89).
Industrial unemployment in the early part of the twentieth century (caused by aggressive competition from the newly industrialised nations of the United States and Germany) resulted in a more humanitarian appreciation of the causes of poverty, being seen as much more than a moral problem. The workhouses passed into history in 1929. Today, these relics remain today dotted throughout the country and re-purposed as health and social care centres, places of learning and, in some cases, museums. In 1998, the former Lambeth Workhouse was reborn as The Cinema Museum. A fitting full circle to the life of one of its most famous ghosts.
For more information about The Cinema Museum please see:
Hobsbawm, E. (1990) Industry and empire, Vol 3, The Penguin economic history of Britain (London: Penguin, first pub. 1968)