Charlie Chaplin, the Black Patch, and Me

Many moons ago, when I was still in short trousers, my parents let me join the Cubs, the junior Boy Scouts. I learned nothing useful save how to tie the reef knot, essential for survival in the urban jungle, of course. But I enjoyed the Christmas Parties. The Cub leader would set up an ancient movie projector and show us the black and white films of his own childhood – Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and the greatest of them all, Charlie Chaplin.

I loved the little tramp with the baggy trousers and the lustrous eyes. Seeing my fascination, my parents let me into a secret. Charlie was almost a neighbour. He had been born in a gipsy caravan in Smethwick, a mile or so up the channel of the Hockley Brook. I knew the Hockley Brook, a smelly little stream that ran behind the houses at the bottom of my street, and it did come from Smethwick. But surely Charlie had to be American? I found out he was actually English, but hailed from London. As my parents had already misled me once – Father Christmas did not come down the chimney to deliver presents – I put this story down to an Old Wives Tale.

 

The fact that some of our neighbours also believed this improbable story did nothing to convince me. They added the fact that the place he was born was known as the Black Patch, but I was not to go there. The gipsies had been evicted long ago, but Smethwick was Black Country, and supported the Albion. Brummies did not go there. I had no intention of going there, and indeed never did – until this summer. Smethwick was black in fact and reputation, with filth dating back to the industrial revolution. When I was growing up in the fifties, Britain still had heavy industry, coal fired and sooty, which was why the Black Country was black. There were no ironworks in Hockley, just light industry and canals and railway yards, so we looked down on the Black country as a dirty place with worse slums than the ones we were living in.

 

Later as a teenager studying O Level Social and Economic History, I found out why the Black Patch was called the Black Patch. One of the legendary places of the industrial revolution was the Soho Foundry of James Watt and Matthew Boulton where the first steam engines were made. It was, and still is, in Foundry Lane, Smethwick. When it had blast furnaces before the First World War, the workers tipped the hot ash and slag onto the patch of ground opposite the factory gate to cool before being used as hard core. Nothing would grow there, the ground remained scorched earth, and thus it was called the Black Patch. No one went there except gipsies until they were evicted in 1905. None of this made me think it could be the birthplace of a world famous star, and I forgot about the whole saga.

 

Fast forward half a century. I picked up a few facts about Chaplin’s life in England, discovering that his birthplace was mysterious, no birth certificate existed, and MI5 when asked to investigate Chaplin as part of the McCarthy investigations during the Cold War found nothing, save a rumour he was born in 1889, His mother Hannah Hill was a Music Hall singer with gipsy ancestry, but nothing firm was known about giving birth to Charlie. Smethwick and Hollywood seemed too far apart to be connected.

 

On Saturday July 25th I popped into a pub in the middle of Birmingham for lunch, and found a copy of that day’s Birmingham Mail left on the table. Inside was a double page spread with the headline, “Chaplin’s son to unveil memorial to Romany Gipsies at Black Patch”. Plus the sub heading “Experts 99.9% certain comic was born in Smethwick park”. The story which led Michael Chaplin to make a special visit from the south of France to unveil a plaque to the gipsies on the anniversary of their eviction was intriguing.

 

After Chaplin and his wife Oona died, his daughter Victoria inherited a writing desk with a locked compartment which could only be opened by a locksmith. Inside was a letter from a Romany called Jack Hill written in 1970 which criticised Chaplin for allowing mystery to circulate about his birth, and saying “You were born in a caravan, and so was I. It was a good one, it belonged to the gipsy Queen who was my auntie. You was born on the Black Patch in Smethwick near Birmingham so was I….” Chaplin had kept this letter locked away, and the fact he did not destroy it showed the letter was important to him.

 

Researchers found census data on a gipsy family called Hill who were on the Black Patch around this time, and the story was convincing enough to bring Michael Chaplin over from France. The Mail gave details of a ceremony next to the Hockley Brook the following afternoon. This was an invitation to savour and for the first time in my life I broke the taboo which means Villa supporters don’t go to Smethwick (though they can and do go to see the Albion, nice little ground – but it is in West Bromwich) and made my way to the Foundry Tavern which is directly opposite the Soho Foundry. It was not hard to think the ghosts of Boulton and Watt still visit to take care of business, though it is a factory for making scales and other weighing devices nowadays. And Chaplin? Does his spirit still go to the Black Patch?

 

The story that he was born as Jack Hill suggested is certainly not impossible, though no final piece of the jigsaw in the form of a document has ever been found, and is unlikely to be found as the gipsies don’t write down their history. But the letter is suggestive enough to have convinced Michael Chaplin, who at 69 flew in on a special visit to unveil a plaque to the Romanies who once lived on the Black Patch and probably cared for his grandmother.

 

As he told the Mail reporter after the ceremony, “I think maybe he didn’t know where he was born because there was no registration, but maybe that letter coincided with something he’d heard himself. It’s highly possible that being alone she had no money and nowhere to go, and if she had a family contact up on the Black Patch maybe that was where she chose. The alternative was the workhouse and no-one wants to have a child in the workhouse, it can get taken away from you”. The story makes sense – and it was enough for Michael, to come to unveil a plaque that does not actually mention his father, in homage to the people he thinks took in his grandmother in her time of need.

 

The Black Patch is still a blasted heath, and the plaque by a bridge over the Hockley Brook is in a spot as remote as can be found in the middle of a built up area. This explains why the gipsies had been tolerated until they were evicted in 1905. Their history is known, if only in hostile giorgio records. If only the Brook could tell the stories of what it has witnessed, it might finally confirm the story told by my folks a mile and a half downstream seventy years later.

 

A century after the gipsies left the Black Patch, there is no way of ever knowing what happened while they lived on the site. But there is nothing to counter the story, and surrounded by the descendants of the Romany’s who had lived on the Patch on that Sunday, watching Michael Chaplin unveil the plaque, the folk memory passed down to me all those years ago seemed authentic. It still seems much more probable than it seemed in the days when Charlie Chaplin was a flickering image from an ancient movie projector keeping a group of young boys enthralled.

 

Trevor Fisher 3rd September 2015.

 

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