World Tour Revisited: Chaplin visits Manchester and Blackburn, Nov. 8-10, 1931

Illustration by Robert Gellert for “A Comedian Sees The World,”
A Woman’s Home Companion, Dec. 1933

When Chaplin arrived in England in late September, he had stated publicly that he wished to stay long enough to witness the “fun” of the general elections, which were held on October 27th, 1931 (& resulted in a conservative landslide). He attended election meetings with some of his politician friends and spent election night at a party hosted by Gordon Selfridge, the British retail entrepreneur. A couple of weeks later, Chaplin decided to visit Manchester, where he had lived and attended school as a boy, because he’d “heard rumors of the destitute conditions there.”

En route, he made a stop at Stratford-On-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare–a place he had never visited.

I arrived late Saturday night (Nov. 7th), and after supper took a walk, hoping to find Shakespeare’s cottage. The night was pitch-black but I instinctively turned down a street & stopped outside a house, lit a match and saw a sign: “Shakespeare’s Cottage.” No doubt a kindred spirit had led me there–possibly the Bard! (Chaplin, My Autobiography)

On Sunday morning, November 8th, Chaplin left Stratford and arrived in Manchester in the pouring rain at three in the afternoon. “Unlike London, it was strange to me,” Chaplin later recalled. “Only the Midland Hotel was slightly familiar, and that had become begrimed with age.” Chaplin got back in his car and made his way to Blackburn, which had been one of his favourite towns when he toured with Sherlock Holmes as a fourteen-year-old.  It was also in Blackburn that he had bought a dog and a rabbit to keep him company in the little pub where he lived alone for fourteen shillings a week. In his off hours, he would often play on their small billiard table.

The Bull Hotel, c. 1940.

Chaplin was pleased to find the surroundings familiar, including his pub, where he stopped and had a drink, unrecognized. Although it had changed hands, his “old friend” the billiard table was still there.  Another familiar site was the Bull Hotel. “In the  old days it was a grand place. How different it looks now–an inn with about a dozen rooms for guests.” Chaplin reserved a room for the night and after a meal of bacon and eggs, he did some sightseeing around Blackburn, including a stop in Market Square where he listened to some political speeches.

Daily Mail, November 10th, 1931

Afterward he returned to the Bull and had a hot toddy. In paying for his drink, he pulled out a considerable sum of money:

I noticed a suspicious-looking character eyeing me carefully. Later when I went upstairs to retire, I saw him lurking at the bottom of the stairs.

I had been told that conditions were desperate in the north, and that it was hardly safe to be seen in an automobile. My chauffeur’s room was at the other end of the building and my own was away from everyone. I also found my door wouldn’t lock. I endeavored to dismiss that awful face from my mind and so read for a while. 

About twenty minutes later I dozed off. How long I’d slept I don’t know but I was suddenly awakened by the sound of someone moving outside the corridor. I sat up with a start. Everything was deathly silent. I could hear the throbbing of my heart. Then I heard someone creeping and stop outside my door. Carefully the handle turned and the door creaked. 

The room was in complete darkness. Frantically I groped for the electric bulb over the bed and quickly turned it on and behold!–the door was moving but stopped. 

All sorts of notions were running through my mind. I could imagine big headlines, “Charlie Chaplin found murdered in Blackburn Hotel.” 

I got up cautiously and gently closed the door again, placing a chair under the handle. A few moments later the footsteps crept away. That night I lay in a cold sweat, waiting for the dawn to break. 

At last the morning came and I ordered breakfast. A pretty little Lancashire girl came in with some orange juice. “Did you sleep well last night, sir?”

She giggled mischievously and left without saying a word. Why did she laugh, I thought? And so mischievously? When she came in with the coffee I asked her and she shyly confessed. 

“Well, sir, one of the maids asked me to go with her to your room so she could take a look at you while you were asleep. It was her only chance of seeing you. We waited outside your door for half and hour and were about to peek in when suddenly the light went on. We got scared and left.”

And to think how I’d suffered all night! Nevertheless I expressed my regrets that I didn’t see her for I’m sure I’d have felt happier had I done so.  (Chaplin, “A Comedian Sees The World, Part IV,” Dec. 1933)

In my next installment of WTR: Chaplin attends the Ice Carnival benefit in London on November 18th.

1 Comment

  1. My father, Norman McLeod was the man who accompanied Charley Chaplin from the White Bull Hotel (hardly a mere "pub") He certainly was recognized by my father, who even got Charley's autograph. The only thing for which I have never forgiven is that instead of giving me Charley's autograph, he gave it to a charitable cause.

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