Who was Smethwick’s greatest actor?

Julie Walters might have a rival to her crown, if new evidence is anything to go by. Dave Woodhall investigates.

I’m not a great fan of Charlie Chaplin, nor of any of the other comics of his era. However, a programme I heard on Radio 4 this morning caught my attention and made me realise that maybe I should pay closer notice of a man whose importance even I can appreciate

Chaplin has always believed to have been born in South London in 1889, prior to becoming a travelling entertainer before finding fame and fortune in Hollywood. However, his son Michael recently unearthed a letter written to his father which claimed the legendary funnyman had been born in a caravan on Black Patch Park, Smethwick, while his parents were circus workers. At that time Black Patch was a regular site for gypsies and other travellers. 

There was no begging in the letter, nor any hint of blackmail. It came from someone who simply appeared to want Chaplin to know his roots, and wished him well. While the accuracy of the letter’s claims has never been confirmed, it was one of the few pieces of unsolicited correspondence Chaplin didn’t destroy immediately. He kept the letter all his life, locked away and hidden from his family, which would indicate that he regarded it with some seriousness. His mother was also known to have been a gypsy and the Chaplin birth certificate has never come to light despite extensive searches.

The writer of the letter, Jack Hill of Tamworth, wrote of overhearing two family members talking about Chaplin and how his own father later worked for the Pat Collings circus, at the Serpentine in Wilton. Or possibly the Pat Collins funfair, which from the 1890s was based at the Serpentine fields in Aston, a few hundred yards from Witton.

This may add nothing in the way of proof towards Hill’s claim, but it helps establish his credentials. He may not have been able to prove it for definite, but he was certainly in a position to know if Charlie Chaplin, one of the greatest and possibly the most recognisable actor of the twentieth century, was, indeed, born in Smethwick.