Charlie Chaplin's son backs Black Country birth story
Charlie Chaplin's son visited the Black Country yesterday - and gave the clearest indication yet that it really was birthplace of his famous father.
Rumours of the silent movie star's links to the Black Country have circulated for years but when it emerged in 2011 that a secret letter found hidden in a drawer belonging to Charlie Chaplin claimed he was born in what is now Black Patch Park in Smethwick, it gave more weight to the theory the rumours could be true.
Oldest surviving son Michael Chaplin visited the park yesterday to unveil a memorial honouring the Romany gypsies that once lived there - and whose community Chaplin is purported to have been born into.
The star's birth has always remained something of a mystery, with no birth certificate having been found. Chaplin, who shot to worldwide fame with his persona as The Tramp, grew up in London and the capital is long thought to have been where he was born.
But now, even members of his own family are ready to believe one of the earliest stars of the screen actually hailed from the Black Country.
The mysterious letter, written by a man called Jack Hill, from Tamworth, called Chaplin a liar for claiming in his autobiography that he was born in London in 1889.
Mr Hill said he was also born on the Black Patch, two years after Chaplin, and that he was the only man alive who knew of his true roots.
But he didn't threaten to reveal Chaplin's gypsy links or try to blackmail him, which historians point to as further evidence that Mr Hill was telling the truth.
Chaplin's daughter Victoria found the letter after her father's bureau was passed onto her following the death of Chaplin's widow Oona.
Asked about the prospect of Charlie Chaplin being born in Smethwick, his son Michael said: "I think it's very likely, yes.
"The fact that letter was kept in the drawer means it must have meant something to him. It was locked in the drawer, he never told anybody about it."
Michael, who is 69 and lives in the south of France, officially unveiled the granite monument at the park's Hockley Brook bridge.
The ceremony took place 110 years to the day that the Romany gypsies were evicted from the Black Patch and honour their role in ensuring the land was preserved as public open space.
Michael has shown great interest in the stories about his father hailing from the Black Country and said he was honoured to be invited by the Birmingham Romany Memorial Review group.
He said: "I think he often said he was a gyspy, we know his grandmother was a gyspy.
"He was a complex man, sometimes he would boast about it, other times he didn't want to talk about it."
Michael suspects his father was not ashamed of his possible past but that it was not something he was ready to admit to at the height of his fame.
"He said in his autobiography that he had a skeleton in the cupboard. At that time, gypsies were persecuted and it didn't necessarily go in his favour to boast about being a gypsy," he said.
Local historians have been getting excited over Michael's visit, with Chaplin's family links to gypsies and the contents of the letter making some confident that the Black Country can lay claim to the star.
Simon Baddeley, a founding member of the Friends of Black Patch Park group, believes the revelations could lead to the park becoming a tourist attraction.
He said: "I think the mystery is half the enjoyment. What it means is that nobody is able to prove he wasn't (born in Smethwick).
"We fully acknowledge he was brought up in the south of London and that's where he came from. His mum was a troubled lady, she had a difficult life and she may have felt safe amongst the gypsies.
"The gypsies may have been a haven for her, it has certain credibility for me.
"The fact that Charlie Chaplin kept that one letter out of the millions a man like him would have received shows he felt something about it."
Ted Rudge, chairman of the Birmingham Romany Memorial Review group, who wrote about the Black Patch gypsies in his book Brumroamin and secured the memorial for the park, said he could never be more than 50 per cent certain Chaplin was born in Smethwick.
But he added: "I would love it to be so, I think the whole of Birmingham and the Black Country would too. It would lift this park.
"Why did he keep it? There must have been a reason and his autobiography talks about gypsies in his family."