Hidden Voices – The Cinema Museum

From Workhouse to Museum via a connection to Charlie Chaplin

cinema museum building

The rags to riches story of film icon Charlie Chaplin is well known. He was born in 1889, probably in Walworth, south London, although there was no registration of the birth and therefore no certificate exists. Both his parents were music hall entertainers but his mother, Hannah, suffered from mental health problems, possibly caused by syphilis. Hannah separated from her husband, a music hall singer and alcoholic also called Charles, whilst Charlie was very young. Charles senior died in 1901, having resumed the care of Charlie and his older brother, Sydney, after their mother was admitted to Cane Hill asylum. During their chaotic early life, Charlie and his brother were twice admitted to Lambeth workhouse, in 1896 and 1898. From there they were sent firstly to the Central London District School in Hanwell, Middlesex, and secondly to Norwood Schools in the south of the borough.

A new workhouse had been built in the early 1870s in Renfrew Road, to serve the Lambeth Union. Its foundation stone was laid in 1871 by John Doulton who was chairman of the board of guardians and one of the founders of the renowned pottery firm. The building uses yellow stock brick with red and blue brick details and terracotta decoration and it is likely that the highly ornate architecture was influenced by Doulton.

By the 1920s, the workhouse and its neighbouring hospital had been amalgamated to form Lambeth Hospital and its administration was taken over firstly by the London County Council and later by the National Health Service. Fast forward to 1998 and few of the original buildings survive. These include the architecturally attractive administrative block, master’s offices and chapel, which are now Grade 2 listed.

This impressive building now houses the Cinema Museum , an impressive collection of artefacts and memorabilia from what is claimed to be the most popular leisure activity of the twentieth century. The collection covers all aspects of a visit to the pictures, including architecture, fittings and ephemera, as well as over a million photographic images. It’s highly recommended and well worth a visit but don’t just turn up and expect to walk in. The museum is privately owned and run by a small group of volunteers, so entry is by bookable guided tour only. The website also includes details of evening talks and screenings.


The museum is very proud of its connection to Charlie Chaplin and one whole corridor houses a display of Chaplin-related items.

But these are worrying time for the museum. Recent owners of the site, South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, have sold the building to a property developer. The museum’s owners are currently negotiating with the developers so that the museum can stay in its current premises. An online petitionincludes current updates.

Diana is a retired professional genealogist and former vice chairman of the Society of Genealogists.

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