A Jewish Film Star from Darlington by Harold Pollins.
In Charlie Chaplin’s history there is a somewhat shadowy character named Minnie Chaplin, a minor film actor around the time of the First World War. Very little has been written about her apart from possibly being married to Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s half-brother (there is some doubt whether they were married), and the titles of the few films in which she played.
In fact she was born Minnie Gilbert, in 1888, in Darlington, county Durham, one of the children of Samuel and Rebecca Gilbert, Jewish immigrants from Poland. He was a glazier, a familiar trade for east European Jewish immigrants, and they came to England in the late 1870s, first going to Leeds where two daughters were born, Annie in 1877 and Sophia in 1879. They then went to Darlington, where Israel was born in 1881, and they stayed in that town for at least 20 years, having another seven children: Henry 1882, Dora 1883, Harris 1885, and Minnie 1888 (the person I am dealing with in this article), Joseph 1892 and Reuben and David in 1900. Although Samuel, the father, was invariably described as a glazier, at least once, in 1896, he advertised as a money-lender. [i] Reuben and David were twins and were born two years after his wife, Rebecca, died. The birth certificate of David (presumably Reuben’s would be similar) gives the mother as ‘Jane Gilbert late Cohen formerly Livingstone’. I do not know if they were married. Samuel is recorded as widower in the 1901 Census, which suggests they were not.
The father was declared bankrupt twice, in 1890 and 1900. After the second one, all his goods and furniture were sold at auction, and, perhaps because of that, soon afterwards almost all of them left Darlington.
Many of them went to Scotland. In 1902, Annie the oldest child, was married in Edinburgh to Aaron Goldstein, but Henry, in that year, was living in Newcastle upon Tyne when he attested for the Army, joining the Durham Light Infantry. He gave his trade as labourer and his father, Samuel, was still at their Darlington address, 18 Priest Gate. They left Darlington after that date and at the 1911 Census Samuel and four of his sons were in Edinburgh. All except Reuben, at school, were picture frame makers. [ii]
The later history of the Gilberts in Scotland included Henry becoming engaged in 1916 to a woman in Edinburgh. Reuben joined the army in 1919, his occupation being ‘driller and crane man’. He deserted the following year. Samuel Gilbert, the father, married Rebecca Harrison. He died in 1955 and was buried in Newington (Echobank) Cemetery, Edinburgh. Joseph died in 1960 and was buried in Glendufhill Cemetery, Glasgow.
However, two members of the Gilbert family were found in the 1911 Census of England and Wales. One was Israel, recently married to Etty [Hetty] Schweitzer and living in Leeds, working as a tailor. Their entry in the 1911 Census is endorsed, for both of them, ‘Totally deaf and dumb from birth’.[iii]
The other one in the 1911 Census was Minnie and she was living in Lambeth, her occupation being ‘Music Hall Artist’. She was the second in a household of two, the head being Sydney Chaplin, also a ‘Music Hall Artist’. He was the half-brother of the great Charlie Chaplin. This 1911 Census entry was the beginning of my discovery of her film careerand her relationship with theChaplin family. She and Sydney Chaplin became associated almost immediately, and they soon made connection with North America.
On 3 September 1914 they sailed from Liverpool for Montreal, the passenger list detailing ‘Mr S. Chaplin, Music Hall Artist’, aged 29, followed by ‘Miss M. Gilbert, Music Hall Artist’, aged 25. In America she appeared in five short films in 1915: A Submarine Pirate, A Lover’s Lost Control, Gussie Tied to Trouble, Gussie’s Backward Way, and Gussie Rivals Jonah. But her most important film was A Dog’s Life (1918) where she had a small part in it, in a dance hall scene. This was Charlie Chaplin’s first major film as a director. In the filmography her name is written as Minnie Chaplin for all the films in which she played. [iv]
We meet her again, as a passenger on a ship leaving Southampton on 3 September 1919 for New York. This time the passenger list details ‘Chaplin, Sydney. Cinema Actor’ followed by ‘Chaplin, Minnie, and Wife’. However, no-one, it seems, has found a record of any marriage. There are no more reports of her appearing in any films and she died in 1936 in France. [v]
A final point is that while those who have investigated the Chaplin family and have written about Minnie have not known about her origin and family, they have almost known it when they refer to her as ‘Minnie Gilbert Chaplin’, as in at least one internet website. [vi]
[i] S. Gilbert & Co, 18 Priest Gate, Darlington, advertised money on loan almost weekly in the Northern Echo in 1896. This appears to have been the only period when he advertised this activity.
[ii] I am grateful to Harvey Kaplan of Scottish Jewish Archives for information about the Scottish 1911 Census and for certain other details about the Gilberts in Scotland.
[iii] In the 1901 Census Israel is marked ‘Deaf from birth’.
[iv] A Dog’s Life can be seen on the internet in YouTube.
[v] There are several photographs of her in www.discoveringchaplin.com/search?q=minnie
accessed 12 May 2017
[vi] See for example: https://uk.search.yahoo.com/search?fr=mcafee&type=C211GBOD20150212&p=minnie+gilbert+chaplin
accessed 12 May 2017.