In his heyday he was one of the biggest names in showbusiness, perhaps the biggest, responsible for discovering Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. His companies toured all over the world, British troops in the trenches of World War 1 sang about him and Hollywood comedy mogul Hal Roach proclaimed him a ‘genius… who originated slapstick comedy’. But after running an off-licence in Lilliput part paid for by Chaplin, the great Fred Karno was all but penniless when he died in Parkstone in 1941.
Genealogist and former Fleet Street journalist Roy Stockdill has researched Karno’s final years in Dorset and has given talks on the subject to family history groups both in Poole and Exeter, where Karno was born in 1866.
‘Genealogy has long been a passion of mine – something to get the journalistic juices flowing,’ says Roy, who lives close to the site of Lilliput Wine Stores, run by Karno from 1935 until his death.
‘My grandfather was a violinist in the music halls so I’ve always had an interest, but when I read Fred Karno had an off licence barely half a mile from where I live I had to find out more.’
Born Frederick John Westcott, Karno first made his mark on the music halls as an acrobat before forming his own troupe and producing comic sketches without words so as to circumvent the censors. At his peak he had some 30 companies on the road in the USA, South America and UK – the famous ‘Fred Karno’s Army’ (or ‘Circus’), a phrase coined in the World War 1 trench song of the same name that’s still in use to describe a chaotic organisation.
As well as Charlie Chaplin and his understudy Stan Jefferson, later to find fame as Stan Laurel, among the comedians to appear for Karno were future stars Max Miller, Will Hay, Fred Kitchen and, much later, Flanagan and Allen.
Off stage Fred’s life was just as dramatic. He had seven children with his first wife Edith of which just two survived infancy – a tragedy she blamed on the damp digs they had to endure on the road. In 1902 she received a set of photographs of Fred with a naked showgirl called Marie Moore and three years later Edith obtained a judicial separation.
‘It seems likely that Fred sent the photos to Edith as his way of informing her the marriage was over,’ says Roy. ‘Fred was an inveterate womaniser and Marie was his long-term mistress.’
Fred and Marie lived together until Edith’s death from diabetes in June 1927, shortly after which they married at St Peter’s Church, Parkstone. Marie had been living at 89 Penn Hill Avenue with her American theatrical manager father Thomas who, as the former blackface minstrel Tom Birchmore, performed in Birchmore and Lindon’s Gay Cadet Pierrots on Bournemouth beach from 1910 to 1930.
At the time of the wedding Fred, aged 61 and fifteen years Marie’s senior, was newly bankrupt having overseen the spectacular failure of his pet project – the palatial Karsino hotel and entertainment complex on Tagg’s Island near Hampton Court on the River Thames.
‘Fred had bought a luxury houseboat called the Astoria at Tagg’s Island where he spent his summers, but buying the whole island in 1912 and developing the hotel, though hugely successful at first, ultimately proved to be his undoing,’ explains Roy.
Undeterred, in 1929 Fred took Marie to Hollywood where he set about resuscitating his career. Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel were doing well and long-time admirer Hal Roach gave Fred a job as an assistant producer working with Laurel and Hardy.
It didn’t last. Fred had been known as ‘The Guv’nor’ for good reason and he struggled to fit in with the studio system so the Karnos returned to London the following year to start Karno’s Krazy Komics with three double acts – Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen, Jimmy Nervo and Teddy Knox, and Charlie Naughton and Jimmy Gold – that went on to become the original Crazy Gang.
Riding high again, while Marie set about building ‘Karmore’ her dream home at 101X Penn Hill Avenue, her father moved next door to number 101. Fred meanwhile formed Fred Karno Films and in 1936 released Mother, Don’t Rush Me, a feature-length version of his sketch ‘Hot and Cold’ that starred popular comedian Robb Wilton. Stan Laurel sent a telegram before the premiere saying: ‘One touch of Karno makes the whole world grin.’
But not any more, the film bombed and crippled with debt the Karnos sold ‘Karmore’ less than a year after it had been completed. Desperate, Fred’s former associates in the Music Hall Benevolent Fund raised the money to buy him a part-share in Lilliput Wine Stores at 296 Sandbanks Road. Charlie Chaplin was said to have contributed £1000.
In the 1939 Kelly’s trade directory Fred is found living in a flat above a hairdressers at 294 Sandbanks Road – ironically a hair salon occupies the site today – next door to his off licence, now an estate agents. However in the 1939 Register, an emergency census established soon after the outbreak of war in September, Fred and Marie are in Parkstone, at 24 Dorrich Court, Wharfdale Road.
There is a suggestion that Fred also had an off licence at the Constitution Hill end of Ashley Road. It was made in a 2008 post on the filmdope.com website by a user called ‘Torerro’, then aged eighty, who recalled meeting Fred in the summer of 1941 and being asked to pick up the old man’s rations from the corner shop.
‘When I took his rations back I walked up the stairs, which were bare boards, and into his living room,’ writes Torerro. ‘There was no furniture, only a couple of tea chests, and Fred was sitting upon one. Apart from that there were only a couple of threadbare offcuts of carpet on the floor…’
After packing the rations away in the kitchen the young lad noticed some playbills on the wall: ‘Two immediately struck my eye. At the top of each was a name I knew – Charlie Chaplin on one and Stan Laurel on the other. ‘Did you know them?’ I said. ‘Know them – I made them,’ he replied.’
A few weeks later, on 18 September Fred Karno died from diabetes at home in Wharfdale Road, leaving just £42 7s 4d in his Will. He was 75. Charlie Chaplin sent a floral tribute ‘with deep sympathy’ to the funeral at Bournemouth Crematorium.
:: With thanks to Dave Crump, author of the forthcoming biography of Fred Karno to be published by Brewin Books.
• First published by Dorset Life The Dorset Magazine.