When Charlie Chaplin Was 'Kidnapped' At Croydon Airport

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 24 months ago

Last Updated 18 May 2022

When Charlie Chaplin Was 'Kidnapped' At Croydon Airport
charlie chaplin gnawing on a boot
Charlie Chaplin was abducted, both in life and death. Image: public domain

There's a well-known story about the ghoulish theft of Charlie Chaplin's body from his grave in Lake Geneva, in 1978.

However, Chaplin was also abducted some 57 years earlier, when he was very much alive.

It was 1921 — the same year Chaplin released his masterpiece The Kid — when the 'Little Tramp' star landed at Croydon Aerodrome (then London's major airport) following a jaunt to Paris.

chaplin arrives at croydon airport while his abductor lurks in the crowd
Kinematograph Weekly, 13 October 1921. From British Newspaper Archive

Chaplin — who was over in Europe for the first time since he'd left for the States some years previous — was lapping up the heady days of Chaplin Mania, and was due to meet the prime minister, David Lloyd George later that day.

But someone had other ideas. Castleton Knight — a film director, producer and owner of the the Majestic cinema in Clapham — had previously been promised by Chaplin that he'd pay a visit to his picturehouse while in London. Now, though, it seemed unlikely the in-demand film star would stay true to his word, so Knight decided to take matters into his own hands.

As a light-hearted confessional in Kinematograph Weekly, published in October 1921, Knight wrote "How I Kidnapped Chaplin". It describes how he hired a car, a chauffeur's uniform and a fake moustache; the latter of which he glued under his nose, the gum still pouring down his face as he sped towards the airport.

an old prop plane outside croydon airport
Croydon Aerodrome around the time that the stunt was pulled off. Image: Croydon Airport

As Chaplin's plane landed, and the film star signed autographs, Knight convinced policemen and airport officials he'd been sent from the Ritz to give Chaplin a ride into town. You would have thought Chaplin of all people could spot a dodgy 'tache a mile off, but these being more innocent times* the Hollywood A-lister and his secretary, Carlyle Robinson, got into the car without fuss.

"I let the car rip along Mitcham Common," boasts Knight, "and then in order to get to Clapham without causing suspicion I drove a roundabout way, until going along Brixton Hill Mr Robinson put his head out of the window and asked "Isn't there a more direct route to the Ritz?". I replied, "No sir; the road's up.""

a poster for a dog's life
Apparently this film was screening as Chaplin arrived at the cinema. Image: public domain.

Eventually the three arrived at the Majestic, with Knight feigning engine trouble, before announcing — no doubt with a seriously hammy flourish — "I hope you will not mind, Mr Chaplin, but I've kidnapped you!". Then he ripped off his fake moustache and cap, exclaiming: "I'm Castleton Knight and this is the theatre you promised to visit!"

At that, Chaplin and his secretary burst out laughing. (We'll take Knight's word for this; stories about Chaplin's splenetic temperament suggest it's a wonder he didn't go ballistic.)

Anyway, we're told the daring caper had a happy ending. As Chaplin entered the cinema, A Dog's Life — one of his own films — happened to be playing; and there and then, the film was stopped as he made a short speech to what must have been a shocked and starstruck audience.

Knight is said to have then driven Chaplin to his date at Number 10, where the film star showed up fashionably late.

We discovered this story in the excellent British Newspaper Archive.

*Given more recent accounts of Chaplin, perhaps not.