This is the original tramp suit that Charlie Chaplin first wore in the part of “The Little Tramp”.It was lent to him by Billie Ritchie whilst they were performing in “The Mumming Birds” for the Alfred Karno Company. Chaplin was supposed to be playing the part of the gentleman cad and Ritchie the tramp, but due to this not working for Chaplin, Ritchie offered to exchange roles. The shoes were too large, so Chaplin put them on opposing feet and Charlie Chaplin’s iconic creation was born.Chaplin returned the suit after the performances, but reprised the character on film in “The Kid Auto Races”, where his Tramp became famous. Ritchie, who had originated the “drunk” role was galled that the directors asked him to make his characters more Chaplin-esque, and whilst Chaplin was very determined to protect the copyright of his character, he would often get involved in litigation with other film companies, was always benign towards his erstwhile mentor.Period illustrations show Ritchie wearing the suit or parts of it, but we have not been able to find any photographic evidence showing Chaplin with it on. We have, however, been contacted by Billie Ritchie’s descendants, who confirm the story as true. Ritchie was to die in a filming accident involving an ostrich in 1921. Chaplin hired his widow, Winifred, to be in charge of and design his costumes (most famously, for the Great Dictator). When Winifred retired, she came back to Britain with the suit that was placed in the museum of Harry Brown, a stage doorman of many London Theaters between 1930-60.
The outfit and cane were believed to have been given to Harry Brown after Billie Ritchie’s family read an article pertaining to the collection of memorabilia owned by Harry Brown in their local paper. The cane was later signed by Charlie Chaplin in 1952, during his Grand Tour, at the Odeon Leicester Square where he met Brown. When Harry Brown died the suit was exhibited at the Museum of Moving Images, London, Museum of Entertainment, Truro, Cornwall and at Exeter University, Devon. Unfortunately the corn flower blue overcoat and trunk was lost in one of the moves. We were able to buy the suit and the collection of canes and have re-united a Charlie Chaplin cane with the suit.
The items came up, remarkably, in Plymouth (at the Plymouth Auction Rooms, 18/5/2005) as three lots, namely the suit, the signed cane and a collection of walking sticks from the museum that included Charlie Chaplin, Billie Ritchie, Winston Churchill and other notables. The signed cane was sold to a collector in Texas, USA. We were able to buy the suit and the collection of canes and have re-united a Charlie Chaplin cane with the suit.
The book “Chaplin: His Life and Art” (Collins, 1985 by David Robinson) which covers the Charlie Chaplin/Billie Ritchie suit saga is also included, as well as newspaper cuttings, a Bonhams catalogue 1996 where the suit was previously sold and the relevant newspaper cuttings from 2005 when we bought the suit.
A chance to own a significant part of Chaplin, Ritchie and film history.