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Fred Karno

Fred Karno
Born Frederick John Westcott
(1866-03-26)26 March 1866
Exeter, Devon, England, UK
Died 18 September 1941(1941-09-18) (aged 75)
Lilliput, Dorset, England, UK
Other names Fred Karno
Occupation Music hall comedian & theatre impresario
Spouse(s) Edith Cuthbert (1889–1927)
Marie T. L. Moore (1927–1941)

Frederick John Westcott (26 March 1866 – 18 September 1941), best known by his stage name Fred Karno, was an English theatre impresario of the British music hall.[1] He is credited with popularizing the custard-pie-in-the-face gag.[2] During the 1890s, in order to circumvent stage censorship, Karno developed a form of sketch comedy without dialogue.

Cheeky authority-defying playlets such as "Jail Mum" (1896) in which prisoners play tricks on warders and "Early Birds" (1903), where a small man defeats a large ruffian in London's East End, can be seen as precursors of movie silent comedy. American film producer Hal Roach stated: "Fred Karno is not only a genius, he is the man who originated slapstick comedy. We in Hollywood owe much to him."[3]

Among the music hall trench song in the First World War, as a parody of, or rather to the tune of, the hymn The Church's One Foundation.[4] In the Second World War it was adapted as the Anthem of the Guinea Pig Club, the first line becoming "We are McIndoe's Army ...".


  • Biography 1
  • Legacy 2
  • References 3
  • Further reading 4
  • External links 5


Karno was born in Exeter, Devon, England, in 1866. He worked as a cabinet maker with a workshop in Waterbeer Street. He married Edith and in 1896 his son, Fred Karno, Jr. was born.[5]

In 1904 he visited Tagg's Island on London's River Thames and in 1912 he bought the island and the existing hotel. He demolished the original hotel and hired architect Frank Matcham to build The Karsino.[6] With the advent of cinema, the music hall's popularity declined. As a result of this decline, Karno went bankrupt in 1925.[6]

On 24 May 1927 his wife Edith, from whom he had been separated since 1904, died in her sleep of diabetes. Three weeks later, Karno married his second wife, his long-time partner, Marie Moore.

Karno went to the US in 1929, and was hired by the Hal Roach Studios as a writer-director, and was reunited with one of his former protégés, Stan Laurel. However, his stay at the studio was brief and unsuccessful as Hal Roach found out Karno's main abilities were as a producer, and he departed in February 1930. On his return to Britain, Karno helped to write and produce several short films and in 1936 returned to the theatre with a show called Real Life.[7]

Karno spent his last years in the village of Lilliput, Dorset as a part-owner of an off-licence bought with financial help from Charlie Chaplin,[8] and died there in 1941 from diabetes, aged 75.[1][6]


Karno's Astoria houseboat from the river

His houseboat, the Astoria, on the River Thames at Hampton, Middlesex, is now used as a recording studio by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour.[9]

On 30 September 2012 The Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America unveiled a commemorative blue plaque to Karno at his former studios at 38 Southwell Road, Camberwell.[10]


  1. ^ a b "Fred Karno".  
  2. ^ Leslie Halliwell, John Walker (2001). "Halliwell's Who's who in the Movies". p. 240. HarperCollinsEntertainment, 2001
  3. ^ J. P. Gallagher (1971). "Fred Karno: master of mirth and tears". p. 165. Hale.
  4. ^ Trench Songs', The First World War Poetry Digital Archive"'".  
  5. ^ "Fred Karno, Jr.".  
  6. ^ a b c "Fred Karno and the Karsino".  
  7. ^ Book-Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy (Faber and Faber Ltd. Author-Simon Louvish.Publishing Date-2001.
  8. ^ David Robinson (2004). "Filming City Lights". Retrieved 12 May 2011. 
  9. ^ Winn, p. 141
  10. ^ "Fred Karno Commemorated", The Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America, accessed 30 September 2012

Further reading

  • Midwinter, Eric (January 2011) [First published 2004]. "Karno, Fred (1866–1941)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 5 December 2009. (Subscription required.)
  • "Death of Fred Karno". The Times. 19 September 1941.  (Available through The Times archive. Subscription required.)
  • Farnes, Derek (1 July 1950). "Fred Karno: Immortal Comic Who Recruited Laughter". The Age. p. 2. Retrieved 5 December 2009. 
  • Winn, Christopher (2010). I Never Knew That About the River Thames. London: Ebury Press.  

External links

  • Fred Karno, Tagg's Island and the Astoria
  • The Charlie Hall Picture Archive
  • Fred Karno biography
  • Fred Karno at the Internet Movie Database
  • Fred Karno at the Music Hall Guild of Great Britain
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