The Thames from Hampton Court to Sunbury Lock

Fred Karno

a music hall legend

Fred Karno (born Frederick Westcott, 1866-1941) was an extremely famous and successful impresario.


Starting off as a plumber, he became a gymnast and worked in circuses and music halls. He then teamed up with two other gymnasts, Bob Sewell and Ted Tysall. When an act called the Three Carnos were unable to perform at the Metropolitan Edgware Road, the trio called themselves the Three Karnos and Fred’s rise to fame began.


He soon realised there was more money to be made organising other artistes than performing himself, so from the mid 1890s he concentrated on slapstick comedy sketches with a large number of different performers—in 1906 he had 32 different sketches at venues all round the country. His shows were produced in a dozen other countries, and he had huge success in the USA.


His HQ was two houses in Vaughan Road, Camberwell, which he called The Fun Factory.


Fred took credit for discovering and promoting major new talents like Harry Weldon, Fred Kitchen, Sandy Powell, Max Miller, Will Hay, Flanagan and Allen, Stan Laurel, and Charlie Chaplin.


After bankruptcy in 1926, Karno carried on in the music hall, and tried to make it in Hollywood in 1928, getting a job (with Charlie Chaplin’s and Stan Laurel’s help) with Hal Roach, but he didn’t like being told what to do and resigned in a huff.


Back in Britain, his career revived and he produced a touring show called Karno's Krazy Komics. He then directed five films at Ealing Studios, but they were not successful and Fred ended up in debt again.


With help from the Music Hall Benevolent Society and a £1,000 gift from Charlie Chaplin, Fred bought an off-licence at Lilliput in Poole, where he died of diabetes in 1941.

fred karno’s army

There’s a famous British First World War song, “We Are Fred Karno’s Army”, comparing the often shambolic performance of Kitchener’s hastily-trained New Army with Karno’s slapstick comedians…


(Sung to the tune Aurelia, or “The Church’s One Foundation”)


We are Fred Karno’s army, the ragtime infantry.

We cannot fight, we cannot shoot, what bleeding use are we?

And when we get to Berlin we'll hear the Kaiser say,

“Hoch! Hoch! Mein Gott, what a bloody rotten lot, are the ragtime infantry”


We are Fred Karno’s Army, a jolly lot are we,

Fred Karno is our Captain, Charlie Chaplin our O.C.

But when we get to Berlin, the Kaiser he will say,

"Hoch! Hoch! Mein Gott, what a jolly fine lot, are the ragtime infantry"


Back to Tagg’s Island 1


Fred Karno’s houseboat

Picture of British troops marching - Fred Karno's Army was one of many irreverent marching songs

“We Are Fred Karno’s Army” was one of many irreverent
marching songs

Photo of Fred Karno from his hotel brochure for The Karsino

This picture of Fred Karno comes from a brochure for the Karsino