This contribution relies heavily on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry by Rozina Visram [author of Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain, 1700-1947 (Pluto Press, 1986), Asians in Britain : four hundred years of history (Hodder Wayland 1995); and nine entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography] and ‘Kamal Chunchie: The Other Eastenders’ published in 2010 by Eastside Community Heritage.
Kamal Athon Chunchie was born in 1886 in Kandy (Sri Lanka/Ceylon) where he joined the police, transferring to Singapore. In 1915 he went to Europe and served as a private in the Middlesex Regiment and the Royal Army Service Corps in France and Greece. Invalided to Malta he there embraced Christianity. He settle in London in 1918, and in 1920 married Mabel Williams Tappen. Chunchie worked for the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society from 1921, labouring among seamen in London’s docks, Asian students, and local ‘mixed race’ families. In 1923 he initiated a Wesleyan Methodist church in Swanscome Street, catering to this cosmopolitan population.
Funded by the Waddilove Trust (Waddilove’s Provident cheques provided credit to working class Britons) Chunchie’s Coloured Men’s Institute was founded in Tidal Basin Road close by the Victoria Docks. He was pastor and warden, and spoke around Britain obtaining funds and advocating Christian fellowship as a solution to the ‘colour problem’. Road widening demolished the building in 1930. Chunchie sought new financial backers and borrowed a church in Victoria Dock Road where he and his wife provided breakfasts for children attending Sunday School, and clothing and shoes. Excursions were organised. Christmas dinners were served. Chunchie had a network of sympathisers who observed the very real poverty in London’s docklands in the 1930s. Stranded seamen, far from home, relied on Chunchie and the institute.
A fluent and charasmatic speaker, Chunchie was respected among Methodists – others disliked the de facto segregation of the institute and its patronizing attitude. He published his photograph with wife and daughter, played cricket for Essex and was the vice-president of the League of Coloured Peoples 1935-1937 founded in 1931 by Jamaica-born doctor Harold Moody (he lived in Camberwell: the Chunchies in Lewisham). Chunchie fell out with the Methodist establishment but he was able to finance some of the work and indeed left £4,022 when he died in June 1953.
Philanthropic work could lead to recognition by the establishment, as experienced by Agnes Weston (1840-1918) who provided shore accommodation for Royal Navy sailors, and it attracted members of the establishment as with Disraeli’s secretary Montagu Corry who, as Lord Rowton, established inexpensive accommodation in turn-of-the-century London. Chunchie’s Coloured Men’s Instititute was not as substantial as their achievements, and the absence of honours or medals (Weston became a Dame, in 1918) may have reflected the establishment’s distain for charity work among blacks and Asians in Britain. Dr Moody who died in 1947 at a similar age to Chunchie was also ignored but his League had a more political approach. For the hundreds of sailors, labourers, and dockland residents who received support from the Chunchies the life of Kamal Chunchie was very valuable.
Chunchie and family around 1930 at Marlborough Road, London SE13:
Right: posed at Marischal Road, also in Lewisham, London SE13:
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