Gallant Soldier, Minister and Founder of the Coloured Men’s Institute in East London
Kamal Chunchie

A little known hero from Ceylon who campaigned for the rights of Black and Asian minorities in East London at the end of WW1

Compiled by Tina Edward Gunawardhana

Kamal Athon Chunchie was a Methodist minister and the founder of ‘The Coloured Men’s Institute’ in Tidal Basin Road, Victoria Docks, Canning Town, East London. He was the eldest of nine children born in Ceylon to parents of Malay origin. His father was one of the leading Malay figures in Ceylon. He was educated at Kingswood College, Kandy. In 1915 his adventurous streak saw him leave his family in Kandy and enlist in the public schools battalion, 3rd Middlesex regiment, joining around 28,500 other South Asian troops in the trenches in Europe. During the First World War, he saw active service on the Western Front, in Italy and Salonica. Chunchie converted to Christianity while convalescing in an Army hospital in Malta. He arrived in London on 6 March 1918.

Towards the end of the war, while stationed in Chatham, he met Mable Tappen, who was stationed there as a member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. They married in July 1920 and had one daughter, Muriel. In December 1921, Chunchie began to work as a missionary for the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society among the Asian, Chinese, African and Caribbean sailor community in the Canning Town area of London. He initially took up a position at the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest in Poplar, which was affiliated with the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society. He would visit the local residents and the seamen population in ships, hospitals, and lodging-houses, preaching to them and providing material assistance. His missionary and philanthropic work also extended to the small ethnic minority community resident in the docklands, many married to white partners, and their children, as well as colonial and Indian students. Chunchie spoke out against racism and the plight of the ispossessed in the East End which he saw as incompatible with Britain’s Christian values.

In 1923, he rented a hall in Swanscombe Street, where he founded the Docklands’ first black Wesleyan Methodist church, and a Sunday school. During his efforts to counter racist discrimination of the black and Asian population he lobbied for the establishment of an organization that catered for London’s East End’s black and Asian community, a plan that came to being in 1926 with the establishment of the Coloured Men’s Insitute (CMI) in Tidal Basin Road, Canning Town. It was a religious, social and welfare centre for sailors and local residents with Chunchie at the helm as the responsible pastor and warden. He spoke eight languages and sometimes preached in six different languages at the same service! The church wanted to send him abroad as a missionary but he refused as he felt that there was so much to be done in the east end of London.

From 1926 until the centre’s demolition as part of the West Ham Road widening scheme in 1930, Chunchie worked tirelessly as a fund-raiser to keep the centre open, addressing Methodist gatherings all over the UK. He was an accomplished speaker, invoking the Christian ideals of equality and brotherhood to combat racism, unmasking the hypocrisy of Christian England and its attitudes to race. Chunchie was well-respected and well-liked by the black community in East London; however he faced criticism from the East End Branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, who accused Chunchie of patronizing black people and fostering segregation.

Chunchie  was also criticized by the Methodist Mission House over his management of the CMI. After 1930, no plans were drawn up to reopen the CMI elsewhere and Chunchie worked as a missionary deputation in the home church from 1930 to 1932. Chunchie, however, would continue to work tirelessly to relaunch the CMI as an independent organization. With the support of a multi-racial council that included Dr Harold Moody of the League of Coloured Peoples, Professor R. K. Sorabji, and Lady Lydia Anderson and dedicated volunteers, amongst them his wife, he worked hard to build a new CMI. However, due to a lack of funding this never came to fruition, which meant that Chunchie had to use the limited facilities of the Presbyterian church in Victoria Dock Road as the centre and his own home as a base to continue the numerous pastoral, charitable and religious activities of the CMI.

An active member of the community, Chunchie played cricket for Essex, was a member of the Royal Empire Society (from 1935), and was vice-president of the League of Coloured Peoples (1935–7). During the Second World War he was a member of the voluntary firefighting party in Lewisham, South London.
After years of selflessly giving his services to the downtrodden Black and Asian communities, Chunchie suffered a heart attack and died on 28th June 1953. He is best remembered as one of the pioneering coloured men of East London who strove to uplift the community.