A guest post by London Historians Member, Sue Sinton Smith.
During the early 20th Century Canning Town had the highest multicultural population in the country. Kamal Chunchie, born in Ceylon, came to England to fight with the Middlesex Regiment during the First World War. After the war he settled in Canning Town and, appalled at the discrimination experienced by black and Asian people, decided to establish somewhere they could socialise as well as to get advice. Chunchie rented a former Chinese boarding house which had hosted opium dens in the basement and moved in with his family. He wanted somewhere Black and Asian people could feel safe and learn, as well as hear the word of God. Chunchie, born a Muslim but converted during the War, was ordained as a Minister in the Methodist Church. 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, like Dr Barnardo, that there was so much to be done here.
The Institute was funded by the Methodist Church, supplemented by donations from friends and Chunchie himself. It was open from nine in the morning till 10 at night and had a billiard room, a newspaper and writing room and a prayer room. It provided food and shelter to seamen and gave out food and clothes parcels to poor families and provided Christmas dinners, as well as running outings to the seaside.
Sadly it was not to last. After just five years, the building was demolished to make way for the new road to the docks in 1930. Chunchie might have been able to re-establish the Institute in another building but by this point funding had been withdrawn by the Methodist Church. This could have been due to Chunchie’s lifestyle. He was a smoker, drinker and gambler and didn’t feel his position as minister meant he should compromise his enjoyment. He carried on travelling around the country, preaching and raising money for the people he supported, unable to move into a new building before his death in 1953.
1. Eastside Community Heritage, 2010
2. Kamal Chunchie and Coloured Men’s Institute, The Newham Story