Kamal Athon Chunchie


Coloured Men's Institute
13-15 Tidal Basin Street Canning Town
E16 1PH
United Kingdom
51° 30' 30.1644" N, 0° 0' 57.492" E
Date of birth: 
04 Jun 1886
City of birth: 
Country of birth: 
Current name country of birth: 
Sri Lanka
Date of death: 
03 Jul 1953
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
06 Mar 1918
Dates of time spent in Britain: 



Kamal Athon Chunchie was a Methodist minister and the founder of ‘The Coloured Men’s Institute’ in Tidal Basin Road, Victoria Docks, Canning Town. He was the eldest of nine children born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to Muslim parents of Malay origin. His father was one of the leading Muslim figures in Ceylon. He was educated at Kingswood College, Kandy. In 1915 he enlisted in the public schools battalion, 3rd Middlesex regiment, joining around 28,500 other South Asian troops in the trenches. During the First World War, he saw active service on the Western Front, in Italy and Salonika. 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 dispossessed in the East End which he saw as incompatible with Britain's Christian values.

In 1923, in a rented hall in Swanscombe Street, Chunchie founded the Docklands' first black Wesleyan Methodist church, and a Sunday school. In 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 fruition 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 as the responsible pastor and warden. 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.

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. In 1943 he also attended meetings of Swaraj House. He died on 28 June 1953 after a heart attack. He is buried in Hither Green cemetery.


Lydia Anderson, A. C. Bannerji, Tarapada Basu (Indian Seamen's Welfare League), Dr H. K. Handoo, Jabol Hoque, N. Datta Majumdar, S. P. Mitra, Harold Moody (League of Coloured  Peoples), Dr H. K. Orr-Ewing, Ajit Kumar M. Roy, Dr M. D. Rutnasuriya, Dr A. M. Shah, Martin Sasthri, Canon H. R. L. Sheppard, Shoran Singh (Christian Sikh and YMCA worker), Professor R. K. Sorabji, Lady Dr C. B. Vakil.

Ceylon Friends' League (patron), Royal Empire Society (member).

Secondary works: 

The Other Eastenders: Kamal Chunchie and West Ham's Early Black Community (London: Eastside Community Heritage, 2002)

Sadler, John, 'A Champion of London's Docklands', Contemporary Review (April 1991)

Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (London: Pluto, 2002)

Visram, Rozina, 'Chunchie, Kamal Athon (1886–1953)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) [http://www.oxforddnb.com/index/71/101071629/]

Visram, Rozina,  ‘Kamal A. Chunchie of the Coloured Men's Institute: The Man and the Legend’, Immigrants and Minorities 18.1 (March 1999), pp. 29–48

Archive source: 

Box 672, FBN 18, WMMS Home and General, SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London

L/PJ/12/658, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras