Alice Maude Sorabji Pennell


Alice Maude (Sorabji) Pennell was born in Belgaum, India, on 17 July 1874, the youngest of eight children of Sorabji Kharsedji and Franscina Sorabji. The family were descended from a small Zoroastrian community and Kharsedji was one of the earliest converts to Christianity. Settled in Poona, where Franscina founded and ran the Victoria High School, the children were, like their parents, ‘brought up English’, with strong educational values.

Alice came to England in the late 1890s. After qualifying at the London School of Medicine in 1905 she returned to India, and was working as a doctor at the Zenana Hospital in Bahawalpur when she first met the British missionary doctor Theodore Leighton Pennell in 1906. He had established a mission hospital at Bannu on the North-West Frontier and was renowned for adopting native dress and travelling unarmed in the hostile tribal areas; it was said that ‘the presence of Pennell on the Frontier is equal to that of two British regiments’.
Married in 1908 and widowed in 1912 when Theodore died from blood poisoning, Pennell was awarded an OBE for her work at Bannu where she remained until after the Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919). By 1925 she was living in London and had written her first novel which she successfully submitted to John Murray for publication as Children of the Border, relating the life of an Afghan chieftain’s wife on the Frontier. The Begum’s Son was published in 1928 and Doorways of the East which dealt with ‘modern affairs, unrest and political strife’ in 1931. This latter was intended by Pennell as a call for friendship and understanding between India and Britain during the Round Table Conferences (1930-2). None of her books sold beyond their original print-runs of 2,000 copies, and the latter two made losses for the publishers, who rejected her fourth novel, about an Afghan woman’s revenge.
During the 1930s and 1940s Pennell gave talks on Indian life, women and health at various literary and medical venues, including a radio broadcast in 1929 for the ‘Life in Foreign Lands’ series. She travelled widely, often with her friend Queen Elisabeth of Greece, and addressed groups of women doctors and other professional women – Austrian and American – while visiting Vienna, glad of the ‘many opportunities of speaking of the British point of view – and that of us who are loyal to Britain’. This was especially to counterbalance the widespread influences of both ‘our megalomaniac Gandhi’ and the American Katherine Mayo’s imperialist diatribe Mother India, considered by Pennell to be ‘not always true and very one sided’. It was support for this controversial book which damaged the social and political standing in India of her sister Cornelia Sorabji, one of the first women lawyers and a prolific author herself.
Pennell died at the Convent of the Holy Rood in Findon, Sussex, on 7 March 1951. Her obituary in The Times, written by her friend Brenda Spender, literary editor of Country Life, noted that like all the ‘outstanding personalities’ of the Sorabji family, Pennell ‘bore the hall-mark of fervent Christianity and complete devotion to the British throne’.


Published works: 

The Hero of the Afghan Frontier: The Splendid Story of T. L. Pennell retold for Boys and Girls (London: Revell 1912; London: Seeley, Service, 1915)

Pennell of the Afghan Frontier: The Life of Theodore Leighton Pennell (London: Seeley, Service; New York: E P Dutton, 1914)

Children of the Border (London: Murray, 1926)

The Begum’s Son (London: Murray, 1928)

Doorways of the East: An Indian Novel (London: Murray, 1931)


Letter dated 2 October 1931, book file for Doorways of the East, Acc 12927/242, John Murray Archives, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

Date of birth: 
17 Jul 1874

Her last novel Doorways of the East dealt with ‘modern affairs, unrest and political strife’ with characters depicting a spectrum of Indian, British and Anglo-Indian responses from the ultra-conservatives to anarchists who followed ‘our megalomaniac Gandhi’. Pennell wanted the book to be published before the Second Round Table Conference of Autumn 1931, to both inform readers and take advantage of the interest in Indian affairs. After the book was published, Pennell visited Vienna. A letter to her publisher, John Murray, detailed the interest amongst Austrian and American professionals there in events in India. Pennell was hoping to have her latest novel translated into German for the Austrian and German markets.


Cornelia Sorabji (sister), Richard Kharsedji Sorabji (brother), Dr Theodore Leighton Pennell of Bannu on India’s North West Frontier (husband), Brenda Spender (friend), HM Queen Elisabeth of Greece (friend and travel companion), Brigadier General Charles Bruce, Field-Marshall Earl Roberts of Kandahar.

Contributions to periodicals: 

Cornhill Magazine (submitted story, September 1925)


Academy 86, January - June 1914, p. 231

Geographical Journal 44.4, October 1914, p. 400

TLS, 10 December 1926, p. 558

TLS, 5 August 1928, p. 714

Morning Post, 5 June 1931

Country Life, June 1931

TLS, 9 July 1931, p. 544


I had many opportunities of speaking of the British point of view - and that of us who are loyal to Britain...Though I am not a great writer, I can give a fair picture of both sides, I think, as my great aim is to help friendship between Britain and India  especially; and I look for International understanding as the solution of our difficulties

Secondary works: 

Burton, Antoinette, At the Heart of Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1998)

Gooptu, Suparna, Cornelia Sorabji: India Pioneer Woman Lawyer, A Biography (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Innes, C. L., A History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain, 1700-2000, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)


With the duality of Indian birth and English upbringing and marriage, Pennell’s work - ‘written with the understanding that is mine from being myself Indian, and yet with an appreciation of the western point of view, because of my western education and connections’ – attempted to hold on to a vision of benign British rule over an Indian empire. Sales figures for Doorways of the East were poor in Britain and India, and American publishers had declined it; Pennell was trying to widen the appeal (and sales) of her work.

Archive source: 

John Murray Archives, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

Involved in events: 

Lady Carmichael of Skirling’s Reception of Round Table Conference at the British Indian Union rooms, Grosvenor Gardens, London, 25 November 1930 (attended)
East India Association Reception at Grosvenor House, Park Lane, to meet representatives of India at the Imperial Conference, 11 June 1937 (attended)
His Majesty’s Government Reception at Lancaster House, St James’s, in honour of the 9th Imperial Social Hygiene Congress, 12 July 1939 (attended)
Talk on ‘The Women of India’ at City Literary Institute, London, 3 April 1943
Talk on ‘Health in India' at Ling Physical Education Association, Homerton College, Cambridge, 20 April 1943
Talk at Society of Women Journalists, Stationers’ Hall, London, 9 January 1947

City of birth: 
Country of birth: 
Other names: 

Ailsa Sorabji

Mrs Theodore Pennell

Date of death: 
07 Mar 1951
Location of death: 
Findon, Sussex
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
01 Jan 1899
Precise 1st arrival date unknown: 
Dates of time spent in Britain: 

Not before 1894, perhaps nearer to 1899; medical training until 1905; visit 1910; from 1920s to death in 1951, between extended visits to India and travels in America, Europe and the Middle East


Ayahs' Home


According to evidence given to the India Office in 1910 by Mrs S. Dunn, Matron of the Ayahs' Home, the Home had been founded by a committee of women who had resolved there should be a place to house stranded ayahs in England. The Ayahs' Home appears to have been founded in 1825 in Aldgate by a Mrs Rogers (according to an advert in The Times on 3 December 1868, although there are conflicting reports about the exact date and manner of foundation). It provided shelter for ayahs whose employment had been terminated upon arriving in Britain and found employment and passage back to India for them with British families who were travelling there. The employer who brought the ayah to Britain usually provided the ayah's return ticket, which was surrendered to the Home. The matron then 'sold' the ticket to a family requiring the ayah's services and in the meantime, before the travel date, the Home would use the money to pay for the ayah's board and lodging.

Supported by Christian Missionaries, in 1900 the London City Mission (LCM) took over the organization of the Home as it moved from its premises in Jewry Street in Aldgate to King Edward's Road in Hackney. In 1921, it moved from 26 King Edward's Road to more spacious premises at 4 King Edward's Road. This new opening was inaugurated by Lady Chelmsford, the wife of the former Viceroy of India. The Home was not merely a hostel, but a venue for missionaries to try and convert the ayahs to Christianity. The Foreigner's Branch Committee of the LCM often held 'Foreigners' Fetes' where ayahs were prominent members of the diverse company. Mrs Dunn told the India Office in 1910 that the Home dealt with about ninety ayahs a year. The Home was designed not only for Indian ayahs but also for nurse-maids from other countries such as China who were similarly brought over by families and required assistance in returning. The travelling season was March to November and so the Home was practically empty from November to March. During the First World War, women were not allowed to travel by sea and so there were many more stranded ayahs during those years.

Secondary works: 

London City Mission Magazine, in particular issues from 1877 to 1922

Marshall, A. C. 'Nurses of Ocean Highways', The Quiver: The Magazine for the Home 57 (1922), pp. 924-5

Visram, Rozina, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes (London: Pluto Press, 1986)

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

Key Individuals' Details: 

Mrs S. Dunn (matron)


Viscountess Chelmsford, Joseph Salter.

Archive source: 

Series L/PJ/6, in particular L/PJ/6/881 and L/PJ/6/936, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

Report of the Committee on Distressed Colonial and Indian Subjects, with evidence from Mrs S. Dunn of the Ayahs Home, L/PJ/6/925 [alternative reference: Parliamentary Paper Cd.5134], India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

See also adverts in The Times for ayahs requesting employment


King Edward's Road Hackney
London, E9 7RY
United Kingdom
Jewry Street Aldgate
London, EC3N 2PJ
United Kingdom

Strangers' Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders


The Strangers Home was built on the initiative of a number of missionary societies working in the East End of London, foremost among them Henry Venn, Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, who launched an appeal for funds. The first donation of £500.00 was made by Maharaja Duleep Singh. The foundation stone was laid by Prince Albert on 31 May 1856. The home would open one year later. Throughout its existence, it served a double purpose as a centre for government-subsidized shelter for lascars and a centre for religious instruction.

The Home provided temporary accommodation and food for foreign sailors. Furthermore, it served as a repatriation centre where sailors were recruited for ships returning East. It was also used as a missionary centre with Joseph Salter of the London City Mission as its resident missionary. Among the facilities provided by the home, were a library of Christian books in Asian and African languages, a depository for valuables, and remittance of their earnings to India. The dormitories could accommodate 220 people; the home provided store rooms, laundry rooms, bathrooms and sanitation as well as a dining hall. Attached to it was the Lascar Shipping Office, which registered unemployed sailors. From 1857 to 1877 according to the Home’s own figures, it cared for 5,709 people, of which 1,605 were destitute and gratuitously provided for. The Strangers’ Home was subsidised with £200.00 annually by the India Office for the temporary maintenance of lascars before their return to India.

In 1923 the Strangers Home was recommended by the India Office to ship owners as the only place for suitable accommodation in London. In the 1920s the union activist Nathalal Jagivan Upadhyaya attempted to recruit lascars at the Strangers’ Home for the Indian Seamen Union. He was banned from the Strangers Home in December 1926.

The Home closed down in 1937 due to a lack of funds and a dwindling number of occupants. Having run at a yearly loss of £2,000.00, the Indian High Commission made arrangements for destitute Indian sailors to be taken in by other organizations. The proposed closure caused concern among Poplar’s South Asian community. Syed Fazal Shah, secretary of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, expressed his concern about the disappearance of ‘a place of refuge for the people of Asia in London’ (L/E/9/967). 

Other names: 

Asiatic and Overseas Home

Secondary works: 

Miller, Robert, From Shore to Shore: A History of the Church and the Merchant Seafarer (R. Miller, 1989)

Salter, Joseph, The Asiatic in England (London: Seeley, Jackson & Halliday, 1873)

Visram, Rozina, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes (London: Pluto,1986)

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

Wainwright, A. Martin, ‘The better class’ of Indians: Social Rank, Imperial Identity, And South Asians in Britain 1858-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008)

Date began: 
01 Jun 1857

J. Freeman, Colonel Hughes (Hon. Secretary for the Strangers Home), N. A. Lash, Maharaja Duleep Singh, Joseph Salter, E. C. Stephens, Nathalal Jagivan Upadhyaya.

Date ended: 
01 Jan 1937
Archive source: 

L/PJ/2/59, L/E/7/567, L/E/7/1152, L/PJ/12/233, L/E/9/967, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

Precise date ended unknown: 


West India Dock Road Limehouse
London, E14 8HB
United Kingdom

Kamal Athon Chunchie


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.

Date of birth: 
04 Jun 1886

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

City of birth: 
Country of birth: 
Current name country of birth: 
Sri Lanka


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 death: 
03 Jul 1953
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
06 Mar 1918
Dates of time spent in Britain: 


Subscribe to RSS - missionaries