PortCities London

The welfare of seamen

The Coloured Men's Institute
 

Prejudice and racism

For non-white seamen, the perils of life in the port were made worse by the prejudice and racism they experienced from the locals. Some initiatives set out to help Asian and African seamen specifically, but the most important work was carried out by the Methodist Pastor Kamal Chunchie, founder of the Coloured Men's Institute. 

The Strangers' Home

The home for Asiatics, Africans, South Sea Islanders and others at West India Dock Road.
View full size imageThe Strangers' Home on the West India Dock Road. © NMM

The most important initiative in the 19th century was the opening of the Strangers' Home, also known as the Home for Asiatics, Africans, South Sea Islanders and Others. Its promoters were Lieutenant Colonel RM Hughes, formally of the East India Company, and Joseph Salter of the London City Mission.

In the main hall of the Strangers' Home, West India Dock Road.
View full size imageIn the main hall of the Strangers' Home, West India Dock Road. © NMM

The main contributors were the East India Company and several Indian princes, with a smaller donation coming later from the Peninsula and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (later P&O). The Strangers' Home opened in 1857 on the West India Dock Road.

 

Kamal Chunchie

The staff of the Queen Victoria Seamen's Rest, c. 1922.
View full size imageThe staff of the Queen Victoria Seamen's Rest, c. 1922. © NMM
One by-product of the Methodist initiatives for seamen was the work of Kamal Chunchie (1886-1953). A Ceylonese Muslim of Malay origin, Chunchie served on the Western Front and at Salonika during World War I, and had converted to Christianity from Islam. In 1921 he became a Pastor at the Queen Victoria Seamen's Rest.

Chunchie was given special responsibilty for the non-white seamen, who were going through a particularly bad time in the post-war years. Large numbers were recruited during the war, and most had been laid off once they were no longer needed. Many were left stranded in Britain's port towns.  

Chunchie's work for the QVSR 

Black billiard player at the Queen Victoria Seamen's Rest.
View full size imageA black billiard player at the Queen Victoria Seamen's Rest. © NMM
Chunchie visited black and Asian seamen on ships in the port, in the seamen's hospitals in Greenwich and the Royal Albert Dock, and in the various hostels where they stayed. Everywhere, he was dismayed by the prejudice and discrimination they had to face.

A children's outing organised by the Coloured Men's Institute.
View full size imageA children's outing organized by the Coloured Men's Institute. © NMM

He discovered there were many black and Asian seamen living in London and facing both racism and poverty. Determined to help improve their lives, he collected donations to relieve their poverty.

Chunchie distributed food, clothing and other items to individuals in need. He also organized group events such as outings to the countryside and seaside.

Chunchie and the Coloured Men's Institute 

Coloured Men's Institute.
View full size imageThe Coloured Men's Institute on Tidal Basin Road. © NMM
Chunchie set up a Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canning Town, specifically for the black and Asian communities. In 1926 he founded the Coloured Men's Institute, housed in a former Chinese lodging house at 13-15 Tidal Basin Road, Canning Town.

 

Coloured Men's Institute, 13-15 Tidal Basin Road.
View full size imageChristmas at the Coloured Men's Institute. © NMM
The Institute acted as a social and welfare centre, and was used as a church on Sundays. The social highlights included Christmas dinners and New Year parties.

  

Coloured Men's Institute, 13-15 Tidal Basin Road.
View full size imageA party at the Coloured Men's Institute. © NMM

The original Coloured Men's Institute lasted only four years, as the building was demolished to build the Silvertown Way. Chunchie carried on the Institute's work at various places near the Royal Docks.

 

Chunchie's contribution 

Coloured Men's Institute, 13-15 Tidal Basin Road.
View full size imageThe Coloured Men's Institute on Tidal Basin Road. © NMM

Chunchie died in 1953, after three decades of relentless activity. Without his exceptional drive and fundraising skills, the Institute did not survive him.

He had made enemies and attracted much criticism. Some did not like the issues he highlighted, and he broke with the Methodists in 1932. Others felt he should have been more radical and openly political.

However, by devoting his life to the local black and Asian communities, Chunchie made a real contribution to the lives of many people who were marginalized or ignored by British society.

   

To find out more about the work of Kamal Chunchie, visit the following site, part of the Channel 4 Black and Asian History Map:

http://members.lycos.co.uk/antersite/past/asiapas.htm

 





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