Gandhi and Charlie Chaplin. A Famous Meet in Canning Town.
One of Britain’s first celebrity endorsements, occurred in the home of a Doctor Katial, Becton Road, Canning Town, E16, in 1931. It was there, Charlie Chaplin at the height of his fame, met Mahatma Gandhi to express his support for the poor of India and the cause of Independence.
The meeting grabbed the attention of the British public and hundreds of journalists, well-wishers and local people surrounded the house to catch a glimpse of this film star and the curious Indian freedom fighter. It came at a difficult time for Gandhi, who was in Britain to attend a Round Table Conference on India’s Future, where he had been politically outmaneuvered by his enemies and pushed to the margins. Chaplin’s endorsement gave Gandhi a public platform to argue again.
It was a meeting that nearly did not happen. Gandhi had refused to stay in the 5 star hotel allocated to the participants of the conference. He chose to go to Bromley by Bow and resided instead in Kingsley Hall Settlement, which was dedicated to working with the East End poor. There, he stayed in a tiny cell on the roof, to show his support for the London poor, whose lives he knew where hard and unremitting. In this tiny cell surrounded by advisors, Gandhi who had little knowledge of the film business, received a telegram from Chaplin. In her book, Entertaining Gandhi, Muriel Lester the person in-charge of Kingsley Hall, described what happened.
“One of my clearest mental pictures is of Mr Gandhi sitting with a telegram in his hand looking distinctly puzzled. Grouped round him were secretaries awaiting his answer. As I came in, the silence was being broken by a disapproving voice saying ‘But he’s only a buffoon, there is no point in going to meet him.’ The telegram was being handed over for the necessary refusal when I saw the name.”
“‘But don’t you know that name, Bapu?’ I inquired, immensely intrigued. ‘No’ he answered, taking back the flimsy form and looking at me for the enlightenment that his secretaries could not give.”
“Charlie Chaplin! He’s the world’s hero. You simply must meet him. His art is rooted in the life of working people, he understands the poor as well as you do, he honours them always in his pictures.”
As they say, ‘the rest is history” and although Gandhi was arrested on his return to India, he went on to win Independence for India in 1947 but paid the ultimate price when he was assassinated in 1948.
The Jarrow Hunger March stayed in Kingsley Hall in 1935 and it has enjoyed a modern spin-off from Gandhi’s 1931 visit. In 1982, Richard Attenborough came to the hall while making his biopic Gandhi. Finding it down at heel, he helped raise money for a renovation. The hall (below) which is in Powis Road, Bow, E3. is still a working community centre, has preserved the cell Gandhi stayed in and contains the Gandhi Foundation Peace Library.