Charlie Chaplin and Mr Gandhi

The photograph shows Charlie Chaplin and Gandhi at the house of Dr Katial in Beckton Road, Canning Town.

 Mahatma Gandhi came to London in 1931 to attend the Round Table Conference. Gandhi spoke eloquently at the Conference, an international talking shop to discuss Indian independence, but was out-manoeuvred by representatives of the British Raj and supporters of the caste system.

He refused to stay in a West End hotel, preferring to stay among the working people, and so chose to make his home at Kingsley Hall in East London for 12 weeks. Huge crowds greeted his arrival.

Kingsley Hall Community Centre in Bow was run by Muriel Lester. She was a Christian pacifist who in 1925 had visited Gandhi's ashram in India. She shared many political beliefs with Gandhi: like him, she'd rejected her middle class wealth and chosen to live at Kingsley Hall on the bare minimum in sympathy with the very poor. Both were teetotallers concerned about the temptation of the nearly destitute to drown their sorrows in alcohol. They were also critical of the rich, and their tendency to overlook their responsibility for much poverty.

In her book "Entertaining Gandhi" published in 1932 Lester, tells the story of Gandhi's visit. The Round Table Conference is only occasionally mentioned in the book. Instead she describes the relationship between Gandhi and the local people of Bow, the struggle to keep the press at bay, and many public and private conversations about religion and politics. These often took place during early morning walks around Bow, past the chemical and drinks factories around Three Mill Lane. One of the issues that the book subtly brings out is the parallel position of the working classes of London and the 'Untouchables' of India, both of whom face very difficult lives.

The book also describes a variety of visits, one of which is when, famously, Gandhi met Charlie Chaplin who was also in London.

"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."

"So the following week, on 22 September, 1931, at Dr Katial's house in Beckton Road, Canning Town the local people were given the double thrill of welcoming both men." Hundreds of people crowded around the house to catch a glimpse of the famous visitors, some even clambered over garden fences to look through the windows of the house.

Shortly after his return to India, Gandhi was again arrested. Independence and the partition of India took place in 1947. Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948.

Kingsley Hall had small cells on the roof, used by volunteers who agreed to work six days a week from early morning to late at night for their food, they had a cell to live in and two shillings a week. Gandhi lived in one of these cells for the duration of his visit.

The film-maker Richard Attenborough came to the Kingsley Hall to shoot scenes for his 1982 biopic of Gandhi. He united with the local action group to raise money to repair the hall. Today it's again used by many communities in Bow and Gandhi's cell is preserved, and the adjoining ones have been taken over by the Gandhi Foundation which runs a peace library out of the centre.  

Charlie Chaplin and Mr Gandhi