John L Collins was born on the 23 March 1905 in Hawkhurst in Kent, England. He was the youngest child on the four children born to Arthur Collins, a master builder and his wife, Hannah Priscilla Edwards. He went to Cranbrook School in Kent and then went on to study at Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge University. He graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1928.

Collins became ordained at the Canterbury Cathedral and he became a curate of Whistable from 1928-1929. He then went to become an assistant lecturer of Theology at Kings College. He came under the influence of French Roman Catholic scholar Albert Loisy, who was excommunicated for his liberal interpretation of the Bible. The two men became friends and Collins questioned his own conservative political formation. After the Great Depression of 1929 he became a socialist and joined the Labour Party because of the ills that he saw experienced by the working class during the Great Depression. Collins became an assistant lecturer in theology at King’s College in 1931, and from 1934-1937 he became the vice- principal of Westcott House and was later appointed dean of Oriel College.

On 21 October 1939 he married Diana Clavering Elliot who joined Collins in his various struggles, becoming especially active on South African issues. John and Diana had four sons: Andrew, Peter, Mark and Richard.During World War II Collins served as a chaplain in the Royal Air Force.  After the war, he founded the Christian Action organization in 1946, in an effort to facilitate reconciliation with Germany and to take up social issues, among them the fight against racism. Christian Action also took up the issues of homeless people and capital punishment. In 1948, John was appointed as a canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral by Prime Minister Clement Attlee a Christian Socialist. He was appointed so that he would devote more time to Christian Action and to set up the organization’s Headquarters in London.

Around this period Collins became aware of the situation in South Africa, where the Nationalists had come to power and were busy introducing apartheid laws.  Always concerned about social issues, he was one of four founders of War on Want, an organisation formed to fight poverty around the globe.In 1950 he raised funds in order to organize meetings in London to voice out the illegal nature of South Africa’s United Nations (UN) sanctioned occupation of South West Africa (Namibia). 

In 1954 Collins visited South Africa, where he met with Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo ,Walter Sisulu,Albert Lithuli and other African political leaders. In 1956, Collins got a telegram from Ambrose Reeves, Bishop of Johannesburg, asking Collins to help raise funds for the defence of the 156 people facing treason charges in the Treason Trial. He immediately wired £100 – a tidy sum in those days – to Reeves, with a promise that Christian Action would establish a fund to raise more for the defence. He told Reeves to secure the best lawyers for the defence, and Reeves in turn formed the Treason Trial Defence Fund in South Africa. The trial eventually ended with all the accused set free: the state had failed to proved its case, thanks largely to the rigorous defence mounted by the ‘best lawyers’ – advocate IA Maisels (QC), Bram Fischer (QC), Sydney Kentridge and Charlie Nicholas.

Anticipating more trials as apartheid’s laws tightened the space for resistance, Reeves asked Collins to keep the defence fund going, and Collins established the British Defence & Aid Fund as a limited company under the umbrella of Christian Action. In the meanwhile, in 1958 Collins became one of the founder members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), a vigorous body opposed to nuclear proliferation, which became especially influential in the late 1970s and 1980s.With more arrests of people after uprisings in Sekhukhuneland, the fund got David Soggot to defend the accused. After the Sharpeville Massacre, many more were arrested and fund was transformed into a permanent organisation. Collins funded an enquiry into the shootings, conducted by Sydney Kentridge.Collins, based at 2 Amen Court, next to St Paul’s Cathedral, began to form a team of people to run the fund, including many who fled South Africa because of their anti-apartheid stance. Collins worked closely with an inner core, mainly Phyllis Altman and Rica Hodgson, who ran the day-to-day operations of the fund. During the Rivonia Trial the fund financed the defence team and giving support to the families of the accused. When the South African component of the fund was banned on 18 March 1966, it fell to Collins to internationalise the British arm of the fund, creating the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF).

Collins forged links and won support from many countries and agencies. He began an ongoing relationship with ES Reddy in the early 1960s, providing the UN’s Special Committee Against Apartheid a research base, passing on relevant information as and when the committee needed it. In June 1965 Reddy invited Collins to address the Special Committee Against Apartheid as part of an effort to channel funds to political prisoners in South Africa, and by November 11 countries made pledges to the value of $195,000. Collins addressed UN bodies on three occasions from 1965 to 1967. Collins began to broaden the forms of support for anti-apartheid activists and their families – he got the fund to pay for the wives and families of Robben Island prisoners to visit them, and began helping the liberation movements in locations outside South Africa. He urged the UN to pass resolutions and to pressure countries that flouted the resolutions to boycott the apartheid regime.

When Imam Haroon, who had been acting for the fund inside South Africa, was killed by security police in South Africa in 1969 Collins held a memorial at St Paul’s Cathedral, the first time a Muslim was honoured at the cathedral.In 1974 Collins suffered a heart attack, but he recovered and continued his vigorous campaigns, although within a few years, now in his 70s, he was forced to slow down and pass on day-to-day leadership of the organisation to others. Leadership of the fund passed on to Phyllis Altman, Archbishop Trevor HuddlestonHorst Kleinschmidt and others. In 1981 the Canon Collins Educational Trust for Southern Africa was established to provide money for South African and Namibian refugees who wanted to study, with Collins as Chairperson.Cannon John Collins died on New Year’s Eve, 31 December 1982. His funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral was attended by many, including Oliver Tambo, who considered himself Collins’ ‘eldest son’. He was buried at a crypt at St Paul’s, where a plaque reads:

He worked for reconciliation between races and nations, and helped those who were deprived, persecuted, imprisoned or exiled. He founded and directed Christian Action, International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, and with others, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. ‘In as much as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’

On 27 April 2007, Collins was posthumously awarded The Order of the Companions of OR Tambo in Gold for ‘his excellent contribution to the struggle against apartheid through the Defence and Aid Fund and the Canon Collins Educational Trust for Southern Africa and his contribution to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’.His wife,Diana Collins,published Partners in Protest:Life with Canon Collins in 1992.


Al Cook, ‘The International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, or IDAF’; chapter 3 of volume 3, part 1, of The Road to Democracy in South Africa; published by the South African Democracy and Education Trust and Unisa Press, 2008.|

Herbstein, D, (2004), White Lies: Canon John Collins and the Secret War Against Apartheid, (Cape Town)|

John Collins, from Spartacus Educational, [online], Available at[Accessed 21 December 2012]|

Canon L John Collins 1905-1982, from The Presidency, [online] Available at[Accessed 21 December 2012]|

Christian Action Organisation, [online] Available at[Accessed on 21 December 2012]|

Canon John Collins, from the Canon Collins Trust for South Africa, [online] Available at[Accessed on 21 December 2012]

 |Gail M. Gerhart, Teresa Barnes, Antony Bugg-Levine, Thomas Karis, Nimrod Mkele .From Protest to Challenge 4-Political Profiles (1882-1990) (last accessed 23 October 2018)

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