Rock 'n' roll history at Eel Pie Island, Twickenham

From royalty to rock stars, some of the most famous names in British history have graced the shores of Eel Pie Island – and in a new book, two local authors delve into the music and mysteries of the island's past. Enjoli Liston went to meet them

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2009


When the Rolling Stones rocked the Eel Pie Island Hotel’s tattered ballroom, during their summer residency of 1963, gig promoter Arthur Chisnall hadn’t anticipated just how big the band, who had once been punters, had become. “Never mind the hotel, the bloody island was overflowing!” Arthur recalls, in an interview for a new book, Eel Pie Island, the first published history of the infamous Thames ait. “If we had realised, we would have cancelled it.” Lucky then, for the hoards of teenage bohemians who came to see the hottest new band on the British rhythm and blues scene that Arthur hadn’t twigged. But who would have guessed that the group playing on the hotel’s shabby stage would eventually sell more than 200 million albums worldwide? And who could have known that the 17-year-old boy who took to the hotel’s stage under the moniker of Davy Jones and the Manish Boys, for half a dozen gigs, would later become known as David Bowie? And what gig-goer could have imagined, as they supped Newcastle Brown Ale (the house beverage) at the bar, that they were probably rubbing shoulders with the pick of today’s superstar musicians – Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood, The Yardbirds, Pink Floyd and The Who – to name but a few. Maybe they would have bought the lads a few more rounds if they had known. A wild reputation As I cross the narrow footbridge to the island from the mainland, I can’t help feeling for the musicians who had to cram “themselves, their instruments and their girlfriends into the boat” that ferried people across the Thames before the bridge was built in 1957. Arriving at the lusciously green and peaceful residential island, and navigating the tiny lanes, it seems worlds away from the “beatnik-infested vice den” that the 1960s national tabloids described. I meet the authors of Eel Pie Island, journalist Dan van der Vat and Twickenham shop-owner Michele Whitby, at Dan’s charming riverbank house. And, after chatting for just five minutes, it’s clear that despite appearances, the spirit of one of the UK’s most controversial music venues of the Fifties and Sixties, the Eel Pie Island Hotel, is still very much alive. Michele, who wrote about the musical side of the island’s history, says that during her research she was overwhelmed by the number of people who contacted her with their fond memories. “For pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to, the island and the hotel seem to be really special places to them,” says Michele. “I can relate to that, because I feel the same way about Eel Pie Island.” In the book, Michele explains that Arthur Chisnall, a junk-shop owner from Kingston, was the driving force behind the famous gigs. In 1956, he began to promote the Eel Pie Jazz Club nights at the Eel Pie Island Hotel, which was originally built in the 1830s as an elegant retreat for London’s holidaymakers. In the 1920s, a fully sprung ballroom floor was installed, much to the later amusement of Eric Clapton and his fellow Eel Pie Island regulars. In the book, Clapton recalls standing ‘in the middle [of the floor] and it would bounce up and down so much, you didn’t even have to dance, it would go at least six or seven inches up in the air’. Despite the hotel’s dilapidated state, the jazz club soon began to attract some of the big names of the British jazz scene, including George Melly and Cyril Davies. And as trends changed towards rhythm and blues, so did demand for the newer, fresher sounds of the bands that would one day become music legends. Although the music has become the focus of attention in the club’s history, Michele believes many will be surprised to discover that Arthur Chisnall cared more for social research than he did for the music. “Arthur was interested in the emerging teenage culture and could see that the authorities had no idea what to do with these young people who were trying to find their own way instead of becoming their parents,” explains Michele. “He wasn’t really a passionate music fan. It was just a way of attracting young people there, who he felt he could reach out to and help.” However, the hotel’s bad tabloid reputation stuck, and Arthur was forced to close the venue in 1967. The police demanded Arthur make over �200,000 of repairs to the ramshackle hotel, but he couldn’t raise the funds. Despite briefly reopening under new management as Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden, which hosted Black Sabbath and the Edgar Broughton Band, authorities ordered the hotel’s demolition and by 1970 it had become the UK’s biggest squatters’ commune. It burnt down in mysterious circumstances soon afterwards, marking the final end of an era, and the site is now home to a block of flats. Fascinating history Michele’s co-author Dan says the island’s musical history is the “centre of the book”, but many of his other discoveries, which delve further into the island’s past, make for some of its most surprising tales. “I’ve always thought this was a weird place and my suspicions were confirmed,” laughs Dan, explaining why he began compiling material for the book when he moved to the island over 30 years ago. “For example, eel pies were famously made here since God knows when – hence the island’s name. And the story goes that when King Henry VIII rowed up the river Thames, towards Hampton Court, he would say: ‘Stop! Bring us a pie!’” Charles Dickens was another fan of the island, mentioning it in two of his novels: Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist.

“Saki [aka Hector Hugh Munro] once wrote that the people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally,” says Dan. “And I think that applies to this place. It’s bizarre how much is in this island’s history, even though it’s only 600 yards long.” Packed with fascinating images, the book follows the island’s history, from its earliest records right up until today. But chatting to Dan and Michele, it’s clear that it could easily have been double the size.  There is something inherently special about Eel Pie Island, evident not only by the collection of artists, writers, musicians, engineers and inventors that live there, but by the sheer number of people, from Henry VIII to Eric Clapton, who have been touched by it in some way during their lifetimes.  “It’s always surprised me that no one had written the island’s history before, but I think the time is right for it now,” says Michele. And Dan agrees: “The people who went to the hotel are very nostalgic about it, and there’s certainly a younger generation now, whose parents used to go there, who are interested, too.” The spirit lives on The Eel Pie Island musical legacy certainly lives on, not only in the wealth of fond anecdotes that fill the book’s pages, but also in the new Eel Pie Jazz Club in Richmond, the Eel Pie studios owned by Pete Townshend of The Who, and the recent gigs held by ex-resident indie band Mystery Jets. When I get home from my visit to the island, my dad asks me where I’ve been. He called himself a rocker in the Sixties, so I say, ‘Eel Pie Island, ever heard of it?’ “Oh yes,” he says with a glint in his eye. “I could tell you a tale or two…”   

Eel Pie Island by Dan van der Vat and Michele Whitby, �16.99, is available at all good bookshops.

View from the inside

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The noted inventor Trevor Baylis, who is a current resident of Eel Pie Island, shares his own memories of the infamous club and why he loved it so much “We had raucous, wonderful times at the Eel Pie Club. I was a beatnik jazz fan you see and before the club turned more bohemian (hosting rhythm and blues), I loved to watch Acker Bilk and George Melly – some very big names.     “The press always claimed it was an awful place, and that there were a lot of drugs, but we just drank Newcastle Brown Ale. The (fully sprung) dance floor was like a trampoline; everyone would be dancing, screaming, laughing and jumping around, they were great times. There weren’t many drugs – but there was sex and a lot of rock ‘n’ roll. Nothing shocked us back then!     “I’m very proud of the island – it’s always been an unconventional place full of characters and I wanted to live here since I was a lad. In my line of work I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world – but there’s still no place like it.”