Eel Pie Island
January 13, 2019
For those looking for an alternative lifestyle, there is a place that stands out as a great role model; both for its successes but also because of its mistakes. Eel Pie Island in Twickenham London UK houses a historic bohemian community that has a colourful history going as far back to the 1600’s. The island is like an independent bohemian country and even has its own passport.
I have been aware of this community and the events that have taken place on this island for many years now but it was only recently, when I was strolling around Twickenham that I discovered there was an Eel Pie Island museum opposite Twickenham town hall.
“Eel Pie Island is the largest island in the London section of the Thames and until 1957 it could be reached only by boat. Originally called Paryshe Aite, some historians argue that it was once the site of a monastery and there are rumours that Henry VIII used it as a courting ground. In the 17th century it was used by day trippers and became well known for the eel pies made from locally caught eels.
In 1860 Twickenham Rowing club was established and runs to this day, one of the largest and oldest rowing clubs in London. From the early 20th century ramshackle huts and yards were built on the island and many of these structures exist today as do two of the boatyards built to construct and repair working boats on the Thames. The boatyards are also home to workshops for artists and craftspeople and moorings for houseboats.
From the 1920s the Eel Pie Island Hotel hosted ballroom dances and from the 1950s and 60s a bohemian crowd began to move to the island and it became a venue for jazz and rock musicians including the Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd – some say that the island is where the 1960s began in the UK. The Eel Pie Island Hotel that hosted many gigs became a hippy commune after concerts stopped in 1967 and it then burned down in 1971.
This little hidden part of London never lost its allure to artists and musicians who continued to move in during the 1970s, many of whom remain to this day and comprise a number of its residents. Today there are 50 houses and 120 residents.”
So, I decided to go and spend the day experiencing the Eel Pie Island vibe. The island, once home to a hippie commune, as well as a live music venue is still an interesting place today.
I intended to start with the museum and then cross the bridge over the Thames river to explore the island itself.
So, I jumped on the R70 bus from Hampton to Twickenham on a cold winters afternoon.
When I reached the museum I was pleased to see the ‘open’ sign as I was not sure if the place opened in the winter months. I was soon greeted at the door by the wonderful Celia. She welcomed me warmly and took me around the exhibits with about ten other people.
This experience was made all the better because of Celia’s fun and interesting stories of the history of the island. I found out that before the sixties the music venue was famous for its jazz nights.
Eel Pie Island
“Eel Pie Island is a 8.935-acre (3.6 ha)[ island in the River Thames at Twickenham in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. It is on the maintained minimum head of water above the only lock on the Tideway and is accessible by boat or from the left (generally north) bank by footbridge. The island had a club that was a major venue for jazz and blues in the 1960s.
Name and former names
The name comes from eel pies which were served by the inn on the island in the 19th century. Its earlier names chronologically were the Parish Ait and Twickenham Ait, the latter co-existing until at least the 1880s. Before the 19th century it was for many centuries three parts distinguished by their proudness above the ordinary mean high water mark.
Some mesolithic red deer antler bone hand-made implements have been retrieved from the island’s shore.
Eel Pie House
An inn was on the ait by 1743 and in the 19th century it was a popular stopping point for steamer excursions. When a new inn was built in 1830 to replace it, the former venue was alternatively called a “dingy wooden cottage” or an “unassuming but popular little barn”.
Samuel Lewis’s national gazetteer of 1848 devotes a large minority of the text covering Twickenham to the island; saying it is:
called Twickenham Ait. This island comprises about eight acres, chiefly pleasure-grounds, and in the centre is the Eel-Pie House, noted for the last two centuries as a favourite resort for refreshment and recreation to water parties, and persons repairing hither [coming here] for the amusement of fishing; the old building was taken down in 1830, and a commodious edifice, comprising a good assembly-room measuring 50 feet by 15, erected on the site.
The ait is recorded in at least two distinct parts in detailed maps until the end of the 19th century; the west part was built up in height and measured 7.160 acres (2.9 ha). Its named features were a large Boat House, the Island Hotel, a bowling green in the west and the Thames Electric & Steam Launch Works. The east end is marked with marsh plantation and liable to flood; it was in the same maps measured at 1.775 acres (0.7 ha) and together the parts form the same land as today.
A bridge was proposed to Middlesex County Council or the Metropolitan Borough of Twickenham in 1889.[ A set of rope pulleys operated in the early 20th century for assisting transporting light goods. It was not until 1957 that the first bridge to the ait was completed.
Eel Pie Island Hotel
The island was the site of the Eel Pie Island Hotel, a genteel, 19th-century building that hosted ballroom dancing during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1956, trumpeter Brian Rutland, who ran a local band called The Grove Jazz Band, started jazz sessions at the newly reopened hotel. Some time afterwards, Arthur Chisnall took over the running of the club and continued to promote various jazz bands and then, in the 1960s, rock and R&B groups.
Famous names who performed at the dance hall between 1957 and 1967 include:
- Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men (including Rod Stewart)
- Acker Bilk
- Ken Colyer
- Cyril Davies Rhythm & Blues All Stars
- The Downliners Sect
- John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (featuring Eric Clapton)
- George Melly
- The Rolling Stones
- Screaming Lord Sutch[
- The Tridents (featuring Jeff Beck)
- The Who
- The Yardbirds
In 1967, the hotel was forced to close because the owner could not meet the £200,000 cost of repairs demanded by police. In 1969, the club briefly reopened as Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden,with bands such as Black Sabbath,The Edgar Broughton Band,Stray, Genesis, and Hawkwind (then known as Hawkwind Zoo) performing there.
Caldwell Smythe (entrepreneur, vocalist, ex-Riot Squad and, briefly, The Honeycombs) said: “I approached the owner Mr Snapper who lived in Kingston and we agreed a rental deal. I called it Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden and plastered west London with quad crown posters.” Smythe booked bands such as Edgar Broughton, Free, Deep Purple, King Crimson, Genesis, Wishbone Ash and Mott The Hoople. Smythe said: “There were two stages: the headliner was on the big stage and the support on the small stage with the light show projectionist above it. We had a bar doing tea, soft drinks, hot dogs and hamburgers. We then did Colonel Barefoot’s Killer Punch (cider, cooking brandy and cinnamon) and we gave it away along with beer in half pint plastic disposable cups. I had rows with the fire department as the emergency exits were chained shut to stop people bunking in. Eventually, after a raid by the Fire Chief, I closed down and walked. I was living in Chiswick at this time.”
In 1969, the hotel was occupied by a small group of local anarchists including illustrator Clifford Harper. By 1970 the Eel Pie Island Commune had become the UK’s largest hippie commune.
In 1971, the Eel Pie Island Hotel burned down in a mysterious fire. The centre of the island was devastated by fire in 1996, and a year later, the footbridge was damaged by a utilities contractor. A new footbridge opened in August 1998.
Description and uses
The island has about 50 homes, 120 inhabitants and two or three boatyards, as well as some other small businesses and artists’ studios. It has nature reserves at both ends, protected from public access. All plots and walkways are privately owned. The public can access the island’s main pathway from the bridge, which does not skirt or overlook any of its shore.
For brief periods each year, usually in June and December, 26 studios in and around a working boatyard, collectively known as Eel Pie Island Art Studios, open to the public, enabling them to enjoy and buy the artists’ works.”
Halfway through the tour Celia stopped at a record player and asked me to pick out an album to play while we walked round. All the albums were of artists who had performed at Eel Pie Island over the years. Being a big Crosby, Stills and Nash fan I picked an album by the Byrd’s (Graham Crosby’s former band). Celia then put on the record and we continued the tour.
At the end of the tour Celia asked if I wanted to become a member of the museum and in doing so I would get an Eel Pie Island passport. I went for it and for a mere £5 I am now a citizen of Eel Pie Island; here’s my passport:
After a quick pint in the Eel Pie Island pub, I crossed over the foot bridge to the island to get an idea of the community and how it looks in 2019.
I am told that during the summer months the artists that live here exhibit their art at their studios for the public to buy.
“The mainland’s only connection with Eel Pie Island (left). Photo by James FitzGerald.
It’s hard to find anywhere in London which packs in as much intrigue per square metre as one little ait sitting in the middle of the Thames near Twickenham. Its name is Eel Pie Island.
The opening of a new museum proves that this miniature world, barely 500 metres long, is somewhere of great personal connection for many people — especially for anyone who remembers the ’60s. Yet, for others, the island’s legendary quality — and its current ‘private’ status — may give it something of an enigmatic, even exclusive air. Who would we find here?
The island has an elusive quality for some. Photo by James FitzGerald.
The musical mecca
At the footbridge — the island’s sole connection with the mainland — a lone fisherman stands by. We ask whether he expects to be dining on shopping trollies or on car tyres tonight, but are informed that, actually, you can still catch anything here. “Anything at all. Yes, even eels.”
Anything at all. Even eels.’ Photo by James FitzGerald.
Eel Pie Island supposedly got its name from the famous pastries sold here in a distant past when that particular fish was so plentiful in the surrounding waters. For centuries, the island — accessible only by a ferry — was a retreat for those craving quiet, or privacy. It’s said that wealthy gentlemen would pay the boatmen not to row their wives over here while they canoodled with their mistresses.
Later, a popular holiday resort would transform it into a site of immense noise and frenzy. The island’s nineteenth-century hotel — the haunt of Dickens and others — housed ballroom dancing, and then jazz performers, and finally, in the ‘60s, some of Britain’s biggest-ever rock bands. The Rolling Stones, The Who, David Bowie, The Kinks, Pink Floyd: they all came to play raucous shows here.
Revellers were issued ‘passports’ when they made the pilgrimage over. This unlikely musical mecca is fondly recalled by one Annie Nightingale: Radio 1’s first — and longest-serving — female presenter. She grew up nearby. “I was actually banned from going to the island by my parents,” she tells us. Nightingale was reliant on being rowed over there by a friend.
This was the whole ‘60s counter-culture developing. Right here in Twickenham. I regarded it as very boring suburbia otherwise.
Radio 1’s Annie Nightingale in the Twickenham area in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of Annie Nightingale.
The hotel is long gone, burned down after falling into disrepair, but its attitude lives on in the characters who live and work here. The first person we call on is a man who managed to reignite a little of the island’s infamy.
‘A counter-scene to the Libertines’
Although it was the visits of Jagger, Bowie and co. that gave Eel Pie Island its near-mythical status, another fateful chapter in the rock ‘n’ roll story of this little landmass started on the day that Henry Harrison bought part of the island’s north side. “It had its reputation, but it was a sleepy sort of place when I got here,” he remembers. “I wanted to bring new life to it.”
Harrison is not only the father of Mystery Jets frontman Blaine, but is also an associate member of the band himself, having played pretty much every instrument imaginable for them across several different stints. Today, though, all he’s playing for the band is the role of airport-chauffeur
A room still used by the Jets for laying down demos. Photo by James FitzGerald.
The band formed here, and still call Eel Pie Island home. That’s where the cramped old rehearsal shed used to be; there, the laundry-drying-room that the guys still lay down demos in sometimes. The pioneers of the so-called ‘Thamesbeat’ genre took inspiration from the island’s heady ‘60s. And that found an outlet in several notorious music-fuelled parties held here in the band’s early days.
“Those were a self-conscious attempt to create here in south-west London a counter-scene to what the Libertines were doing in east London,” Harrison explains. At the fifth and final of the illicit shindigs — advertised on Radio 1 and attended by a crowd of some 700 people — two punters plunged into the slipway of the former boatyard that comprised his makeshift venue.
The evening’s antics earned him a £20,000 noise abatement order as well as the ire of his fellow islanders. He admits that he’s had to reclaim his reputation with his neighbours having had “quite a few enemies for a time.”
Sometime Mystery Jet Henry Harrison with a former slipway that had a starring role in one music-fuelled party. Photo by James FitzGerald.
So, is the island’s ‘anything-goes’ attitude pure history? “I do miss the ramshackle feel it once had,” Harrison admits. Then, contemplating his converted boathouse, he adds, “although since I’m partly responsible for upgrading it, I suppose I shouldn’t complain.”
‘It’s lovely to feel like you’re at one with the river’
The artists’ workshops on Eel Pie Island. Photo by James FitzGerald.The working quarters abound in knowingly wacky detailing. Photo by James FitzGerald.
The recent timeline of Eel Pie Island seems to be structured around hugely destructive (but fortunately non-deadly) fires which serve to change its social ecosystem now and then. There was that big blaze in 1971 that finished off the dilapidated old hotel, and with it any remnant of the swinging sixties. Later, on Bonfire Night 1996, another conflagration raged here. Soon after the embers had cooled, the island’s present artist community sprung up.
Their workshops skirt the island’s boatyard, and consist of repurposed vessels and disused cabins; each coated with a patina of rust, plant-life, and knowingly wacky detailing. The artists open their doors to visitors twice a year: in June, and December. One of them is Lee Campbell.
Artist Lee Campbell. Photo by James FitzGerald.
“I just needed a studio somewhere.” Words you might expect of a painter who’s compromised on an insalubrious location between a dual carriageway and a carpet warehouse for the sake of cheap rent — but not from one who specialises in depicting semi-rural settings and water scenes and has found a location truly surrounded by, er, semi-rural views and water.
But Campbell insists that she really did end up here by chance. That it was great how this nice little room became available, but that the island’s rich creative history was kind of coincidental. That her beautiful oil landscapes and seascapes, her mood paintings, and her intriguing close-ups of corroded materials, could just as easily be done on the mainland and maybe they will one day.
“There are some who live here who don’t particularly like the public,” Campbell observes. “But that’s not me.” Apparently, when the Thames is in full flow, it’s just about possible for the water to cut off the footbridge. “It is lovely to feel like you’re in some way at one with the river,” she muses. “But then it’s nice to actually be off the island again for a bit!”
‘The neighbours pop in to use the lathe’
While Campbell would seem to prove the adage that no person is an island, is the separation here from the mainland a big draw for some?
‘It’s got five feet on the clock.’ Inventor Trevor Baylis with the car he built himself. Photo by James FitzGerald.
Trevor Baylis has been many things: a champion swimmer, a stuntman, and most famously, the inventor of the wind-up radio. He welcomes us to his home with warmth, and a volley of bawdy jokes. Baylis built the property himself in 1971. He fondly remembered “the girls” you could meet at the old music club on the island, and saved up to buy some land here during a profitable stint as an underwater escape artiste at a circus in Berlin.
On the grand tour, we’re shown the famous workshop, as well as a home-built indoor swimming pool, living quarters, and, on one of two outdoor terraces that look out into the Thames, a car Baylis built himself that makes Chitty Chitty Bang Bang look no more unique than a VW Golf. “It’s got five feet on the clock,” Baylis jokes. There are no roads on the island.
This is, decidedly, the retreat of An Inventor. “I’ve been all around the world, and I’m always saying I want to go home,” chuckles the 80-year-old, as he surveys the river and an unspoilt view beyond. It’s not that the man is a recluse — it’s just that he appreciates the island’s sense of community. “There’s no snobbery here,” he explains. “What this place has is decency. It’s a family. The neighbours often pop in just to use my metal lathe.”
Baylis’s (in)famous workshop. Photo by James FitzGerald.
Within the grotto of spare parts, power tools, and Meccano that constitutes Baylis’s workshop, we’re shown the prototype of a product that has saved innumerable lives. The wind-up radio was built, right here, in the 1990s. It was designed to give customers in African countries a cheap, mains-electricity-free method of quickly getting news about the spread of AIDS.
Baylis is keen to distance himself from the cliché of an eccentric inventor who hides himself away from the world. At the same time, he doesn’t deny that his unique mind has reached so much potential in this peaceful (if cluttered) sanctuary of his. And he’s one of those living here who’s about to see his legacy documented in a very real way, thanks to the efforts of another islander.
The soon-to-be-opened museum at 1-3 Richmond Road, Twickenham. Photo by James FitzGerald.
The Eel Pie Island Museum is being set up to record the artistic, inventive, social, and even boatbuilding legacy of this place. It’s just over the water in Twickenham, and has been spearheaded by curator Michele Whitby, a resident of one of the island’s many houseboats.
Moored just between the centuries-old Twickenham Rowing Club and the island’s nature reserve, what she has feels like London’s answer to the Riviera lifestyle. There’s an ever-growing fascination with Eel Pie Island, and it’s no surprise that Whitby sensed the demand for a museum all about it. Like many of the islanders, she also seems to have the patience of a saint with the many curious cameraphone-snappers who come wandering over here from the mainland (journalists included).
The population of Eel Pie Island comprises a number of people moored to it on houseboats. Photo by James FitzGerald.
“Well, it doesn’t quite say ‘no entry’, does it?” she grins. “Most don’t mind it. You don’t get many wrong’uns coming over. Many of the visitors are just couples of a certain age wanting to reminisce about the old hotel here. And I get that.”
Michele Whitby, curator of the new museum. Photo by James FitzGerald.
There couldn’t be a more enthusiastic ambassador for Eel Pie Island — or one who better embodies everything that’s varied and quirky about it. Whitby had a leather-working shop here, has written a book about the island, and now does part-time merchandising for the Mystery Jets next door.
“And that’s what I love about it here,” she says. “We all know each other. Yes, we’re all a bit different. There are people who are very wealthy, and not wealthy at all. But whoever they are, you can guarantee that every year you’re gonna end up getting drunk with them at some point. Ha!” If there’s one thing that refused to be burned down or redeveloped here, it’s that old bohemian spirit.”
I had a great day and recommend the museum highly. A walk around the island (probably best in the summer months) is a good day out too; finished off with a pint in the Eel Pie Island pub.