Eel PIE Island. {why am I getting the distinct stench of Tavistock?}

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The following articles set off my alarm bells BIG STYLE. It has all the wrong people & some “buzz words” that i just don’t like!!  I haven’t dug any deeper YET. But I shall!

AUGUST 21, 2014

The Tiny island on the Thames that once held The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and the UK’s Largest Hippie Commune

Eel Pie Landscape 3

Let’s take a walk along the towpath by the Thames, breathing in the heady scent of summer. See that island in the middle? That’s where we’re headed. And I’ve got a map, so I know it’s there!

lanscape 6

Map of Island

Past the gently bobbing riverboats moored at Twickenham,

Boatyard 2

Until we reach a single footbridge.

Over the bridge 2

Here we go…

Private Island Sign

And we’re in!

Welcome to the exclusive and elusive Eel Pie Island, former site to the now legendary Eel Pie Island Hotel and one of London’s best kept secrets. It’s tiny expanse is home to just 120 residents, but don’t be fooled by its size- this little island holds an extraordinary history and quirky character all its own.

A postcard showing the Eel Pie Hotel c. 1900

Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city, it’s rumoured that King Henry VIII used the island during the 1500’s as a courting ground for his many mistresses, and from 1830 onwards its beautiful three-storey Eel Pie Island Hotel made it a popular leisure resort for holidaymakers. The island got its unusual name from the tasty eel pies that were sold by its residents to passing river traders. Although this specialty died out, the name remained.

A photograph from 1952

The Rolling Stones Ad

Oh for the time when The Stones were a weekly fixture! Below, a young Mick Jagger plays a gig on the island with his unknown band in 1963 

With bands like these playing almost every week, it’s easy to see why many claim Eel Pie Island launched the UK’s first underground music scene. Gigs were infamously raucous and the liqueur (amongst other things) flowed freely. Crowded, loud, smoky, sweaty, and flooded with free spirits and new music lovers from all over the world, it was an escapist’s paradise and the perfect place to leave the daily grind behind.

Rave Island 1960

Rave 1960 2

Rave 6

Rave 7

Rave 5

Interestingly, the owner of the hotel and founder of the Eelpiland Club, Arthur Chisnell, often used profits from the club to help a number of hard-up teenagers who attended the gigs to get a better start in life. An avid social researcher and philanthropist, Arthur was also a bit of a bohemian at heart and had a wicked sense of humour. Check out these Eel Pie Island ‘passports’ that were issued to jivers in the 50’s and 60’s.

Passport 1

Passport 2

But when the club failed to raise the £200,000 required for much-needed repairs it was forced to close, and the hotel was eventually occupied by a group of anarchists. The island quickly grew into an oasis for society’s waifs and strays, becoming the UK’s largest hippie commune by 1970.

Eel Pie Hotel c. 1970

Hippy gathering on the banks of Eel Pie Island c. 1970

I get the feeling there’s more to this secretive island than meets the eye. Unexplored paths and secret gardens beckon…

But we’ll have to leave that for another day. The light is fading, and twinkling lights guide the way. Back we turn, past the artists’ houses,

Artist's Studio Night 1

Back over the bridge,

Bridge 2

And with one last glance over our shoulders, we leave the Eel Pie isle behind and head towards the gathering dusk.

A book has been published on the history of Eel Pie Island that includes many interviews, images and anecdotes from those who spent time there. It’s available for purchase here.

You can also take a look at this short documentary from 1967, which shows footage of the Eel Pie Island Hotel and details how the club helped several who attended gigs there.

Island that rocked to Bowie and the Stones stakes claim as true home of British R&B

Museum planned to celebrate the Eelpiland dance club, the 1960s venue in the middle of the Thames

Rolling Stones at Eel Pie Island


The Rolling Stones at Eel Pie Island


Back when rock music was deemed antisocial, and even traditional jazz bands were frowned upon, it cost just fourpence to gain entry to a place where the young were free to dance, drink and kiss. The Rolling Stones, a teenage David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, the Who and Pink Floyd all first found regular audiences in this hidden haven.

The venue was Eel Pie Island: a tiny enclave in the middle of the river Thames at Twickenham, which is now claiming its place in Britain’s cultural history. A museum dedicated to the island’s past glory as the centre of a British R&B boom is set to have a permanent home. Curator Michele Whitby has been promised £8,000 from the London mayor’s office and now has until next month to raise another £4,000 on a crowdfunding site to see her scheme come to life.

“I want to run a museum just a stone’s throw from the island itself, in Twickenham’s main street,” she said. “People describe Eel Pie Island as like nowhere else and so seven years ago I wrote a book about it. Now I have a fantastic wealth of material to share.”

Whitby, 49, now lives on a boat moored to the island, but first arrived on its shores aged 21, when she rented space for a photographic studio. “The Stones had 15 dates here early in their career and were paid around £45 for a gig; good money then, although you could not get tickets to see them for that now,” said Whitby. “I made a montage of photographs of the band from 1963 and sent it to them. It came back signed by them all ‘to Eel Pie Island’.”

The Jazz Club at Eel Pie Island in January 1967


The Jazz Club at Eel Pie Island in January 1967

Once known as Twickenham Ait, the island takes its current name from the snacks once sold to passing traders from its banks. It was a leisure destination as early as the beginning of the 17th century and a map of 1635 marks a plot of land with “hath bin A Boulding Alley”.

Henry VIII is said to have used it for discreet courting. With the construction of the grand, three-storey Eel Pie Island hotel in 1830 it became a popular holiday destination for the rest of London.

But its modern influence dates from the launch of the Eelpiland dance club in 1956. When an arched footbridge to the mainland was built a year later, clubbers paid fourpence admission and were wrist-stamped as they queued to join dancers in the ballroom adjoining the neglected hotel. They were given a passport instead of a ticket, underlining the notion that different social rules prevailed.

A beatnik jazz party on Eel Pie Island in August 1960


A beatnik jazz party on Eel Pie Island in August 1960

The passport read: “We request and require, in the name of His Excellency Prince Pan, all those whom it may concern to give the bearer of this passport any assistance he/she may require in his/her lawful business of jiving and generally cutting a rug. Given under our hand this first day of November 1963 PAN Prince of Trads.”

For Whitby, and for older fans who saw the Stones or Eric Clapton play, Eelpiland is the birthplace of a youth movement, comparable to the Cavern Club in Liverpool, the Wigan Casino, the pubs of Canvey Island or the Hacienda in Manchester. “Fans used to have to get there by ferry before they built the bridge and even then there was very little residential accommodation here,” said Whitby. “It was all boatyards. They thought the police would find it more difficult to come over and so they were free to make more noise.”

The stage at Eel Pie Island


The stage at Eel Pie Island.

Last year Whitby put together artefacts and memorabilia for a pop-up museum, housed in two rooms in Twickenham library. It also told the story of the remarkable Arthur Chisnall, the antiques dealer and philanthropist who set up the club. He started by booking trad jazz stars, such as Acker Bilk and George Melly, at the weekends, but the bar and large, sprung dance floor also made it suitable for rock’n’roll gigs. Chisnall, a pipe-smoking guru in tweed, booked visiting American blues stars such as Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf.

“Arthur really was the centre of it,” said Whitby. “He was not a massive music fan, but was fascinated by young people and their problems in a genuine way. A lot of people have told me that he changed their lives for the better.”

The pop-up museum contained a recreation of Arthur’s living room in nearby Strawberry Hill, with his original desk. In June 1961, on the club’s fifth birthday, he was interviewed by the News of the World. “This place started as a jazz club. Now it is one of the biggest political discussion centres in this part of greater London. There are 8,386 members. The bands only play at weekends. During the week the members jam the bar … while discussing all sorts of serious topics. We are not tied down to any one line of political thought,” he said.

Watching the Stones at Eel Pie Island


Watching the Stones at Eel Pie Island.

By the end of Chisnall’s reign the club had also welcomed the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the Tridents with Jeff Beck, and Long John Baldry and his Hoochie Coochie Men, featuring Rod Stewart. In his 1998 autobiography, All the Rage, Ian McLagan, keyboard-player with the Small Faces and the Faces, recalled supporting the Stones at Eelpiland and first meeting Rod “The Mod” Stewart, dressed up and “on the pull”. “It was one of the best places to hear blues bands at the weekends,” McLagan wrote.

Chisnall lived on until 2006, but lack of funds closed down his club in the late 1960s. Threatened with demolition, it briefly reopened as Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden, when Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd performed. But eventually squatters and anarchists took over and the hotel was home to 100 hippies.

“One particularly cold winter, squatters started cannibalising the building for firewood and in 1970 it was pretty much destroyed by fire,” said Whitby. The coveted homes of the 1970s residential block Aquarius now stand on the site, surrounded by a small community of artists living and working in former boathouses. The maverick inventor of the wind-up radio, Trevor Bayliss, is a proud local and would surely approve of Chisnall’s vision for the island: “You must realise that what goes on here is the expression of the latent desire among the young to get away from mass media and regimentation,” he said during Eelpiland’s heyday

The Boathouse, Twickenham,_Twickenham

The property was previously known as Dick Waite’s Boathouse, and was built in the late 1960s as part of a redevelopment of Sims’ Boatyard, a builder of racing boats. The structure originally provided meeting rooms, commercial film and recording studios, offices and residential quarters for use of the boatyard. The building was dilapidated in 1976 when Pete Townshend of The Who bought it from Bill Sims[3] and remodelled it to house his Eel Pie Studios.Townshend and Delia de Leon, a disciple of Meher Baba, started the Meher Baba Film Archive at the studios in the 1970s under the name Meher Baba Oceanic Centre. The film archive moved from The Boathouse to Norwich, Norfolk, in 1990

Eel Pie Studios was already in business at 45 Broadwick Street when Townshend bought the new building. Although operation of the company took place at both locations, the studios in The Boathouse later became known as Oceanic Studios. The studios were occupied by the band Cocteau Twins in the 1990s, who called it September Sound, and also the band Lightning Seeds. Townshend sold the property in 2008 to Hi2 Limited and it now is a residential dwelling. However, Townshend retained ownership of the Dutch barge.


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