Hidden away in the depths of west London, the 500-metre long Eel Pie Island has always guarded its secrets well – but its incredible legacy is about to be uncovered.

Hidden away in the depths of west London, the 500-metre long Eel Pie Island has always guarded its secrets well – but its incredible legacy is about to be uncovered.

Do you know about Eel Pie Island? If you live in Twickenham, or nearby out in deepest West London, you may well, but also you may not – Eel Pie Island hides in plain sight. This sliver of land in the middle of the Thames doesn’t want to attract too much attention, greeting visitors arriving over the narrow humpback footbridge with a somewhat hostile sign: “Private Island.” Is it even okay to keep walking? Safe to say, there’s no Google Map Street View out here.

Eel Pie Island has always guarded its secrets well, so you may be amazed to learn that something truly incredible happened on this mudflat: this is the place where the 1960s began.

It all happened at the old Eel Pie Island Hotel: “It was dark and dingy, it was falling apart. Eel Pie Island was faded glamour even then,” says Pete Watt, a music historian at the Eel Pie Island Museum. “It was exciting – people felt like they were going to a secret kingdom.”

Because this little island – a River Thames ait barely 500 metres long – used to be the premier spot to see a little band called the Rolling Stones, just as they were starting out. It was also where you could see The Who, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, and a host of jazz and blues bands.

“For five months during 1963, from April to September, you could see the Rolling Stones playing on Eel Pie Island every Wednesday,” says Watt. “So you’d have rock’n roll or RnB on Wednesday and Sunday, and jazz on a Saturday.”

This was back when this kind of music was considered unfit for polite company, and the somewhat inaccessible nature of the island made it a bit easier to get away with – even when it got too loud police would need to get there on foot, or in the very early days, by ferry.

Going to a gig on Eel Pie Island was like slipping around the back to where the real party was happening; the one only the cool kids know about. You’d pay the half-groat (equivalent to 2p) bridge toll and make your way down the footpath, hurrying as the music got louder. “We dressed down in dark clothes, wore our hair long and put on layers of mascara,” island regular Fluff says in a quote on the museum wall. “I’d go over the bridge and as I walked through the trees I’d hear it – trumpets and trombones playing jazz. I’d break into a run to get there fast.”  

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There’s not much of a music scene on Eel Pie Island today, but the creative spirit is alive and well. Today, it’s a bohemian enclave of artists: there are 26 studios, some of which are shared. Around 120 people live on the island in 50 dwellings, more if you include the houseboats. There are a few businesses too, and the boatyard – Eel Pie Island has always been known as a place where you can get your boat fixed.

But the stories of the musical heritage that put Eel Pie Island on the map have at last been secured, as the Eel Pie Island Museum moved into a permanent space in Twickenham in February. Almost 3,000 people have visited since then, says curator Michele Whitby: “It’s been incredibly popular.”

Whitby has been collecting the stories of Eel Pie Island for a long time, starting not long after she moved there in the late 1980s. Now, the museum joins the dots between the past and present: “We’ve got Eel Pie Records down on Church Street, there’s the Eel Pie pub which offers discounts for our members on food, and there’s the Eel Pie Club,” she says, fondly.

The Eel Pie Island Museum tells the story of an amazing moment in history – one that sprung out of seemingly nothing and then faded away again just as suddenly. As Pete Watt shows me around the little museum, he explains how there’s always been a musical scene in the area. Trad jazz was already big, and the art colleges around West London meant there was an audience for the emerging RnB and rock’n’roll. It was the need for space that led to Eel Pie Island Hotel becoming a gig venue, says Watt – the stately 1830s building had been empty for a while. The hotel had once been a popular picnic spot for daytrippers, back when the river was full of the eel that went in the pies the island is named for.

The driving force behind what became the Eelpiland dance club was Arthur Chisnall, who wasn’t actually that much of a music fan. “Chisnall’s main interest was actually getting kids to go back to school for further education,” says Watt. “He was very altruistic. But he took over the booking of jazz bands, which was the main driver during the late 50s.”

The roster included anyone who’s anyone in 50s trad jazz, including Bill Colyer, Acker Bilk, Terry Lightfoot and Cy Laurie. Bill Greenow, a clarinettist with Sandy Brown, is quoted on the wall: “Eel Pie Island was the most unique place. All the murals on the walls, the arches and dusty atmosphere. After the austerity of the war years, the bohemian freedom we found there was such a breath of fresh air.”

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Eel Pie Island was about counter-culture – this was a place for young people to go and listen to music their parents disapproved of, dance and flirt and have fun. It wasn’t much known for drugs – at least not in the early days – but there was plenty of sex in what the media called a “beatnik-infested vice den.” As island regular Trevor Baylis put it: “It was so decadent it was unreal. There were loads of little alcoves to slip into if you were lucky. The boys were as bad as the girls. We all had to go to the clinic on the Monday!”

The rock’n’roll came soon enough: “In ‘62 they started putting on what you might call rock’n’roll or RnB, with Screaming Lord Sutch, together with Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers,” recalls Watt. “Then one night [in ‘63], Chisnall went to the Station Hotel in Richmond and saw the Rolling Stones, and promptly signed them up for a five-month residency on Eel Pie Island.”

The party continued until 1967, when the decaying ballroom fell foul of local authority inspections – the floor famously bounced like a trampoline and people had started getting injured. Rather than paying the £200,000 needed for repairs, Chisnall shuttered Eelpiland.

In its place rose Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden, and gigs were still held there for another three years with headliners including Black Sabbath, Free, Deep Purple and Mott the Hoople. “But by that time you had a commune next door, and the place had ceased to operate as a hotel and bar,” says Watt.

The hotel was in rapid decay, and people would pull up the floorboards to burn for fuel – there was maybe 100 people living there then as squatters, coming in search of an alternative lifestyle. Commune dweller Chris Faiers is cited on the wall, describing the residents thus: “Dossers, hippies, runaway school kids, drug dealers, petty thieves, heroin addicts, artists, poets, bikers, American tourists, au pair girls and Zen philosophers from all over the world.”

In 1971, the hotel was in the process of being demolished when it was destroyed in a fire. “Nobody knows whether it was an accident – it certainly wasn’t for insurance because you couldn’t insure the place,” says Watt. In any case, the Eel Pie Island heyday was well and truly over. Today, 18 townhouses stand on the old hotel grounds, named the Aquarius Estate.

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Even though there’s not much music happening there these days, the spirit of Eel Pie Island is close to the surface. If you dare push past the “Private Island” sign, it’s very clear this is something of a bohemian outpost – the funky, colourful houses along the main path are creatively decorated with flowers, mirrors, pottery and all sorts of artwork.

The path dead-ends at a large red door with a sign that reads “No public access”, and this is where Lee Campbell greets me, taking me through the active boatyard and down to the artist studios in the back. Right now, Campbell is busy preparing for the studio Open Day weekend on 8-9th December – these events take place twice a year and is a good opportunity to get a peek into what’s been happening on the island lately.

Campbell’s got the radio playing on this rainy day, with her dog, Holly the Muse, keeping her company. The smell of linseed oil permeates the studio – Campbell is a painter: “It’s mystical realism. That painting there is the view from Richmond Hill, but with a lot of artistic licenses,” she says. “I mostly paint landscapes. I invent places I’d like to be.”

Campbell has been working on Eel Pie Island for about 18 years, first in the main boatshed while waiting for a space to open up. But it’s rare for studios to become available on Eel Pie Island – there’s only 26 of them, and people tend to stay put once they’re in. “It’s very stable. Most people have been here a long time,” says Campbell. “We’ve got a nice range of different skills here – we have potters, metalworkers, glass artists, photographers, painters.”

Asked if there are many remnants of the old music scene left, Campbell responds negatively. (“You do get the old hippies staggering in, saying, “I’m sure there used to be a hotel around here somewhere!’” she says, with a laugh.)

The people living and working on the island don’t mind the occasional curious visitor, but it’s clear they don’t want too much foot traffic – it’s a small place, and most of the artists are here to work. That’s the case for ceramicist Hazel Richards, who lets me come in for 10 minutes before she has to get back to it. Richards is a native West Londoner and has been on Eel Pie Island for about 15 years. “I’d always wanted a studio here,” she tells me. “The island is quite a special place to work. It’s a community of artists – there are people to talk to about your work, we do collaborations like the Open Day.”

Richards shows me her work: delicate porcelain that she decorates with flowers and images of London. “The people who own the boatyard, Mark and Helen Montgomery-Smith, have a nice philosophy – they want to create a good environment for artists to work in.”

A bit further up the path, I knock on the door of Juliette Losq. She’s been in her workspace for just over a year: “I was lucky to get a studio. The person who had this one before me was here for about 25 years.” While the rate of occupancy change is slow, there’s no formal waiting list for getting an artist studio, as Mark Montgomery-Smith explained in an email: “The process for Eel Pie Boatyard is to ask.”

Since graduating from art school in 2010, Losq has had studios all over London, having to move several times as they keep getting redeveloped. Her work looks like prints at first glance, but it’s actually drawings: “I make these models – I take photographs and make a 3D collage and I draw or paint from them. It ends up looking sort of like a primitive photograph.” She hopes she can stay here: “This is quite suited to my work, which is about overgrown spaces.”

Losq moved to the area nearly five years ago to live with her partner, a cabinet maker who used to have a studio on Eel Pie Island before a big fire in 1996 destroyed the boatyard and 60 artist studios. Many of the artists who lost their studios during the fire, including Michele Whitby, have stayed close by but chose not to return to the island.  

There’s not been a music venue on the island since that first big fire, when the Eel Pie Island Hotel burned down in 1971. But the musical spirit of Eel Pie Island has struck at least once more: the Mystery Jets emerged from the island in 2003. Henry Harrison, the father of frontman Blaine, bought part of the island following the ‘96 fire, meaning the band had a place to practice. The Mystery Jets made themselves a bit unpopular with the locals by causing a racket, but by the time the police shut down down the illegal gigs it didn’t matter: they had a record deal.

Eel Pie Island has changed a lot over the years, but the glory days will be remembered, and the artist environment is still thriving. While the inhabitants may no longer be “jiving and cutting a rug”, as the old passports granting entry to Eelpiland used to proclaim, there’s no doubt that this place, then as well as now, really isn’t like anything else.

Eel Pie Island artists are hosting a studio Open Day weekend on 8-9th December. The Eel Pie Island Museum is a few minutes away, open Thursday through Sunday.

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