The Birth of British Rhythm and Blues At Eel Pie Island

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THE BIRTH OF BRITISH RHYTHM AND BLUES AT EEL PIE ISLAND

Eel Pie Island is a small island on the River Thames in Twickenham, Middlesex, 20 minutes from the centre of London. It is a residential island today, but in the 1960s, a dilapidated hotel on the Island was part of a music revolution that would change popular music forever.

Eel Pie Island, Twickenham, UK.

READ MAHRUKH MCDONALD'S STORY

Eel Pie Island – the name itself draws you to it! In the 1830s, it was known by the mundane name of Twickenham Ait and was renowned as a resort for visitors and boat parties, some brought by pleasure steamers in the days when there wasn’t a bridge. Tea gardens lined the front of the island, and the eel pies served here were famous. It led to the renaming of the island – and of the pub located on it from Island Hotel to Eel Pie Island Hotel.

It’s not just the name or its fame for serving great eel pies that have made this tiny island famous. It is music! Just as The Cavern Club in Liverpool is renowned for The Beatles music scene, the Eel Pie Island Hotel is famous for The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, David Bowie (then David Wood), Pink Floyd, The Who, and many, many more who, between 1962 and ’67, fused the gritty sound of R&B with the electric sound of Rock ‘n’ Roll to define the shape of popular music.

But Eel Pie Island has been used as a music venue well before the 1960s. In Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens mentioned the hotel as a place where one could "dance to the music of a locomotive band". In the 1920s, it was a local tea dance venue. In 1956, it was a popular jazz venue. Arthur Chisnall set up the Eel Pie Club at the Island Hotel in the late ’50s, and in the early ’60s, it rapidly became “the” place to hear rhythm and blues bands. Youngsters flocked to the island every weekend. They paid the toll (around 2d) to cross the bridge, bought tickets (about 3 shillings 6d), and had their wrists stamped. The ink colour was varied from week to week to stop people from gaining entry again by not washing their wrist for a week.

The hotel was already in a dilapidated condition when it became a jazz hangout in the early 1900s. Part of the dance floor in front of the stage had actually rotted away in the R&B music years. The dilapidated condition of the stage added to the excitement of the venue, as did the highly sprung dance floor. You could not stand still even if you wanted to!

eel pie island twickenham

Before the first bridge was built in 1957, bands had to haul their equipment over the river on a chain barge. There was an instance when the barge sank, and with it, all the music equipment was lost, and the main band had to borrow the music equipment of their support band.

Eel Pie Island was a popular venue for youngsters from West London, but people travelled from all over London to this vibrant venue. Many parents banned their teenagers from the island. Many of them would have preferred their kids enjoy The Beatles’ music instead of the bands playing at The Eel Pie Island Hotel. After all, The Beatles wore suits!

The Eel Pie Club was forced to close down for safety reasons by the council in 1967. For a couple of years, it was used as a venue for well-known bands like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, but by the end of the ’60s it completely closed down. It went into rapid decline with communes making it their home, and even the Hell’s Angels moved in. In 1971, the hotel burned to the ground.

eel pie island twickenham

Now, the island is home to residents. There are artist studios and boatyards. Phil Collins is the President of the Richmond Yacht Club on the island. This is where he, as a boy, learnt to play the drums. At a very young age, he played in a band on a set of tin drums bought from Woolworths.

You walk across the narrow bridge to Eel Pie Island, and you are in a different world, far removed from the hustle and bustle of London. The main road on the island is a pathway, no cars allowed – there is no way for them to come over and there is no road to drive on. The undergrowth is dense, and cottages line the road, some visible from the path, others tucked away. The most striking of these is called the Love Shack, a weatherboard cottage, bright blue with a white picket fence. Half a mannequin, her legs sticking out from the ground, adorns the entrance. On another cottage, a sign, “Any person omitting to shut and fasten this gate after using it is liable to a penalty of forty shillings”. The island retains some of its quirkiness.

All photographs by Mahrukh McDonald except feature photography by Iridescenti [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5 ], from Wikimedia Commons