Eel Pie Island

In a break with my usual tradition of reviewing old canal and river cruising books, here is a review of a modern book and one that may not catch the eye of waterways enthusiasts. Last Christmas I was given a number of books about waterways related subjects from my family but the first I really got to grips with was a new (2009) book about that famous Thames-side music venue, Eel Pie Island.

For those of you not aware of its location Eel Pie Island is a 550m long by 135m long island lying close to Twickenham and just above Richmond. It is on the tidal section below Teddington Lock and has been inhabited for centuries although it is essentially a mud bank. It is passed by boaters making the trip along the Tideway from the non-tidal River Thames at Teddington to either the Grand Union at Brentford, or the Regents Canal at Limehouse (or vice versa).

Google Map of Eel Pie Island

Although the island housed a well-known hotel, that was visited by in the 1830s by Charles Dickens and is included in two of his books, its modern fame largely comes from the 1950s and 1960s when the hotel became a famous pop music venue.  Perhaps the most famous group to appear at the venue was the Rolling Stones who appeared there throughout summer 1963 for fees of £45 or £55 per night. However, so many other famous musicians appeared there that their list reads like a Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.  A certain Davy Jones with his group the Manish Boys appeared there, before he changed his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion, and Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Long John Baldry, Brian Auger, Julie Discoll, Alex Harvey and Ronnie Wood all appeared there with various groups.

The book is Eel Pie Island by Dan Van Der Vat and Michelle Whitby, both of whom are long-term Eel Pie residents. The book is very heavily illustrated and could be described as approaching "coffee-table" standard. However, its historical content is very strong. Not only does the book describe the modern musical heritage of the island but it also describes in detail the role that artists, entrepreneurs, boat builders and rowers have had in creating the diverse community that now inhabit this mud-bank island. The most famous island resident today is Trevor Baylis the creator of the clockwork radio, who has lived on the island since the 1970s, but the hero of the book, if a book like this has a hero, must be Arthur Chisnall the organiser of the Eelpiland  Jazz Club that started in the early 1950s. At that time there was no bridge to the private island so it could act as a land where youth could develop their own voice, in a lightly controlled environment, at a time when conformity was very much the norm.  Eelpiland even had its own unofficial passports at that time. Over time, with a foot bridge being built, the jazz club events on the island became more and more popular and all the big names in British blues and jazz played there - Cyril Davies, Ken Colyer, and Acker Bilk to name a few. US blues artists such as Champion Jack Dupree, Mephis Slim and John Lee Hooker also played there. However, following difficult events in the late 1960s the hotel closed and was demolished 

The book is neatly divided into three parts; Part One covers the history of the island until the coming its musical era; Part Two covers the musical heritage of the island and Part Three covers the later history of the island after the famous music venue closed. It is the last part, sub-titled The Age of Aquarius after the development that was built on the hotel site, that will be of most interest to boating enthusiasts since it covers the history of the boatyards and the rowing club and has some fine photographs of the island today.

I am sure that many boaters are "of an age" and will recall the excitement that jazz, blues and rock 'n' roll had in the early 1960s; they should indulge themselves in nostalgia and read this excellent book.