The island that rocked
Eel Pie Island and the eponymous hotel have a fascinating musical history as a bohemian hub that at its peak played host to a vibrant swinging sixties scene. With a newly opened museum and a thriving record store, we look at how Twickenham’s riverside legacy lives on.
It’s 1956 and the Eel Pie Island Hotel is opening its doors in anticipation of an evening of jazz. Gig-goers excitedly cram into small rowboats and make the journey from Twickenham Riverside across the water. The decade rolls on, and with a newly connecting bridge comes a fresh wave of rhythm and blues and rock and roll sweeping in from the States. The hotel evolves with the winds of change and through its doors comes The Rolling Stones, John Lee Hooker, Rod Stewart, David Bowie and Howlin’ Wolf, to name a few, with a new-fangled demographic in tow – the ‘teenager’.
Picking up pace through the 1960s, this societal breed flocked to the island armed with a newly disposable income burning a hole in their pocket, and a post-war sense of joie de vivre. Crowds were wrist-stamped upon crossing the bridge, and bestowed with passport-style membership cards – their tickets to another world.
Chronicling this piece of local history, which has been somewhat swallowed by the Thames tide over the years, is the Eel Pie Island Museum, which opened this year on ‘the mainland’ on Richmond Road and recently sold its 500th membership card, to the delight of curator Michele Whitby.
“It’s really encouraging how successful the project has been, we had a guy all the way from Holland who thought he’d just pop over to visit the museum, it’s just wonderful,” she says.
Visitors enter via a long corridor which has been painted to mimic the bridge, and are greeted by a treasure trove of memorabilia.
The museum is very much an immersive experience, with posters, newspaper cut outs, and a spectacular roll call of all who played at the hotel splurged on the walls. It hosts an extensive collection of evocative photographs including shots of a willowy Mick Jagger nervously shuffling on stage and crowd-surfing musicians stamping painted feet on the ballroom ceiling (an Eel Pie tradition). As you walk round, distinctly 1960s music blares from speakers and retro TVs screen footage of jiving teens and smirking Teddy Boys.
“The collection will never be finished because it just keeps naturally expanding, ” explains Michele, “we get people bringing things in and sending us photos and clippings and each one leads us down a whole new route to explore.”
“The lovely thing about the museum is it’s not about going gun-ho, it has grown organically.”
Michele shows me a corner of the room dedicated to the club’s owner, Arthur Chainsall. “He was a social worker really,” Michele says.
The lovely thing about the museum is it’s not about going gun-ho, it has grown organically.
In the spirit of the hotel, the community feel is palpable here too: “We’ve had loads of volunteers who are helping us find our feet and it’s really drawn a diverse group of people, with people in their 70s coming and helping us, and younger people doing work experience also taking an interest.”
“Twickenham is definitely appreciating its past more and a lot of the people who are coming in are big music fans. It’s a really important part of our local heritage and there are big things in the pipeline.”
Location is key for the museum, which has ties to the nearby music venue, Eel Pie Club, the Eel Pie Pub in Church Street, and the new record store.
Eel Pie Records was opened by friends Kevin Jones and Phil Penman, local residents who bonded over a mutual love of music before taking the plunge last year.
“Twickenham seemed like the right place to open the shop, not just because we live here but it’s got that musical history and a legacy,” Kevin says.
The store has proved to be successful, with a growing customer base and regulars: “Word spreads – within our first month we had one thousand followers on social media,” he adds.
The store’s success has lead to Twickenham’s own Record Fair, where vinyl lovers will be able to get their hands on a mix of straightforward and second hand collectable items. The second fair will take place on the 16 July.
“It’s great for the street, great for Twickenham and can bring extra people to the area. We are hoping that it will help local business and ultimately increase awareness about a great piece of local history. As the museum finds its feet we will work together and this will spread the word further.”
“In my personal opinion, vinyl makes you a better listener as you slow a piece of music down and appreciate every moment of it. It’s something more people are recognising, not just older audiences; we get lots of kids here too.”
The store has built on the legacy of Eel Pie Island with a real passion for music at its core, but is clearly also setting its sights on the future of the area and the potential of vinyl music, much like the museum, which embodies the spirit of the legendary hotel in its community feel and brings the story into the 21st century. With a nod to Twickenham’s musical past, it is making way for its future.