“Grand Jazz Band Ball” said the Melody Maker’s advertising column. “Fully Licensed – Cy Laurie’s Jazz Band – Eel Pie Island.” I hadn’t heard Cy Laurie at the time, but I liked the sound of Eel Pie island. It seemed to go with ‘Gut Bucket’ or ‘Honky Tonk’. It had the right feel to it. It not only sounded right. It looked right too.
GEORGE MELLY – “Owning Up” (1965)
People have been making merry on Eel Pie Island since Victorian times and before…
“It had come to pass that afternoon that Miss Morleena Kenwigs had received an invitation to repair next day, per steamer from Westminster Bridge unto Eel Pie Island at Twickenham: there to make merry upon a cold collation, bottled beer, shrub and shrimps, and to dance in the open air to the music of a locomotive band…”
CHARLES DICKENS – “Nicholas Nickleby” (1839)
When local antique dealer Michael Snapper bought the old and gently decaying Eel Pie Island Hotel in the early 1950’s the locomotive band had been replaced by “a rather washed-out trio playing foxtrots and what-not to half a dozen people.” Business at the hotel was very slow and locals were beginning to talk of Snapper’s acquisition as a white elephant. The hotel badly needed renovation, the entertainment wasn’t attracting anybody and worse of all – the only way you could get there was by a small ferryboat. Although he may not have realised it at the time what Mr Snapper needed to save his hotel was a) something that would attract large numbers of people, b) ideally people who wouldn’t be too bothered by the tatty decor of his hotel and c) people who would really ‘dig’ the fun of a ferry boat ride. The answer was right under his nose.
Local trumpeter Brian Rutland had been running some very successful and crowded “pub sessions” with his band, “Grove Jazz Band” in the Barmy Arms, directly opposite the Island. In 1955 Michael Snapper invited Brian Rutland to start a jazz club – rent free – in the ballroom of the Eel Pie Island Hotel. The club was an almost immediate success. The audiences, “members of the beatnik fraternity” commented one local, were large, enthusiastic and rather enjoyed taking the ferry. One visitor, Gaynor Gadd, said “Many used to fall in the river even before they’d started on the scrumpy!” Some jazz fans were keen enough to swim across the river. “Probably the only bath that they’d taken in weeks,” commented the local. The ferry however was a real nightmare for the laden jazz musicians. Trumpeter Mike Peters said, “Transporting a drum kit, double bass, six musicians and assorted girlfriends across the Thames in a particularly rickety boat was a decidedly dodgy affair, like the D-Day landing but without the gunfire.”
Clearly a bridge was needed and by 9th February 1957 the determined Mr Snapper had got one – a steep, humpbacked metal curve arching over the river, high enough to allow cabin cruisers beneath and just wide enough to accommodate the ‘mini’ that would bring the coal to the island. It cost £6,500, this money to be recouped by charging visitors a 2d toll. Mr Snapper was very optimistic. “This bridge would make the island one of the major attractions of this part of Greater London,” he said. The local newspapers equally enthusiastic. “Footbridge may bring hundreds of visitors to Twickenham and Eel Pie Island,” one headline announced.
On the day of the official opening of the bridge Mr Snapper asked one youth to make way for the Lady Mayor. The youth replied, “What instrument does she play?”
From RICHMOND AND TWICKENHAM TIMES Saturday, 16 February 1957
Mr Snapper’s optimism was damped slightly the following week when he discovered that some visitors had been forcing the toll turnstile using foreign coins, pieces of cardboard and even nails. He promised that all future miscreants would be prosecuted.
The bridge at Eel Pie Island did make life a little easier for musicians but as the jazz boom faded in the face of electrified blues and R&B the amount of equipment needed substantially increased. As well as their instruments musicians now had to carry amplifiers, PA systems and all the usual spaghetti of microphones, stands and cables… and the steep, humpbacked bridge hadn’t got any flatter.
The usual method of transportation was to load the gear onto small trolleys, and with everyone pushing and pulling, haul it up one side of the bridge, pause on the top for a ‘fag’ and a breath of fresh air, (now, there’s a contradiction,) and then gingerly lower the trolley down the ski jump that was the slope on the far side. The fear of heavily loaded trolleys running away and knocking over a few islanders before finishing up in the river was constant. Eric Clapton who was a regular Eel Pie ‘muso’ said, “It was a fantastic place, but I do remember the trouble we had hauling John Mayall’s Hammond Organ across that bridge!”
By the early 60’s The Eel Pie Island Hotel, now known to music fans as ‘Eelpiland’, had become one of the most important music venues in Britain. It helped fuel the popularity of blues and R&B and promoted and encouraged some of the country’s biggest bands through their earliest gigs.
Sadly, as musical tastes changed and audiences moved on the Eel Pie Island Hotel fell further into decline and in 1967 it closed. In 1969 the hotel was occupied by ‘anarchists’ and within a year it had become the largest hippie commune in the U.K. The squatters were finally evicted in 1971. Shortly afterwards the Hotel burned down in a mysterious fire.
Very few bands play on the Island now and those that do still have to cope with the steep, humpbacked bridge using trolley and rope. The only comfort is to know that Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, the Pink Floyd, Rod Stewart and many, many others have done it before.
Local band “Nark Drool and the Shudders” crossing the bridge to Eel Pie Island
Friday, 7 June 2013
— from Martyn Day
CREDIT: Some of the interviews in this article are taken from “The British Beat Explosion-Rock ‘n’ Roll Island” edited by J.C Wheatley, published by Aurora Metro Books for £9.99. This excellent book tells the fascinating story of how Eel Pie Island became the birthplace, the nursery and the home of British R&B. from where sprung The Rolling Stones, The Who, the Yardbirds and countless other world famous bands.