“You must realise that what goes on here is the expression of the latent desire among the young to get away from mass media and regimentation.”
British teenagers have always been a bunch of ravers. They shimmied during the 1st World War, jitterbugged during the 2nd, skip-jived in the 40’s and bopped to rock ‘n’ roll from the time that Mars Bars cost 6d…and it was around then that they really got down to it…
Up to the mid 50’s teenagers dressed like their parents, talked like their parents and listened to music their parents liked. Then the world changed. The war was over.
Thanks to the new National Health Service teenagers were healthier than they had ever been. There was full employment and young people had money in their pocket and were willing to spend it. Better still the compulsory ‘National Service Call-Up’ had ended. While their older brothers were wading through swamps in Malaya or square bashing in Germany the average teenage male in the late 1950’s was free to walk the streets with his ‘bird’, sporting the latest teen fashions like winkle picker shoes, denim jeans and multi petticoated skirts made from new fabrics like terylene. There were expresso coffee bars to meet in, motorcycles and scooters to ride on and dance halls and dives where they could bop to the music of rising stars like Elvis, Billy Haley and Tommy Steele. Some disapproved of so much fun…
“Viewed as a social phenomenon, the current craze for rock and roll is one of the most terrifying things ever to have happened to popular music. The promotion and acceptance of this cult is a monstrous threat…let us oppose it to the end.”
Steve Race - Melody Maker, May 1956
…but not Arthur Chisnall from Kingston. This junk shop manager, club promoter, and informal philosopher and social anthropologist was both fascinated and concerned by what was happening to the restless post-war generation who appeared cynical about education and stifled by stuffy conventions. Looking for an opportunity to observe this group at close hand in a familiar environment Arthur Chisnall persuaded Michael Snapper who owned the dilapidated hotel on Eel Pie Island to let him put on traditional jazz bands there at weekends. ‘Eel Pie Island Hotel’ had everything that a hip venue needed - a slightly grubby ‘bohemian’ atmosphere, a large sprung dance floor and a bar with a licence. The fact that you had to get there by boat was an added bonus. On 20 April 1956 ‘Eel Pie Island Hotel’ opened its door to its first wave of boppers.
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,” added the local.
In February 1957 a bridge was opened across to the mainland and a proper club established - Eelpiland - with an obligatory membership scheme. Admission to paradise was 4d. Over the following years the music evolved from traditional jazz to guitar-driven rhythm and blues. Many famous stars-to-be like the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, the Kinks, Rod Stewart and the Yardbirds started their musical career there. Gently guiding it all was Arthur Chisnall, fielding complaints from nearby residents and the police, keeping out the trouble makers, encouraging the shy and generally acting as an older brother and councillor to all. One young fan, Fluff, commented “My parents didn’t seem to mind me going to the island. What I didn’t realise was that they knew Arthur and had him keeping a watchful eye on me… he was always there to chat and help us if we had any concerns in life. He gave us his time.”
On the club’s 5th anniversary in June 1961 Arthur was interviewed by the ‘News of the World’…
“This place started as a Jazz Club. Now it is one of the biggest political discussion centres in this part of Greater London. There are 8,386 members. The bands only play at weekends. During the week the members jam the bar… while discussing all sorts of serious topics. We are not tied down to any one line of political thought.” That night Labour M.P John Stonehouse came to talk about Africa.
For all its popularity Eelpiland and the ‘Eel Pie Island Hotel’ were constantly beset with financial, structural, legal and licensing problems. On 4th September 1967, after 11 years of promoting new trends in music and inspiring new attitudes amongst the 30,000 fans who passed across its legendary and decidedly shaky sprung dance floor, it was forced to close. On 30th March 1971, after a short period of occupation by squatters, the Hotel burnt down in a mysterious fire.
Compared with other musical shrines like the Cavern in Liverpool, or Sun Studios in Memphis, the ‘Eel Pie Island Hotel’ barely rates a mention - but that is a grievous oversight. In its time Eelpiland created music and a spirit that swept the world and these survive and thrive to this day - living on in the memories of those who crossed the bridge all those years ago - and those who wished they had.
The music and the man are being celebrated in a pop-up museum that is opening at Twickenham Library, Garfield Road, Twickenham TW1 3JT on Saturday 6th June. As well as ephemera and artefacts from the original Eelpiland there will be musical instruments on display, photographs and posters and a reconstruction of Arthur’s office at the Hotel. Admission is £2. For details of opening times please check the museum website www.eelpiemuseum.co.uk .
And as for Arthur Chisnall?
…“(Arthur was) the most altruistic person I have ever met. The island taught me that life is too short: do it now, try it now, go for it. Arthur’s philosophy represented the best of the Fifties and Sixties.”
“When someone talked to Arthur about a problem they came away thinking that he had solved it for them when in actual fact they had solved it for themselves!”
“He founded a generation of alternative thinkers and gave us joy, hope and a new future.”
Arthur Chisnall, club and concert promoter: born Kingston upon Thames, Surrey 3 June 1925; died Esher, Surrey 28 December 2006.
“A Look at Life”
A documentary about Arthur Chisnall and the Eel Pie Island Hotel…
– from Martyn Day
Credits: Many of the quotes in this article come from ‘Eel Pie Island’ a fascinating and well illustrated book by Dan Van der Vat and Michele Whitby