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Fact #102146


Short story:

Bill Wyman (bass), Ian Stewart (keyboards), Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page (guitars) and others play four songs together during a jam at Eel Pie Island, Twickenham, London, UK.

Full article:

A HISTORY OF EEL PIE ISLAND by JOHN PLATT, reprinted from Comstock Lode No7, 1980.

There is no way I can relate a detailed history of all the various places or personages that made up the scene over a twenty year period. Although I'll try and work in most of them (God knows how) I thought the best thing would be to take what I considered the most important part of the whole thing - Eel Pie Island - and deal principally with that. At its best, the 'Island' (afficionados never used the 'Eel Pie' prefix) was the most imaginative, original, wonderful, exciting and enjoyable environment I've ever experienced ('club' - which it was - is far too narrow a word); and in terms of what it set out to do, and largely succeeded in, was unique, certainly in England. Firstly however a little historical background.......

The name 'Eel Pie Island', was a purely Nineteenth Century affair, probably arising from the dubious comestibles of that nature sold at the Island Tavern, later the Eel Pie House and Hotel. Earlier names included 'Twickenham Ayte', 'Goose Eyte' and 'Church Ayte'. Believe it or not there had also been a bowling alley on the island in the Seventeenth Century.

In 1830 the famous hotel was built, a great rambling affair, described by George Melly as being in 'Tennessee Williams' style which accurately conveys the feel of the place. The new hotel rapidly became well known and gave rise to this gem of a quote from Charles Dickens' 'Nicholas Nickelby' - one of his characters takes a steamer from Westminster to Eel Pie Island 'to make merry upon a cold collation, bottled beer... and to dance to the music of a locomotive band.' Suggestions as to what a 'locomotive band' was, on a postcard, please.

In 1898 the dancehall was added; another splendidly ramshackle affair with lots of arches and columns and mysterious dark corners and best of all, a sprung dance floor.

Nevertheless by the end of the century the Island was past it as tourist attraction and its chief industry became, as it was to remain, boat-building. There was also some residential development, chiefly weather-boarded shacks and bungalows.

During the 30's a few dances were held on the Island and just after the war a few events such as the 'Grand Jazz Ball' described by Melly took place. In the early 50's someone had acquired a supper license and music was provided by a tired trio, but by 1956 nothing musically was happening on the Island at all. It had by then acquired a wonderfully overgrown, decaying and mysterious atmosphere which it never lost over the years. In a few short months the peace was shattered and the person largely responsible for this was a guy called Arthur Chisnall. At this stage I should point out that without Arthur's help this article would be little more than my own disjointed memories and bits and pieces of information I've picked up over the years.

During the war, Arthur had put on a couple of jazz concerts whilst in the army but after the war became involved, as he still is, with various aspects of community research. I should also point out that from the beginning, Arthur's interests with the Island were as much in this direction as with the music or anything else. If some of the language embodied herein is a touch more socialogical than usual, it's because to leave out that side of Arthur's role would be to do him an injustice.

Between 1954 and 1956 Arthur worked (I'm not totally sure why) in a junk shop in Kingston. The rich, as he puts it, go to junk shops to find unusual things, the poor because they have no alternative. What he was really looking for, however, were what he describes as 'Trend Forming Groups'. Sometime towards the end of 1955 a group of people were coming in and selling off records , usually jazz, blues or skiffle, and another group was coming in and buying them.

The first lot were almost entirely from the local Art Schools, Twickenham, Kingston and Wimbledon. It didn't take Arthur long to discover that as well as having (for the time) very avant garde muscial taste, they were also avant garde in other ways and saw themselves as a distinct group and under threat from other parts of society, such as the police and the emergent Teddy Boy population. What they wanted was a place of their own, more than just a commercially run institution that featured jazz.

Somehow or other Arthur knew the new owner of - yes, you've guessed it - the hotel and dance hall on Eel Pie Island, one Michael Snapper, who despite coming into this saga, in theory, again, especially at the end, will, for various reasons just get this one mention.

Initially what Arthur organised were essentially free parties - no adverts or anything, just word of mouth. The first of these bachanals took place on the 20th April 1956. Between 5 and 600 people turned up and flooded the Island and, as Arthur put it, 'never really went away again.'

As you may imagine, local reaction was mixed. The landlord was happy to have someone drinking his beer and some of the locals thought it was good that something was going on; others, however, didn't see it quite that way. One lady threatened to call the police. By 9 o'clock people were coming and going quite happily, dancing and drinking - any minute now, Arthur thought, she's going to phone the police. So Arthur went over and saw the police, told them that they were having a party, invited them over to have a look round on the basis that if anything was going on that they didn't like, they'd try and change it. A couple of policemen went over, 'accidently' kicked a few recumbant couples, but being generally satisfied, left quite happily. Thus, when the lady did phone, they said 'Oh yes, we've been over and it's quite all right.' She never forgave Arthur for that so he was never sure if he'd done the right things. About 11 o'clock the police did come back quite embarrassed and said they'd had quite a number of complaints, and as the public license was about to run out 'wouldn't you like to think aout closing?' Arthur replied that they weren't running on a public license, it being a private party, no one had paid any money to get in, and the bar had closed. So they left, only to return half an hour later saying they had to close as 'every line to the nick was blocked with complaints, and if there was a genuine emergency, the caller would not be able to get through.' This seemed reasonable enough; the police had been reasonably cooperative up 'till then, so Arthur stopped the band. Some people went home, but others stayed and chatted.

A pattern was established, and about once a week for the next two months much the same thing took place. Then several things happened at once. Most importantly, the police told them to become an official club, as it was becoming a regular affair. The bands who were coming over decided that, much as they liked playing there, they would also quite like to be paid. The patrons decided that although they liked the bands that played there, there were other, better, bands that they'd like to see. Finally, and not surprisingly, the landlord, although he liked having his beer drunk, decided it would be even better if he received rent for these shindigs.

Thus with Arthur at the helm, the place became a 'proper' club as a result of which better bands came over, the first being Ken Colyer's, who became very much associated with the Island over the years.

Even after becoming a club there was never any advertising. The nearest they ever had was a slip of paper with a list of the following month's bands, more for information than advertising. Nonetheless as its reputation grew they were discovered not just by the local bohemian population but also the Teds as well. Trouble seemed inevitable. One night a gang arrived but were told by Arthur that they weren't accepting any new members at that time. However they saw through that. The gang leader (the head Ted, so to speak) replied 'What you mean is, if I come in there'll be bovva. You're right. They're lippy, ain't they? But they can't fight, so I hits 'em, don't I?' Undoubtedly a very fair description of what would take place. Strangely once Arthur admitted that this was indeed why they were refused entry into the club, the Teds were quite happy. It didn't always end that way. After a few broken windows and noses they noticed a pattern emerging. A group would come over, have one drink, order a second and start looking round for something 'interesting' to do. After a few occurrences they realised that if the police were called as the group arrived, just as they were starting their second drink the police would mysteriously arrive and shepherd them off the Island. In fact this became standard practice in all the local clubs and pubs and prevented a lot of problems. An interesting side effect though was that quite often a Ted, who the previous week had been thrown out as part of a gang would reappear on his own and after a few weeks of drinking in the hotel would eventually be absorbed into the club on the understanding the membership did not extend to his friends. This prevented the culture of the club being swamped by the extremely tense Ted culture, where for someone to touch you was justification for a fight, as opposed to being able to relax and knowing that if you brushed against someone they would probably apologise.

To digress slightly, the main Ted hangout at the time was The Boathouse at Kew Bridge, just down the road from here. The Boathouse had a terrible reputation, a hard core rock & roll establishment where fights were a nightly activity. Gangs of Teds from as far away as Southall would have pitched battles with rival gangs from Chiswick and Acton. Later, at the end of the 60's it became notorious again as a skinhead gathering place. In the early 70's it closed, was pulled down, and now there are luxury town houses on the site.

Musically the Island was almost completely trad jazz orientated - double bass, tuba, drums, banjo (of necessity - the guitar and piano in the beginning indicated mainstream) and a front line of clarinet, trumpet and trombone, from which line-up very few bands in their right minds ever deviated.

Although unique in other ways, the Island, even in its earliest days, wasn't the only jazz club in the area. The Thames Hotel at Hampton Court opened within a week or two of the Island. Kingston had a number of jazz clubs in the late 50's. The Fighting Cocks was reckoned to be the best (it's now the Southern Surplus Store); there was also the Jazz Cellar and the Jazz Barge. The latter was simply a barge on the Thames owned by one Ian Sheridan, then as now an antiques dealer of er..... flamboyant disposition, from Kew. The Barge was a nice try but obviously far too small to be commercially successful. Talking of Kew, in the very early days there was a coffe bar with a 'skiffle cellar' actually on Kew Green, which had connections with the Island. I wonder what the locals made of that.

Richmond itself had the Maddingley Club, housed in a big old house on the riverside (technically it's on the Middlesex side and thus in what is known as East Twickenham. Resident there for a number of years were the Keith Smith Band, Smith being an early Colyer enthusiast. The Maddingley has come and gone over the years but could return at any moment and has thus outlasted many of its more famous rivals.

By the end of the 50's, fans of modern jazz could go down to The Bull, down by the river at Barnes. The Bull became for many years the centre of modern jazz in the area, with people like Tubby Hayes being regular guests. Actually the Island did try modern jazz (or at least mainstream), when Bruce Turner's band played there. They tried it for about four months but decided in the end it wasn't working. Earlier they had also tried Diz Disley's String Quintet, but that too had failed. Disley in fact was something of a local celebrity. Essentially a guitarist in the Django Rheinhardt tradition, Disley became quite famous in the trad boom days. Melly described him as having 'the face of a satyr, en route to a cheerful orgy'. Raconteur, piss-artist and layabout with distinct anarchist tendencies, Disley had a built-in anti-success formula. He lived locally in East Sheen for many years and played regularly at the Derby Arms on the Upper Richmond Road, a good place but again suffering from being too small. Like the Maddeningly, it comes and goes; they even had Richard and Linda Thompson there a few years ago, when it was a folk club. The Island also ran folk as well, from 1958, much more successfully than their modern jazz experiments. Not surprisingly, folk was very big in the area when it started to boom in the early 60's. The best folk club (or at least the one I have the fondest memories of) was The Crown on the Richmond Road in Twickenham. Regulars early on were Beverley Martin (before she married John - I can't remember her maiden name) and Johnny Joyce, who were in a well known group (whose name I've also forgotten) and lived locally in Twickenham. Everybody that was worth seeing on the contemporary folk scene played there - Jansch, Renbourn, Alex Campbell (whom I seem to recall once called my brother-in-law a "sassenach bastard" for talking in the middle of one of his songs), even the legendary Jackson C Frank played there. Slightly later the immaculately spoken Johnny Silvo ran the club affording us endless renditions of 'Midnight Special' and 'Doctor Jazz'. Later (c 1968) the place featured bands during the extraordinarily dull 'blues boom'. Most were dreadful (Dynaflow Blues Band, 20-20 Blues Band etc) but I did see Free's first (or a very early) gig which wasn't too bad.

The Crown had always been a hang-out of Islanders and continued to attract that sort of clientele until they were all suddenly banned (sometime in late '69), and they moved into Central Twickenham to the Cabbage Patch. The Crown was tarted up and employed a lady of grotesque proportions to play the piano and lost 90% of its trade.

Getting back to folk, Kingston also had an active folk scene that centered around the 'Folk Barge'. What connection this had, if any, with the Jazz barge, I've no idea. It was however run by an alcoholic called Geoff who drank meths and red wine and who eventually became a traffic warden. It was also the place where John Martyn was discovered. At the end of the 60's there was an active folk club in Richmond called The Hanging Lamp, in the crypt of a church just off Richmond Hill. This again featured all the big names on the folk circuit, plus a few 'others', like the slightly eccentric Ron Geesin, much of whose BBC2 programme 'One Man's Week' was shot at The Hanging Lamp. I must admit that I never liked the place as much as The Crown, perhaps because by 1970 things were just not the same anymore.

By far the longest lasting folk club in the area was (and still is) The Half Moon in the Upper Richmond Road in Putney. This too was a jazz club early on, but by the early 60's was presenting folk and later on r&b as well. The Half Moon is still going, putting on excellent people regularly. I even saw legendary banjo player Derrol Adams there last year. Just up the road, The Coach And Horses also puts on folk - the illustrious Barry Melton played there September 1978.

By this stage you may well be wondering what's so special about Richmond and its surrounding area that all these trend setters lived there. Two main factors are involved. Firstly there were, as already noted, loads of art schools in the area, and they as much as anybody in this country evolved the whole bohemian lifestyle. Secondly, what the Richmond area has particularly are large amounts of old varied housing, particularly big Victorian houses that not only offer far more scope for the imagination than a 30's semi or a modern council house, but are also ripe for splitting up into flats. Coupled with this is the fact that Richmond in particular is very attractive environmentally, having none of the inner city problems. It may have been funkier to live in Soho or Notting Hill Gate, but it was a good deal more pleasant to live in Richmond, without actually selling your soul to a suburban way of life.

In recent years the indigenous population of the area has become relatively middle class and liberal; back in the 50's and early 60's it was middle class and very conservative. What the area was producing 25 years ago were intelligent kids being forced into a conformity they hated. Thus their rebelliion lay in going to places like the Island and getting into drugs - at that time mainly amphetamines. The big difference between the Island and all the other clubs is that people at the Island, particularly Arthur, tried to do something for them. As early as 1956 they were bringing their problems to him.

Because of what was going on at the Island in this respect, various eminent people started dropping in. These included people in the medical field, social researchers, and at least one Home Office researcher [Leslie Wilkins] who had done pioneering work on deviancy. What became obvious to all of them, including Arthur, was that many of the young Islanders, because of their home environment and other factors, were not succeeding in education, not because they were unintelligent, but because they simply did not fit into the usual educational pattern. One visitor to the island developed teaching machines [Gordon Pask]. His basic idea was that standard methods of measuring IQ, ie the ability to think logically, were wrong, and that it ought to be based more on how one adapts to the environment. In tests on his machines, the Islanders came out better than Oxbridge dons.

On a more practical level the Island helped members get into Adult Education Colleges, which was far more difficult then. In the end the club supported and funded about 20 people at any one time, which, when one considers that a huge union like the TGWU supports about 3 or 4, wasn't bad. In the end it proved too great a strain on their finances, so they changed tack and eventually persuaded the relevant local authorities to change their grant structures.

The Island was always involved in some activity or other. Very early on they formed a group called CARD (Campaign Against Racial Discrimination) and were actively involved in CND.

One of their other activities was in supporting young people or groups of young people who had been misrepresented in the press, especially the usual 'beatnik, hair,sex,drugs' syndrome. Often this meant themselves as they acquired an incredible reputation thanks to ludicrously exaggerated newspapers articles. Virtually every child in a 30 mile radius was told never to go to Eel Pie Island. Of course they did then, even if they'd never thought about it before. Newspaper reporting got so bad for young people generally that in 1960 the Island threw a special benefit gig to highlight the problem. Acker Bilk played for expenses, and in the interval various people like MP Frank Allaun and Martin Ennels, then of the National Council for Civil Liberties, spoke. The Times Educational Supplement reported the event and it was discussed in Parliament, as a result of which the first independent member of the Press Council was appointed.

How 'evil' was the Island? As Arthur puts it, 'Our major crime was to teach people to think for themselves, an unforgivable sin.' The Island's other activities brings to mind the case of one of its most notable prot