Secret Twickenham, Whitton, Teddington and The Hamptons by Andy Bull
Today, Eel Pie Island in the Thames at Twickenham is a quiet spot, best known for its many artists’ studios. But, as I learned while researching my book Secret Twickenham, Whitton, Teddington and The Hamptons, in the 1960s the island’s Eel Pie Hotel rivalled The Cavern in Liverpool as a cauldron for emerging English pop music. Yet it is far less famous.
The club played a central role in the birth of British Rhythm and Blues music, which was just as vital as the emergence of the Liverpool Sound. Here, The Rolling Stones had a weekly residency, and Rod Stewart was discovered. David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds learned their craft at the Eel Pie Club and other local venues. They took gritty R&B, fused it with electric rock and roll and began to define a sound that would sweep the world.
Yet it all began in a most unexpected way: in Snapper’s Choice, a junk shop in Kingston owned by Michael Snapper. Working in the shop was a man in his late twenties called Arthur Chisnall, who aspired to be a social researcher, and who had a keen interest in youth sub-cultures. He noticed that art students were buying up old and deeply unfashionable trad jazz records. He sensed a trend, got to know his customers, and asked a searching question: what was missing from their lives? He concluded they needed a place to get together, make a little noise, and dance.
It happened that Michael Snapper also owned most of Eel Pie Island, a place of wooden chalets and boatyards reached via a rowing-boat ferry from Twickenham. Among Snapper’s properties was the once grand but now dilapidated Eel Pie Island Hotel.
Snapper was struggling to find a use for the place. So, when in 1956 his young employee suggested turning it into a trad jazz club, he was prepared to give it a go.
Chisnall didn’t do it for the music. Though he quite liked the trad jazz acts such as Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk that he booked in the early years, he could take or leave the R&B bands he turned to in the early Sixties, when musical tastes among the young changed. What really interested him was the opportunity the Eel Pie Hotel offered him to conduct a social experiment: to create an outreach project designed to draw in and help wayward young people.
The music was no more than a means to that end. Chisnall designed a controlled environment in which such people were safe. In consultation with the police, Chisnall formed a proper club with paying membership. Anyone who wanted to listen to the music had to pay 2s 6d (12.5p), fill out a form, and receive a Passport to Eelpiland with their name on it.
He built up a team of supportive adults – often art students, but also including young social workers, doctors, psychologists, a vicar, and a policeman – who would look out for the vulnerable. Many had themselves first come to the island as vulnerable teenagers.
Most of the members of The Rolling Stones were regulars in the audience at Eel Pie Island but were not playing here. Then, in 1963, Brian Jones called Arthur Chiswell to say that they’d love to play the club before they got too famous. They held a Wednesday-night residency from April to September, at £45 a gig.
Bill Wyman said of their first appearance: ‘The place, like a huge barn, held a maximum of 800 and we drew about 300, many of them diehard fans who had followed us from Richmond, Ealing, and Windsor. The feeling in the band around this time was great – an optimism that something good was about to happen.’
He was right. In June their debut single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s Come On, went to No 21 in the charts. Arthur Chisnall said of their final gig on 25 September, ‘If we’d realised just how big they had got we would have cancelled it. Never mind the hotel, the whole bloody island was overflowing ... In theory we should have stopped the music and told everyone to leave but we would have been torn to pieces.’
Rod Stewart, who also came initially to the Eel Pie Hotel as a punter, was sitting at Twickenham railway station one night on his way home when he was overheard by Long John Baldry playing Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightenin’ on his harmonica. On the train they got talking.
Baldry was one of the big early stars of Eel Pie Island, and asked Rod to join his band as a singer. At the next gig Baldry introduced his new vocalist at Eel Pie with: ‘Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we are privileged to have a guest singer with a truly outstanding blues voice. I give you Mr ... Rod Stewart’
David Bowie was still Davie Jones when he first appeared with the Mannish Boys at Eel Pie in August 1964.
Eric Clapton first played the island as a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. He also went there first to listen to the music: ‘I started to go there for the jazz and I remember that floor. We’d stand in the middle and it would bounce up and down so much you didn’t even have to dance, it would go at least six or seven inches up in the air’
Sadly, on 4 September 1967, the venue was forced to close. Michael Snapper was charged with allowing ‘public dancing’ in breach of his licence. The prosecution described the club as ‘dirty, dimly lit with a foul atmosphere and music so loud even a shouted conversation is impossible’.
It was the end of a legendary place: one whose story deserves to be better known.
Andy Bull's book Secret Twickenham, Whitton, Teddington and the Hamptons is available for purchase now.