Ealing artist Stella Tooth writes about Twickenham's 'Eel Pie Island'

By Dimitris Kouimtsidis

26th Aug 2021 | Local News

EALING artist, Stella Tooth, who has her home studio in Northfields, is a resident artist at the Half Moon in Putney.

She annually takes part in the Borough of Ealing Art Trail.

Both before and during lockdown she has portrayed west London musicians like Robert Hokum, founder of the Ealing Blues Festival, and, over the years, has portrayed many of the bands that play the Eel Pie Club, like Geno Washington and The Rollin Stoned.

Some of her musician cards are newly available in Twickenham's The People Hive.

She has recently started a blog about music and art called 'Art & Soul' and has written the following piece for Ealing Nub News, titled 'Eel Pie Island', seen through the unique lens of her fascination with performers as a musician artist.

The easing of lockdown restrictions sees Eel Pie Island Museum reopening its doors tomorrow, June 3.

The date has special significance as it would have been the birthday of Arthur Chisnall, who set up a music club at the Eel Pie Island Hotel, which he ran from 1956-1967, to run his 'social experiment' and look at how to help the youth of the day.

Museum curator Michele Whitby said: "Many had their lives changed for the better by going there as Arthur helped them navigate the post-war conservative attitudes to young people.

"The club encouraged those who 'had been pushed off the ladder' to access adult education, gave them practical help with things like legal advice and applying for jobs, which at the time was a ground-breaking approach to dealing with the perceived 'teenage problem'.

"He was a pioneer in youth work."

The Museum, which Michele set up in 2018 after years of collecting, celebrates the history of the 8.935-acre, only inhabited, island in the tidal Thames at Twickenham.

Accessible by boat or a footbridge built in 1957, for which there was once a toll, the island may have got its name from the eel pies served by the island's inn in the 1800s.

Michele, who has co-written a book with Dan Van der Vat called 'Eel Pie Island' said: "The place intrigued me from the first time I crossed the bridge in the late 80s, and then, hearing about all the great bands that had played there back in the day, well, I was hooked!

"In terms of our local history this, to me, was just the coolest thing ever and I was amazed that nobody had written a book about it before.

"There are so many facets to the island's story, which can feel somewhat overwhelming at times in my quest to do justice to it all – the music, the boatyards, the pioneering characters and the thousands of people, past and present who have been positively affected by its charm."

The museum's £5 Annual Passport design is based on the original membership cards which the police required the club to issue.

And on its walls are roll calls of the musicians who played there, in what was described in the Eel Pie documentary 'Clinging to a Mudflat' as "the big bang" of rock music, where future global superstars like the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton played early in their careers.

Music historian Pete Watt is responsible for putting together and updating the online 'roll calls' of performers on the island.

He told Nub News: "I wanted to find out who had played on the island.

"I gained access to Arthur Chisnall's papers in amongst which were loads of flyers, and contracts.

"It enabled me to, at least, start to formulate a 'roll call'".

The island has seen everyone from Acker Bilk, The Tridents featuring Jeff Beck and The Who to The Yardbirds, George Melly and Pink Floyd play.

Musician Don Craine (real name Mick O'Donnell) is a member of the blues-based Downliners Sect.

The band was iconic during the early 1960s, partly owning to Don's deerstalker cap which he wore to mock the aristocracy.

The band's fans who have achieved commercial success include Van Morrison, Steve Marriott and Rod Stewart.

Don tells Nub News: "There was a sense of pleasurable anticipation from the moment we crossed the bridge to the island and headed for the hotel.

"Playing on the stage was a sheer delight.

"The ballroom was always packed and everyone was determined to have a great time.

"What made it special was the sense of being in a unique environment in the middle of the river, away from the town, where music and dancing could be enjoyed without interference.

"Bands and audiences knew this was a wonderful time in their lives and in music history.

"As well as being a fine talking point, the sprung floor was perfect for those dancing around with partners on their shoulders."

The Downliners Sect fans from back then still come to see them play at the Eel Pie Club, which was set up by Gina Way and celebrated its 20th birthday last year.

Singing bassist Keith Grant and Don Craine will be appearing with the Eel Pie Allstars at the re-opening of the Eel Pie Club on June 24 and the next Twickenham 60's Day outside the Barmy Arms on August 1.

Since the museum's opening, it has welcomed donations from fans and bands alike.

Heather White, known as 'Fluff', as she wore her hair fluffed up like her idol Tommy Steele, was a good friend of Arthur Chisnall's.

She told Nub News: "We were all rebellious.

"Arthur had a pipe and a way of talking terribly slowly.

"He made us think we were thinking for ourselves.

"He liked music and knew that was how to gather people together.

"He would take people under his wing and help them until they were back on their feet."

In 1967, the hotel was forced to close as the owner could not meet the £2,000 cost of repairs demanded by police.

Two years later the club briefly reopened as Colonel Barefoot's Rock Garden, with heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath and Free, Deep Purple and Mott the Hoople.

Caldwell Smythe, entrepreneur and musician, rented the property until a raid by the Fire Chief led to its closure.

Michele said: "It was a prolific and creative time for music with new-fangled technology at the start of the period in electric guitars and synths at the end.

"It started with jazz, then rock and at the end came the beginnings of heavy metal and psychedelia with Pink Floyd."

The hotel was occupied by a small group of local anarchists in 1969 and, by 1970, had become the UK's largest hippie commune.

Later that year the hotel building had fallen into disrepair, and was placed under a demolition order, but it burned down in a mysterious fire the following year, while the centre of the island was devastated by fire in 1996.

It's clearly an ever-present concern, with an accidental fire last month destroying historic boathouses and vessels at Platt's Eyot further down the Thames in Hampton.

Michele, an experienced photographer who has now switched to leatherwork, lives on an Eel Pie Island boat.

She recalled that the pre-fire community on Eel Pie Island fascinated her: "When I first went there in 1988 to see a studio, I fell in love with the place.

"It had a working boatyard, dry docks and amongst that Henry Gastall of the Eel Pie Marine Centre rented out buildings – affordable spaces for arts and crafts people.

"It was a thriving hub of creative talent and people said you could commission a whole house to be built there.

"There were carpenters, blacksmiths, textile makers, potters, jewellers."

The island has been home not only to avant-garde music, but boatyards and now houses a number of artist studios.

Last year the artists were unable to open their studios as they normally do in June and December – the only time the island is accessible to the public.

Instead they had an Open Weekend in December in St. Mary's Church Hall in Twickenham.

You can keep an eye on their Facebook page for updates.

Michele said that Eel Pie Island's promotional plans were stopped in their tracks last year by epidemic restrictions: "We had been taken on by a tour operator and had a rake of coach parties booked in to visit, which we were really excited about.

"Not just for the fact that they were visiting the museum, but also for the positive knock on effect of increased footfall to other Twickenham businesses.

"We were very grateful to receive the government grants – and those who renewed their memberships - which meant we could keep up payments on our overheads, and are very optimistic that we'll get back to full steam once restrictions ease!"

The museum arranges group guided tours - including to Twickenham Embankment where you get a good view of the island.

As part of Eel Pie Island Museum on the road, they also do presentations, including viewings of 'Clinging to a mudflat'.

And Michele has been using lockdown to create a new display: "We have had a complete overhaul of the section which tells the story of the island's boatyards, including replacing all the written panels with a film which will be easier for visitors to engage with.

"Hopefully they will go away with a new-found appreciation of the history, and present-day importance, of these increasingly rare sites."


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