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August, 2012
Eel Pie Island

Eel Pie Island

We were in London, searching for hidden kitchens, when we came upon an “Eel Pie & Mash” shop and were pulled in by the old white marble tables, tile walls, pots of stewed and jellied eels and piles of pies. What we didn’t realize then was that these pie and mash shops, part of London’s culinary history, are now a dying breed, along with the eels they serve. Our search for the source of the vanishing eels, led us Eel Pie Island in the Southwest of London, and to this story.

Ruth Phillips, owner of Cockney’s Pie and Mash Shop in London told us that in the early 16th and 17th century, “the Thames was full of eels and were affordable and nutritious. And it served as the Londoners’ staple diet.” Ruth’s family has served eel pie at Cockney’s for over a hundred years. Eels have gone so scarce and become so expensive that now she only serves them twice a week, and has them imported from Holland.

“The story goes,” said van der Vat, “that Henry VIII in the 16th century would be rowed up the Thames on the Royal Barge to Hampton Court. “On his way past the island, Henry, who was actually a rather large gentleman, was overcome by hunger. He said, ‘Stop the barge and bring us a pie! Bring us an eel pie.’ He sent a minion ashore to buy him an eel pie from the famous stall, run by a Mistress Mayo. He acquired a taste for her pies and then frequently indulged it.”

Van der Vat, who has lived on the island for 30 years and wrote a book on its history, finds the tale highly suspicious, probably created by the Mayo family. There was, indeed, a Mistress Mayo who sold pies on the island, but in 1830, not 1530.

“Eel Pie Island was where they used to fish out the eel up through the 1960s. The eels would be sold in the front of fish monger shops, big, fat, some as thick as your arm, lying around on the marble slabs,” says actress Anjelica Huston who grew up in London in the 60s and made the pilgrimage to Eel Pie Island, an early rock ‘n roll mecca.

Anjelica Huston in the 1960s

The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Small Faces, Manfred Mann, John Mayall, The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Cyril Davies and dozens more did some of the earliest gigs there in the 60s before they became international sensations.

Van der Vat says there was a pub on the island for centuries with a bowling alley, beer, and eel pies. “The people running the pub eventually made enough money to splash out on a hotel. It had a nice grassy area out front and you’ve got the river off to the side. In 1830, Charles Dickens came to the island by paddle steamer and immortalized it in his novel, Nicholas Nickleby.”

“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 the 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, conveyed thither for the purpose…”

-Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, 1839

By the First World War, Eel Pie Island had ceased to be a popular resort, people didn’t come by boat and the hotel went downhill.

Eel Pie Island, was effectively derelict by the mid 1950s when a couple of people started a jazz club on it, says rock and roll historian, Russell Clarke.

“Michael Snapper was an antique dealer, scrap dealer. Eel Pie Island was going cheap so he just up and bought it ” Van der Vat tells us from his back deck overlooking the Thames. “What to do with it? Why not stage a concert because it had a rather interesting dancehall attached.”

“The hotel stood alone, I remember it a little bit like a Charles Addams drawing,” recalled Anjelica Huston. “It was a time when a lot of the old ways were meeting new ways out of the rations and the hardships of WWII and the blitz, and the hunger. Eel Pie Island, the eels that had been cut up on the white marble slabs since the days of Henry the VIII were suddenly meeting the youthquake.”

Sculptor Emily Young remembers coming to the island as a sixteen year old in the 60s. “You had the trad jazz bands playing. We would dance: jiving and doing the Charleston at the same time.”

“It was called trad—traditional jazz,” rock ‘n roll historian Russell Clarke told us. “In the late 1950s there was a movement that looked towards America to New Orleans jazz, played by people in coffee shops and small bars.” People like Ken Colyer, the clarinet player, and Acker Bilk.

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“Or Lonnie Donnegan, who played skiffle,” Clark continued. “Skiffle was sort of the punk of its time. Most every rock ‘n roller you’ve ever heard of from London, would have been in a skiffle group. Kids had seen Elvis and wanted to do it themselves. All you needed was a guitar and three or four chords. They would put thimbles on their fingers, their mother’s washboard around their neck and rat ta tat tat the rhythm.”

The parties were initially free to the public, but as their popularity grew, the police insisted it be formed into a proper club. Eelpiland was born.

The moving spirit behind the club was Arthur Chisnall, a “sociologist” with no formal training. Michelle Whitby, the coauthor of Eel Pie Island, was friends with Chisnall and captured many of his stories in the last years of his life.

Chisnall had a huge interest in teenagers, which after the Second World War in the mid 50s were a completely new phenomenon, she says.

“General society didn’t know how to deal with these people who didn’t seem to fit in. They just saw them as a threat, whereas Arthur just saw them as an interesting group of people and he wanted to know how to help them. He purposely included amongst the club members professional people, doctors and lawyers, and if someone had a problem, he would try to steer them in the direction of someone who could help them. He called it a social experiment and he used the music as the way of attracting these young people.”

 

“People who were lucky got into the art schools where they could release these pressures in the form of music,” Chisnall told the BBC. “There were about 300-400 people in the art schools who were formulating the groups that we know today. We realized we had to make a home for the group.”

“Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, all of those guys came out of art school in the late 50s, early 60s.” says Russell Clarke. It was a hotbed for jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and bohemianism. Ronnie Wood went to Ealing Art College, Pete Townshend Ealing Art College, Jimmy Page went to Sutton Art College, Jeff Beck went to Wimbeldon and Eric Clapton went to Kingston in the west of London, near Eel Pie Island. People rather jokingly refer to it as the Thames Delta.”

Eric Clapton did a lot of his early playing on the island. “When I was a beatnik back in the early 60s, that was the only thing there was. When you go to Richmond or Kingston, you sit around in the coffee bar in the afternoon and wait for the time you go over the bridge to the island to hear music, Ken Colyer, Lonnie Donnegan.”

Harmonica player Cyril Davies frequented the Eelpiland stage with his All Stars until his death at 32, when his place was taken by Long John Baldry who discovered Rod Stewart playing harmonica at a train station in nearby Twickenham and and brought him to the island to play.

Ronnie Wood who would later join the Rolling Stones called it a great melting pot. “You might bump into Mick Jagger in the bar, Pete Townshend came by, Ray Davies, Keith, Bowie…”

Brian Jones called Arthur Chisnall to tell him the Stones wanted to play the island. They played 13 dates in 1963.

Paul Jones played in the 60s band Manfred Mann. “Any band that was worth its salt had to play there. Till you ticked off that one on your itinerary, you hadn’t really arrived. You drove up here in your band and then you unloaded stuff and just pushed it on a trolley across this strange little foot bridge.”

“The footbridge was ropey as anything. Decrepit and muddy. It was old fashioned, ramshackle river life. People living on barges on the river,” remembers Emily Young.

The four pence charge to get over the bridge could be avoided by choosing to simply swim across the river. “And lots of people did,” says Clarke. “Once you got into the dance hall it was pretty sweaty so if you were already wet it didn’t really matter.”

“And the sprung floor, it would bounce up and down so hard you didn’t have to dance,” recalls Clapton.

Anjelica Huston described the scene. “The room would just be throbbing. Hot, humid. Full of cigarette smoke. People didn’t take a lot of baths in those days in London. There wasn’t a lot of shampooing going on. Music would be blare. Those who weren’t dancing were snogging. Kissing. Necking. It was a kind of ritual thing.”

After eleven years, Eelpieland was forced to shut down in 1967 for being a health hazard, having become quite dilapidated, though the hotel briefly reopened as Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden and presented bands like Black Sabbath and the Edgar Broughton Band, it was soon shut down for good.

Squatters immediately came into the space. “It was a wasteland,” says Young. “The Council weren’t doing anything with it. The River Authority wasn’t doing anything with it. This bit was claimed by youth culture. The electric had been cut off and the water. It was freezing cold so they just started ripping the building to pieces to keep themselves warm.” The building eventually burned down and eighteen townhouses were constructed in its place.

Today, Eel Pie Island has a couple hundred inhabitants. Twenty or so artists and craftspeople maintain studios on the island along with some boat works.

We met Paul Harmon at Eel Pie Island Boat Yard. “When I was young the Thames was packed with tugs and barges. All sorts of stuff going up and down, timber, you name it. Now you have nothing. We’re running out of eels as well. They’re disappearing. I’m a fisherman and that’s all I ever caught really, more eels than I did fish. It’s been four or five years and I’ve not seen hide nor hair of them. Sad. Everyone used to eat them.

Robert Cooke owns F. Cooke Pie shop in Broadway Market. His grandfather opened the shop in 1900. Cooke was born upstairs and has been there all his life. “We’ve been selling pie and mash in the East End for 150 years. Eels were very cheap and for the east end people, caught from the canal or the Thames. We get a lot of eels from Holland and they’re farmed and very expensive. It’s a different generation now, a different market. They want their chocolate and coffee and cheese, not eels.”

“Eel Pie Island, it’s a very specific little place in space and time,” says Huston. ” A little point of liberation on the Thames. But very alive, just like the eels.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On NPR’s All Things Considered, Monday, August 13.

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